A day of cricket of the old sort – Middlesex v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Lord’s – Day 1

This match was played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus restrictions in place. This report was therefore written following a day watching Middlesex CCC’s 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.

County Championship Group 2. Middlesex v Somerset. 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th April 2021. Lord’s.

Middlesex. M.D.E. Holden, S.D. Robson, N.R.T. Gubbins, S.S. Eskinazi (c), R.G. White, M.K. Andersson, J.A. Simpson (w), T.S. Roland-Jones, T.G. Helm, E.R. Bamber, T.J. Murtagh

Somerset. T.A. Lammonby, T. Banton, T.B. Abell (c), J.C. Hildreth, G.A. Bartlett, S.M. Davies (w), C. Overton, L. Gregory, M. de Lange, J.H. Davey, M.J. Leach.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

First day. 8th April – A day of cricket of the old sort

This was a day of championship cricket of the old sort. A day on which the bowlers had to work hard for their wickets and batsmen for their runs. A day on which the pitch seemed to favour neither batsman nor bowler and on which less than 300 runs were scored. There was some lift for Craig Overton in the morning but no great movement for any of the bowlers most of the time. Of the Middlesex batsmen, Stephen Eskanazi batted two hours to grind out 22, Robbie White an hour and a quarter for 17. Only one batsman, Sam Robson, exceeded Eskanazi’s 22.

And yet Middlesex ended the day with the brighter prospects due to an exceptional innings from Robson. It was reminiscent in many respects of Sir Alistair Cook’s 172 in the Bob Willis Trophy final in 2020. Both endured and survived scratchy starts. Cook edged several times just short or wide of the slip cordon. Robson was dropped in the slips twice early in his innings, once by the usually unerring James Hildreth and once by the equally safe pair of hands of Craig Overton. Unwelcome lightning strikes occasionally, but rarely twice in the same place. In 2020 Cook went on to play an innings which, in the end, shaped the Bob Willis Trophy final. Robson may have done the same for this match.

He was firm in defence where the ball demanded it, but he was harsh through the on side on any ball on his legs. His driving of anything even marginally overpitched, as the Somerset bowlers perhaps searched for movement, was exquisite. He missed no opportunity to score. One straight drive off Josh Davey just after lunch epitomized his innings. It was played with barely a nudge as if he were pushing the ball defensively back up the pitch. And yet his timing was such that it raced off the bat and skimmed the ground at speed all the way to the Pavilion boundary. Cook did not play a better drive in his innings.

But, before all that, the day had begun where the 2020 season had left off and, for that matter, begun. Behind closed doors. And with me in my armchair watching the cricket on my laptop rather than freezing on the Pavilion terrace at Lord’s. As when I am at a match, I had my notebook and pencil in hand but cast an occasional glance up at the Blackdown Hills rather than the Compton and Edrich Stands. The players, if they chanced to look up from the cricket, saw only rank upon rank of empty seats as the measures put in place to combat a global pandemic continued to hold sway as much in 2021 as they had in 2020.

One thing however had returned to what is now described as the old normal. The visiting side no longer had the option to insert the home side without a toss. The toss, as old as organized county cricket itself, was back. Somerset won it and inserted Middlesex on a dimpsy day, to resurrect the West Country term I used to describe the weather at the Bob Willis Trophy final. I prefer the old normal of W.G. Grace. If you win the toss you should bat. There may be some ifs and buts, but still bat. It may be my anecdotal memory, but I can recall too many examples of insertions backfiring. Perhaps, I have often wondered, because it takes the pressure off the batsmen and applies it to the bowlers. Perhaps because the pitch has been misread. It may have been here.

As it was, the Somerset bowlers bowled well enough to take two wickets in the morning session. Holden looped Overton straight to Banton at a close square leg and Davey beautifully speared a ball into Gubbins’ pads from around the wicket leaving no doubt about the outcome. And yet the Somerset bowlers, Marchant de Lange in particular, were not quite on the mark before lunch. De Lange exhibited a tendency to drift too much to leg, something the other bowlers were not entirely free of. It attracted severe punishment from Robson to add to the repeated damage to the Somerset cause inflicted by his driving. In a session delayed by ten minutes by a shower 99 runs were scored for the loss of two wickets. Robson had 65 of those. It was not the reward I side expects of an insertion.

Robson continued the assault after lunch. There was an occasional thick edge through backward point for runs as Abell continued to attack, but it was Robson’s driving, always along the ground on either side of the wicket and straight which really applied the pressure and moved the match increasingly Middlesex’s way. After 36 overs the score was 131 for 2 and Robson had 91 of those from 113 balls. To set that in context Eskinazi had 13 from 74 balls. Robson’s was an exceptional performance. Eskinazi’s was an important innings too. It secured the other end while Robson drove Middlesex forward.

