Bob Willis Trophy Final 2020 ~ Somerset v Essex ~ Third day ~ Alistair Cook ~ A class above

All Bob Willis Trophy matches are being played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus restrictions in place. This report was therefore written following a day watching the ECB’s enhanced live stream of the match, without which this report would not have been possible. The stream was watched with the commentary muted and with notes being taken to enable the author to replicate as far as possible his experience of watching matches live.

Bob Willis Trophy Final. Somerset v Essex. 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th September 2020. Lord’s.

Somerset. B.F.G. Green, T.A. Lammonby, T.B. Abell (c), E.J. Byrom, G.A. Bartlett, S.M. Davies (w), L. Gregory, C. Overton, J.H. Davey, M.J. Leach, J.A. Brooks.

Essex. N.L.J. Browne, Sir Alistair Cook, T. Westley (c), D.W. Lawrence, P.I. Walter, R.N. ten Doeschate, A.J.A. Wheater, S.R. Harmer, A.P. Beard, S.J. Cook, J.A. Porter.

Overnight. Somerset 301.

Third day – Alistair Cook – a class above

I once saw Robert Stephens, subsequently a theatrical knight, play King Lear at Stratford, co-incidentally in the same year that Marcus Trescothick first played for Somerset. I have, over a lifetime, seen most of Shakespeare’s plays. Most of the individual performances, enjoyed in the moment, have since merged into a lifetime of theatrical experience. Some still stand out, but Robert Stephens’ performance stands out above all. It was the most complete and compelling individual theatrical performance I have ever seen. So compelling, the entire cast joined in the applause, a rare occurrence in the theatre.

It is the same with individual performances against Somerset. As the years go by, most merge into a lifetime of cricket-watching experience. A few still stand out, although none to the extent of that Robert Stephens performance. One such, as it happens, came from a great Essex player. In 1985, the year after Alistair Cook was born, another cricketer to be knighted, Ian Botham, in a rain-affected three-day match at Taunton, set Essex a somewhat generous 296 to win in about 85 overs. Graham Gooch made a nonsense of the target by scoring 173 of those 296 runs. I can still recall watching from the old River Stand as he crashed the ball around the County Ground. To add a bit of Somerset colour to the story, Botham had made 152 from 121 balls in Somerset’s only innings, crashing, as was his wont, the ball over the rope on four occasions.

No-one can accuse Alistair Cook of crashing a cricket ball anywhere. He bats with a velvet glove, although the effect on the ball is just as devastating as any struck by Gooch, Botham or Trescothick. The future is a difficult place to predict, but Cook’s innings of 172 in this match, scored out of 266 runs made whilst he was at the wicket, painful though it was for a Somerset supporter to watch, and of necessity watched through the screen of a laptop rather than in the flesh, seems destined to hold a place in the permanent section of the memory bank alongside the memories of Gooch’s innings and Stephens’ Lear.

Its start was less than convincing as Cook fought to get to grips with the conditions. He missed a cut altogether. He edged Josh Davey short of third slip. He played and missed with an attempted cover drive against Overton. The next ball he played defensively and edged it over the gully fielder for four. In Overton’s next over he edged again, this time short of slip. His start was at least as uncertain as anyone else’s and he played and missed several more times before he began to settle, but once he had settled, he was demonstrably a class above everyone else.

Somerset’s 301 had seemed a competitive score at the end of the second day. When Nick Browne, who had made an uncertain start himself, edged Gregory low to Overton’s left at second slip Essex were 27 for 1. There appeared to be no reason to question that second day assessment of Somerset’s score, although a doubt would always remain as long as Cook was at the wicket. When he middled a pull off Brooks and the ball flew to the Tavern Stand boundary the doubt threatened to take root. A nicely placed steer off Gregory to wide third man for three which took him to 26 of the 40 runs scored confirmed he was finding his touch. It undermined the hope of every Somerset supporter that he would be dismissed before he became established.

A cover drive, which seemed little more than a push, to the Tavern boundary brought up the Essex fifty. It was a harbinger of all that followed, although another edge short of Overton off the next ball warned that nothing with the bat could be taken for granted. It was one of a number of edges which fell short of the slips, most of them well short, but the slips appeared to be standing as close as they dare, perhaps evidence that the pitch was slow and wickets would have to be hard-fought for.

The Somerset bowlers, as they did throughout the day, stuck hard to their task. When Brooks replaced Overton at the Nursery End, he bowled five overs for seven runs. Cook, as his is way, was in no mood to take risks. But when Abell replaced Brooks, Cook perhaps sent a message that any bowling below the top rank would be punished. He cut Abell down and between gully and point to the Warner Stand boundary for four. In the same over he again cut him into the ground, this time just forward of point and the ball ran along the ground to the Grandstand. Cook knows how to apply pressure and Abell did not bowl again. Brooks bowled only four more overs in the day, conceding 18 more runs, leaving the question hanging as to whether he had picked up an injury.

Batting with Tom Westley, Cook steered Essex to 79 for 1 at lunch. It would have been an anxious repast for Somerset’s online crowd, for the feeling was already developing that Cook was beginning to take the match away from Somerset, such was the certainty with which he had begun to play. Westley’s contribution, seemingly inconspicuous in comparison to Cook’s, added to the anxiety. In spite of the unrelenting efforts of the Somerset bowlers he looked secure and played a key role in sustaining a partnership that was crucial in providing the base from which Cook’s innings flourished.

