Bob Willis Trophy 2020 ~ Final ~ Somerset v Essex ~ A Herculean Struggle

All Bob Willis Trophy matches were 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 and 227 for 7. Essex 337 for 8 inns closed. Somerset lead by 191 runs with three second innings wickets standing.

Final day – A Herculean struggle

This was another day of push and counter-push between two sides who had given their all in this match in pursuit of the Bob Willis Trophy. The day had begun with half an hour of cricket rather akin to a concert support act before the main event. Interesting and competitive in itself, but never likely to rival what was to follow. That is not to decry the batting of Overton and Davey who played well enough in lifting the Essex target ahead of the anticipated declaration; or the bowling of Harmer and Porter, who bowled tightly to limit the target and perhaps reduce the length of time their batsmen would have to bat. But the main issue of the day, irrespective of whether Essex made an attempt on the target, would be: could Somerset take ten wickets? Any other outcome would see Essex winning the trophy.

Harmer and Porter bowled throughout the remainder of Somerset’s innings as the batsmen undertook that calculated attack on the ball which takes place when a declaration is being prepared. This part of the day could be safely watched whilst sitting back in a chair. It was not the main event. At first, Somerset took runs steadily, then gradually accelerated. Singles, mostly quietly pushed and off most balls, were the main fare. There seemed little threat of a wicket, although Porter managed a loud lbw appeal against Davey; and when Overton tried to clear the long on boundary off Harmer, Walter, right back on the rope and in the modern way, reached high and kept the ball in play as he fell over the rope. Apart from some minor turn for Harmer, there seemed little to encourage hopes among Somerset supporters that the pitch might offer up ten Essex wickets. Somerset, it seemed, would have to create pressure if those wickets were to come. The approach of the declaration could be sensed, and the nerve ends began to awake, when Overton pushed Somerset’s score along with a six off Porter driven over the Allen Stand boundary at long on. Off the last ball of the innings he drove Harmer to the Edrich Stand boundary. 237 was Essex’s target, and if Somerset could restrict the runs, they would have a minimum of 80 overs, light permitting, to take ten wickets.

As the players walked off, tension and piercing anticipation flooded the mind, sharpened by the knowledge that there was a trophy as well as a match at stake. The edge of the seat was once again prepared for occupation. The nerve ends, now very much in evidence, were tweaked further when Essex attacked from the outset. Browne cut Overton’s first ball past the slips. Abell had no third man and so the ball rushed to the Pavilion boundary where it adjoins the Warner Stand. Then Cook leaned, almost benevolently it seemed, into an on drive off Davey and the ball crossed the boundary at long on. In only the third over, Browne, in successive balls from Overton, clipped off his toes through midwicket to the Grandstand and drove straight back past the bowler. Before the mind had had chance to settle, Essex were 16 for 0 from three overs, all in boundaries. To the online Somerset crowd, now doubtless sitting edgily in their chairs, the 221 runs now needed for Essex to win must have seemed a desperately flimsy target with still 77 overs still to be bowled. With Alistair Cook in dominant form, the ten wickets Somerset needed seemed a rather more substantial obstacle to overcome, even more substantial when he drove Davey with apparent ease through the covers to the Tavern Stand boundary.

And then, with Somerset anxiety levels climbing the scale, I heard myself shouting, “Yes!” as did the two socially distanced occupants of the garden so loud must that shout have been. “Somerset have taken a wicket, I presume,” the enquiry from the lawn. It would not have been the only shout of, “Yes!” as Somerset supporters edged a little closer to their screens and added a little more pressure to the edge of their seats. The rising hopes of Essex supporters meanwhile were now doubtless tempered by a small infusion of doubt as the contradictory effects at the opposite ends of the emotional seesaw occupied by the two sets of supporters at any cricket match began to shift. Browne, who had looked so confident and in control, had edged Gregory, who had replaced Davey at the Pavilion End, wide of Abell at third slip. Abell is not a habitual slip fielder, the covers or midwicket being his normal hunting grounds. With the departure of Jamie Overton to Surrey and the injury to James Hildreth, Somerset are short of slip fielders. It was not apparent as Abell dived low to his left and took the catch as surely as he takes any in the covers. Browne 13. Essex 25 for 1.

“Yes!” again I roared as my hands clapped vigorously and loudly without any instruction from me. Essex 26 for 2. Westley lbw to Craig Overton without scoring. Suddenly, Essex’s confident start was looking anything but, and I was running into the garden to say, “Somerset have taken another wicket!” Not that those in the garden needed telling. A return to my screen found a picture of a masked and hooded figure ministering to the players. Masked against the virus and hooded against the late September cold. Meanwhile the camera switched to the umpires who were applying that ubiquitous accoutrement of the coronavirus age, hand sanitiser. It is a wonder in such constrained times, I concluded, that a series of 45 matches, each scheduled to last four days, and a five-day final had been pursued to a successful conclusion at all.