And then, in the 37th over, Abell turned to Jack Leach and the feel of the day began to change. Leach immediately began to establish a base from where Somerset at least stemmed the Middlesex tide if they did not turn it. By tea, according to my notes, Leach had figures of 14-6-24-1. He began by bowling flat and accurately whilst varying his line. Gradually he introduced some variety of pace and began to obtain some testing flight. Eventually he defeated White’s defensive push and Gregory took the catch at slip.

Gregory, the pick of Somerset’s bowlers across the day, bowled in tandem with Leach at the beginning of Leach’s spell, conceded three runs in three overs and trapped Eskinazi lbw on his crease. As a long 37-over afternoon session wore on all the Somerset bowlers began to apply pressure, the Middlesex scoring rate slowed and the successions of dots in my notebooks become more frequent and longer. Before lunch, Robson had scored 65 from 79 balls. Between lunch and tea he scored 61 from 121 balls. That paled only in comparison to his performance in the morning and the quality of stroke, his driving in particular, was still there, but the opportunity to apply it had diminished. In the 11 overs before tea he scored not a single boundary and played out three maidens. During that same period Leach conceded just four runs from five overs. 208 for 4 at tea was still Middlesex’s game but Somerset were not bending under the strain. This really was cricket of the old sort. Quality in the batting, quality in the bowling and determination in both. The points to be awarded for a draw has been increased to eight in 2021, apparently in the hope that sides might produce pitches and play cricket which will more closely replicate Test cricket. With eight points for a draw staying in a game when behind in it is ever more important.

In the final session just 85 runs were scored as the toe-to-toe tussle which had developed in the afternoon continued. Robson broke his boundary drought by clipping Leach square to the Grandstand as the day darkened and the floodlights came on. But Leach immediately re-imposed his stranglehold on the scoring with more strings of dot balls. Pressure tells, Davey went through Andersson’s defence and Davies took the catch. At 218 for 5 the match was on the cusp of levelling up and I let out a hopeful, “Yes!”

For Middlesex, the ever-present Robson sided by Simpson who has been a thorn in Somerset’s flesh more than once over the years immediately began to push forward again. Robson threatened to resume his pre-lunch onslaught with two scintillating square drives in an over from Leach, one each side of the wicket. Then came ten punishing runs in an over from Abell as he picked the balls to hit with, from a Somerset perspective, alarming precision before Leach re-imposed himself against him with another maiden.

An off drive for four to the Warner Stand from Simpson off Abell took the score to 254 for 5 after 80 overs. Never was a new ball more welcome or necessary to a bowling side or a beleaguered supporter as, the Somerset bowlers’ efforts notwithstanding, Middlesex were again threatening to take control of the match. A maiden from Overton was followed by my laptop losing connection with the live stream. Computer technology and I come from different generations and speak different languages but when Somerset are playing cricket needs must overcome such hurdles. On this occasion what used to be known as radio silence undid all Simpson’s efforts. By the time my laptop was back in contact with Lord’s he was back in the Pavilion, caught behind off Gregory for 11 and Middlesex were 254 for 6. I usually take wickets like that when I walk behind a stand on one of my circumnavigations of the ground, but in the age of the pandemic a technical failure does the job just as well.

Communications were restored in time for me to see Gregory deliver a wide full toss to Robson, a gift he hardly needed, and he duly drove it through the covers to the Grandstand. Gregory compensated with a snorter of a ball which cut in, hurried Robson’s defensive stroke and Abell took the catch at third slip. If ever there was an innings which would have had both sets of supporters standing in ovation Robson’s was it, but in these times the ghosts of earlier times were all that watched on from those rows upon rows of empty seats. 263 for 7, Robson 165, and an opportunity for, and a push needed from, Somerset to retain some sort of contact with parity.

With the Somerset bowlers now pressing their case hard Gregory, with bis fourth wicket of the day, forced an edge from Helm and Hildreth took a good catch low to his right at first slip. Normal service resumed there at least. In response Toby Roland-Jones, with 19 not out in an hour of intense occupation of the crease squeezed 19 runs from the bowling and took Middlesex to 293 for 8 at the close from the day’s full allocation of 96 overs. Gregory finished with four wickets.

It really had felt like a day of championship cricket of the old sort. Middlesex had edged the day, perhaps more than edged it. In the end, the difference between that edge and the one Somerset might have finished with was Robson’s innings, aided by those two dropped slip catches that had given him the opportunity which he grasped with a combination of certitude and elan. Somerset will have to end the Middlesex innings early on the second morning and then find an individual batting performance, or a collective one, to match Robson’s if this match is to be brought back into the balance. It will be, to use the modern parlance, a tough ask. If they manage it, they will have Somerset supporters at the other end of that internet connection perched precariously on the edge of the seats of their armchairs and perhaps Middlesex ones too.

Close. Middlesex 293 for 8.