After lunch, Cook was quickly into the task of building Essex’s score. He brought up his own fifty with a ground-hugging drive off Gregory wide of mid-off to the Allen Stand. He brought up Essex’s hundred, again off Gregory, with another ground-hugging drive between midwicket and mid-on to the Warner Stand. Both were classic strokes which spoke of more to come. Again, against Gregory, he stood high and upright on the back foot and drove through the covers with an absolute minimum of bat movement, but enough timing for the ball to race to the Tavern boundary. It was a stroke of such composure that it left this Somerset watcher wondering if, on this day at least, Cook had it in him to make a mistake. And, wondering how, or if, Somerset were going to get him out. His driving was a true cricketing wonder to behold. Against Brooks, he dropped to one knee and drove with the most effortless movement of the bat, and the lightest of touches on the ball. So light was the touch it was as if the ball was made of glass and must not be broken. And yet, the ball raced so fast to the Tavern boundary that two chasing fielders could not haul it back. And then, as if to convince any doubting watcher that the laws of physics had not been broken, he repeated the stroke against Davey, this time to the Grandstand.

The drives were perhaps the diamonds of a jewel-encrusted innings, and there were more, but they were not all. Cook went to his hundred with a cut off Jack Leach. As with the drives off Brooks and Davey the bat moved with a smoothness and apparent lack of force that belied the speed with which the ball travelled to the boundary. When a ball from Lammonby drifted onto his legs, the bat gave it the gentlest and surest of touches to steer it past the keeper to fine leg for four. Two balls later, as if he were demonstrating different aspects of the technique, the ball was coaxed, with a little more persuasion, towards long leg where it beat the approaching fielder to the rope.    

Nor were the boundaries all. There were drives and deflections to deep fielders for singles. There were twos placed and paced perfectly to and between those fielders. All batsmen do that, but in this innings the strokes were played with such grace and composure the ball seemed to run with a smoothness that it would have struggled to achieve on a snooker table baize. Of course, a ball on grass could not run with such smoothness, but the artistry of the stroke created in the mind an illusion that it did. And the mind did not argue with the illusion. And then there was the time, the time Cook had to play his strokes. So often he seemed to have more time in reserve than Stephen Hawking ever dreamed of.

From a Somerset perspective it was both dispiriting and a wonder to watch. But it lifted the spirit to see the bowlers sticking to their task under such relentless pressure. Jack Leach had bowled eight overs in the nine months before this match due to being in the England COVID-19 bubble, and yet he immediately gave Tom Abell control when he most needed it, conceding runs at less than two and a half an over. Keeping hard at opposition batsmen, even when the batsmen are on top, is what the Somerset bowlers have done time and again this season, and for several seasons past.

And yet, in spite of all their efforts, at tea the score was 196 for 1, Cook had 131 and Westley, still holding the other end secure, 51. Somerset’s lead had been reduced to 105 with no sign of a breakthrough. Lammonby, who had been bowling before tea continued with the first over afterwards in spite of that normally being reserved for a frontline bowler. Cook took an almost inevitable single off the first ball. The second was delivered outside Westley’s leg stump, Westley clipped it towards midwicket where Tom Abell took the catch. “That was planned and set up,” said the immediate incoming text from someone who plays a lot of cricket. “Planned in the tea interval, I imagine.” When Lammonby was taken off after that one over I wondered if there was some truth in that.

When, five overs and 11 runs later, Lawrence pulled a ball from Gregory he miscued, and the ball looped into the hands of Lammonby running backwards at midwicket. Gregory’s next ball, delivered from around the wicket to the left-handed Walter, speared in towards the stumps. Walter’s pads intervened and suddenly Essex were 208 for 4, still 93 runs adrift of Somerset. The Somerset spirit was certainly rising now and, I imagine, the Essex one was subsiding a little. Cricket can change so quickly and the mood of the supporter with it. Its endless uncertainty is one of the myriad things that makes it a game to treasure.

When two teams as determined and as skilled as Somerset and Essex meet, and it would be difficult to argue that there is a better team in the land in 2020 than these two, the result is push and counter-push. The image of Maurice Tremlett’s wall applies, and both teams were straining every sinew to push it over. Now, Essex, in the form of Cook and ten Doeschate pushed back at Somerset. For 22 overs the two teams pushed at each other. Somerset straining for a wicket, trying to prevent Essex from passing their score. Essex fought for every run, for in a drawn game first innings lead would be the deciding factor in determining which team won the trophy. The intensity of the struggle was such that Essex, in spite of Cook’s dominance thus far, scored at just two and a half runs an over.

As with the Byrom-Overton partnership in Somerset’s innings, it took the new ball to break the deadlock. First, Overton ran in. The camera, or its angle, seemed to make him look even taller than he is in the flesh. An on screen, larger than life figure, driving himself forward through his run-up, a run-up as straight as the ball he was about to deliver, his arm whipping over his shoulder in perfect perpendicular to the ground. The ball it delivered, brooking no opposition, struck the pads full in front of the stumps and ten Doeschate departed for 21 made in an hour and a half. Second, Gregory, bustling in, delivering the ball with a twist of the torso, his arm just a degree or two off the perfect perpendicular, teasing Cook outside off stump. Cook offered his bat to a ball he might have left and pushed it off the face low to Overton’s right at second slip. Overton does not miss those.

A great innings was over with only the technicians of different disciplines, 30,000 empty seats and the cameras which brought the two sets of supporters their view of the match looking on. But if you were involved in the match, as was every Essex and Somerset supporter watching through smart televisions, laptops, tablets and phones spread from Leyton to Leigh-on-Sea and from Wellington to Weston and beyond, you were drawn into what had been a wonderful innings in what, as Somerset fought back hard, was turning into a wonderful match. 271 for 6, the score at the close, with Essex still 31 runs short of that precious, in this game, first innings lead. And, as on every day in this match thus far, the morrow cannot come soon enough.

Close. Somerset 321. Essex 271 for 6. Essex trail by 30 runs with four first innings wickets standing.