Safety requirements satisfied, Gregory first kept Somerset spirits up with an lbw appeal against Cook and again when the following ball went straight through Cook’s defence. Within two overs Cook had given Essex spirits a boost by playing Gregory square for four, and then immediately went up on his toes to steer him neatly through wide third man to the Mound Stand for another four. Cook looked, ominously to Somerset eyes, as if he had located the point at which he had left off in his first innings and was advancing the Essex cause again from there.

Meanwhile, Lawrence was battling hard for Essex at the other end. He survived two huge lbw appeals against Gregory, who throughout the match had looked the most threatening of Somerset’s bowlers. This despite Overton’s almost perpetual accuracy and probing of the batsmen’s defences and Davey bowling with his usual miserly persistence. On one occasion Cook seemed content to play out a maiden against Davey, perhaps an early underlining of the fact that, provided they conserved wickets, Essex did not need to risk chasing the target. Then, in the midst of the intense struggle, lunch was upon the game and Essex had reached 61 for 2. Cook had advanced to 29 not out and Lawrence was beginning to settle on 15. It was an uneasy break from a Somerset perspective. The bowlers had pushed hard all morning, given nothing and constantly tested the batsmen, but the 35-run partnership between Cook and Lawrence had eaten ten overs as the Essex batsmen, eyes as fixed on the prize as Somerset ones, pushed hard in the opposite direction.

After lunch Overton and Gregory, among Somerset’s premier bowlers for seven seasons now, continued to apply pressure. For three overs the pre-lunch tussle continued as bowlers and batsmen re-established themselves. Barely a run was scored an off drive to the Nursery End boundary by Lawrence off Overton apart. It was first-class cricket at its toe-to-toe best, on a par with the first division of the County Championship as this final has been throughout. All the Somerset bowlers troubled the batsmen in this match, but the bulk of the wickets have gone to Gregory. Now, just as Essex seemed to be building a platform from which they might strike out to win the match, or at least make it safe, he struck again. Cook pushed at a ball just outside his off stump and then withdrew his bat as the ball went through to the keeper. Off the next ball he pushed again, virtually repeated the stroke, and this time there was an instantaneous appeal as the ball flew into Davies’ gloves. The umpire raised his finger, Cook stood and looked hard back at him, but Essex’s talisman was out, and they were 68 for 3 with 67 overs stretching through to the close. There was no involuntary, “Yes!” this time from me, just silence and a long, slow breath of relief at the realisation that the greatest obstacle to a Somerset’s victory had gone. I imagined a similar silence, at the other end of the emotional seesaw in front of Essex screens. The match, if Somerset could sustain the pressure and Essex did not find someone to stand firm against them, was in the balance.

As if by way of instant riposte, Lawrence drove Gregory hard, straight back to the Pavilion boundary. But from there, a different message came from the Essex batsmen. There was not a single boundary and barely two runs an over for the next ten overs. If Somerset were to win, Essex would have to be prized out. During those ten overs my notes record but one ‘two’ and four leg byes. Otherwise just singles and strings of dot balls. The only successes for the bowlers I noted were that the one ‘two’ came from a thick edge from Walter off Overton, and Brooks once beat the edge of Lawrence’s bat. “Where is Leach?” said the text as at least one Somerset watcher wanted a new approach. It reflected an anxiety which will have been spreading through Somerset’s online crowd that the seamers would struggle to penetrate Essex’s defensive wall.

With the score at 90 for 3, and a fast-shrinking 46 overs remaining, Abell came to the same conclusion. He summoned Leach. “What a first ball that was!” said the text from another Somerset watcher. And it was. It pitched, as if on a sixpence that had been waiting for it since the introduction of decimal currency, turned, bounced and fizzed by, wincingly close to the edge of Lawrence’s bat. As he had after Cook’s wicket, three balls later Lawrence responded and cut Leach for four. In his next over, Leach, bowling with two slips, struck back. He defeated Lawrence with what looked to the untrained eye to be an arm ball, for it went straight through his defence and struck the pad full in front of the stumps. 98 for 4. Lawrence 35. 43 overs remaining. 139 for Essex to win. In other circumstances it would have been a tantalisingly target, but in these circumstances the two key figures were the 43 overs to be survived by Essex if they were to win the trophy, and the six wickets that separated Somerset from it.

Immediately, Brooks hurried Walter, made him look uncomfortable with a ball short of a length. Abell placed a short leg. Brooks pitched further up and passed the edge with a ball which might have moved away. In Brooks’ next over, Walter just managed to dig out a yorker. Leach, searching for a way through, bowled a maiden to ten Doeschate, the batsman coming forward in meticulous defence to every ball. Whenever the face of a player could be seen on the screen it seemed filled with tension. It was a look, I suspect, that was painted across faces staring into screens across Somerset and Essex alike.

Had those watching been able to sit in the stands, their faces would have been stretched taut, their mouths barely uttering a word. Had someone dropped a pin while a bowler was running in, the sound would have echoed around those cavernous Lord’s stands. Four and a half days of intense cricket had come to a head. Time seemed to stand still in a moment when either side might have won, but with Essex determined on defence focused on winning the trophy, the prospect of a draw gnawed at the Somerset mind. Such moments are what the edges of seats are manufactured for.

For the watching supporter, time may have stood still. But, in cricket as in everything else time marches on, and as it did Somerset needed a wicket more with every ball. For Leach, Abell surrounded Walter with a slip, a silly point, a short leg and a leg slip. Walter had scored just 11 runs, but it was the 19 overs for which he had occupied the crease which served Essex’s cause, and damaged Somerset’s. The field thus set close, Walter promptly drove Leach to the Edrich Stand boundary for four, but it was as one meteor across an empty sky, at least as far as boundaries were concerned before the solid defence continued.

As Somerset supporters peered into their screens looking for a breakthrough, a ball from Overton to ten Doeschate resulted in a huge appeal for caught behind. It was turned down, and in my notebook the cold facts of the over consist of no more than a row of dots. Leach had two lbw appeals in an over against Walter, but again my notebook shows a row of unforgiving dots. Ten Doeschate took a four from Overton. My notebook records that the batsman was forced to fend a hostile ball away and that it ran off the bat to the third man boundary. The runs were by now irrelevant, but the lack of a wicket was not, and ten Doeschate still stood at the crease.

Push and counter-push, as both sides strained to the utmost, but the Somerset bowlers could not coax enough from the pitch to defeat the batsmen often enough to reap that ever more desperately needed wicket. The constant stream of accurate or hostile bowling from the seamers, and the persevering, inquisitorial bowling from Leach were the only tactics open to the bowlers as they sought to create sustained pressure. The Essex batsmen, ten Doeschate to the fore, resisted the pressure. The match was slipping away from Somerset as Essex, over by over, crept closer to the trophy.

Then the overs, from gradually ticking away, began rushing by, if you were a Somerset supporter at least. Each began to blur into the next. Two successive maidens from Overton summed up the nature of the contest. One to Walter, the other to ten Doeschate. The batsmen, tested, were made to play time and again, defending, keeping or squeezing the ball out. Tested, but meeting the test. At the other end, Leach whirled away, just as questioningly. Then, perhaps turning a ball a stump’s width, he hit Walter’s pad and appealed. I jerked forward in my seat, and up went the umpire’s finger. “At last!” the thought. But it was a just a thought this time, not a shout. Essex were 131 for 5 but only 27 overs remained, and the light was clearly deteriorating. Walter had scored only 21 runs. It was though, his two hours and 29 overs defending his wicket which laid bare the size of Somerset’s task with still five Essex wickets standing.

The Somerset heart hoped, but the head calculated otherwise. This was not to be. The Bob Willis Trophy was not coming to Somerset. The bowlers continued to run in hard, as they always do whatever the state of a match, but ten Doeschate and Wheater steadfastly withstood the pressure, their eyes firmly on the prize. When the umpires spoke to Abell with the scoreboard and the floodlights shining bright, the import was clear. The light had deteriorated to the point where the continuation of play was at risk. Overton continued to bowl, but I do not recall him bowling a short ball after that, a condition of play continuing no doubt.

Ten Doeschate and Wheater batted 27 overs together. The Somerset bowlers, try as they might, simply could not shift them. Ten Doescate scored 48 runs in those 27 grinding overs as the Somerset hope finally died. Wheater ended on 14 not out, scored in over an hour and a half during which time he faced 80 balls. Ten Doeschate finally fell to, of all strokes, the sweep. He was caught off a top edge by Bartlett at square leg off Leach after nearly three hours of the most solid defence. In only his second match in nine months Leach had bowled 22 overs for 38 runs and three wickets. It was an exemplary performance, but within four balls of ten Doeschate’s dismissal the match was over, Abell keeping his team on the field until fewer balls remained to be bowled than there were wickets to be taken.

And so, the trophy went east again. It was another desperate disappointment for Somerset, and for their supporters spread far and wide. The match had been a Herculean struggle between the best two first-class teams in the country. Essex had ended 58 runs, and Somerset four wickets short of victory. The match was drawn, but Essex had won the trophy by dint of their first innings lead. That lead had been gained largely through the peerless 172 scored by the only proven world-class player on either side, Alistair Cook. It had been an innings, especially given the pressure under which it was played, which a cricket-goer might see perhaps once in a decade. In the end, it was the difference between the sides.

Result. Somerset 301(E.J. Byrom 117, C. Overton 66, S.J. Cook 5-76) and 272 for 7 dec (T.A. Lammonby 116, C. Overton 45*, B. G.F. Green 41, J.A. Porter 4-73). Essex 337 for 8 inns closed (A.N. Cook 172, T. Westley 51, L. Gregory 6-72) and 179 for 6 (R.N. ten Doeschate 46, M.J. Leach 3-38). Match drawn. Essex win the Bob Willis Trophy awarded based on a higher completed first innings total than Somerset.