Outplayed – Middlesex v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Lord’s – Day 2

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.

Overnight. Middlesex 293 for 8.

Second day. 9th April – Outplayed

For Somerset supporters this was not the day perched on the edge of the seats of their armchairs hoped for at the end of the first day. It was instead, a day spent slumped into the depths of the cushions of those chairs. Somerset have thus far been comprehensively outplayed in this match. Largely, on the batting front, by Robson’s outstanding innings on the first day. As to the bowling, the Middlesex pace attack, more accustomed it is true to using the conditions and the slope at Lord’s, were more consistent than the Somerset bowlers in troubling the batsmen, perhaps Gregory’s first innings contribution excepted. Too often in Middlesex’s second innings, the Somerset bowlers gave leeway in line or dropped short and the Middlesex batsmen took full advantage. In their first innings, had it not been for a typically swashbuckling innings from Marchant de Lange, assiduously supported by Leach, Somerset would have found themselves bowled out for two figures and conceded a first innings lead of over 200. The gap between the sides, on the first two days of this match at least, was that great.

The morning had begun with Gregory and Overton removing the final two Middlesex batsmen for the addition of 20 runs. 313 looked a good score in the conditions, and if Somerset were to challenge it a good start to their innings was essential. That was denied them by what appeared at first sight, seemingly confirmed by a replay, to be an umpiring error. Tom Lammonby was given out caught behind off Tim Murtagh when the ball appeared to have passed the inside edge of Lammonby’s defensive stroke. It went on to clip the top of the pad and Somerset were 7 for 1. To his credit, Lammonby walked off with no hint of dissent.

Ill luck perhaps, but ill luck played no part in what followed. That came about due to the application and skill of the Middlesex pace attack, and in some cases indeterminate strokes on the part of the Somerset batsmen. Abell, coming forward to drive Murtagh, was perhaps defeated by a hint movement off the seam, perhaps aided by the slope, and edged to Robson at second slip. Banton, with the keeper up, playing back and defensively to Ethan Bamber was defeated by some more distinct movement and was bowled between bat and pad. George Bartlett, who had looked uncharacteristically uneasy at the crease also played back defensively to Bamber, the ball held its course and was edged to John Simpson behind the stumps. In not much more than, in the context of a four-day match, the twinkling of an eye Somerset had been tumbled unceremoniously to 17 for 4.

The hopes of the previous evening that they might battle their way to somewhere near parity now lay in ruins before lunch was called. After the strong starts to the four-day seasons in 2019 and 2020, following years of poor starts, an old, familiar despond must have fallen upon those watching in the Somerset interest as they slumped back into their armchairs with the pits of their stomachs sinking further still as each wicket fell.

As lunch approached and the bowlers continued to ask difficult questions, Hildreth and Steven Davies tried to rebuild from the wreckage of the Somerset innings. Almost immediately Hildreth turned Murtagh confidently and firmly off the face of the bat to the long leg boundary. A square drive to the Grandstand off Roland Jones was as good as any Robson had played the previous day. A ball from Helm, turned effortlessly to the square leg boundary, was played with equal assurance. With Davies virtually scoreless but seemingly in control at the other end Somerset reached lunch on 40 for 4. Hildreth and Davies had batted as if the four wickets had not been and Somerset were serenely building a total. But for the watching supporter those four wickets weighed heavily, all the more so when a simple piece of arithmetic revealed Somerset were still 273 behind. Hope there was, but as the old cricket saying goes, it only takes one ball, and that thought pressed more heavily on the scales than did the hope.

Ensconced in the live stream with commentary muted, the news that the death of the Duke of Edinburgh had been announced during the morning did not reach me until lunchtime. The afternoon started with the umpires, players and coaching staff lining the boundary in front of the Pavilion and Allen Stand for a two-minute silence. It was doubtlessly strictly observed as it would have been had the ground been full, and as it was in front of my laptop. Perhaps appropriately, I recalled that the Duke had married the Queen in 1947, the year in which Denis Compton and Bill Edrich lit up the cricketing summer as they scored over 7,000 first-class runs between them. I have reached my three score years and ten and it is hard to comprehend that that the marriage of the Queen and the Duke took place before I was born. Pause to take breath.

Breath taken and contemplation completed, the cricket resumed. The ‘one ball’ I had worried about before lunch came from the hand of Bamber two balls after lunch. Hildreth coming forward to drive through the on side, was beaten. His pad impeded the ball’s progress to the stumps and the umpire’s finger was raised. Any Somerset hope, however distant, of a partnership substantial enough to put pressure on Middlesex departed with Hildreth. The heart of course still clung to hope, but the brain overruled the heart.

Davies and Overton did make a determined attempt to close the gap. Davies played with that silken assurance of stroke that is his trademark. Overton, with those strokes of determined defence and incisive attack that are his when Somerset need him to make a difference. A cover drive from Davies off Murtagh flowed off the bat to the Grandstand boundary. Overton drove Bamber so straight that Davies had to lift his foot to allow the ball to travel to the Pavilion boundary. In the same over an off drive from Overton skimmed the grass to the Warner Stand. In the next, two cover drives from Davies off Murtagh were stroked effortlessly to the Grandstand as its orderly mass of empty seats looked on. Off the first ball of the next over Overton cut Roland Jones in front of square to the same place for four more. But before the over was out any rising flicker of Somerset hope was snuffed out as Overton had his stumps splayed when he played forward in firm defence.  

For all that the partnership had given some lift to Somerset spirits, the Middlesex live stream countered by announcing the lead on the score banner at the bottom of the screen and that served to remind of the enormity of the task Somerset faced. As Overton’s stumps leaned hither and thither a simple piece of mental arithmetic, at which cricket supporters are expert, revealed that the partnership had added but 32 runs. Overton’s departure left Somerset on 72 for 6, still 243 behind. In the context of a match in which Middlesex’s 313 had seemed, to use the modern parlance, above par, 243 was a chasm the other side of which was barely visible.

It became wider still when Gregory, after playing two drives with a smoothness of stroke which matched Davies at his best, one on each side of the wicket, seemed to hang his bat over a ball from Murtagh a foot outside off stump. From there it flew straight to Robson at second slip. My note summarizes Gregory’s innings as, “two beautiful boundaries and an ugly dismissal.” The only response of this Somerset watcher was an elongated sigh. When Davies was caught behind off Roland-Jones defending from the crease Somerset were 87 for 8. 89 for 9 when Davey was bowled by a straight ball from Murtagh. The hopes which always attend the start of the first match of the season had been shredded in an hour and a half of cricketing mayhem. Such devastation of an innings leaves committed supporters numbed, trying to come to terms with the reality unfolding in front of them.

The reality which now faced Somerset was the prospect of a first innings deficit in excess of 200 in a relatively low-scoring match. A completed first innings in double figures might have been difficult to lay a bet on. Had anyone managed to do so it would have been the last they would have seen of their money. Marchant de Lange and Jack Leach immediately set about trying to turn the Somerset innings on its head. Or at least they tried to give it some semblance of respectability.  

De Lange attacked the bowling from the outset. Leach worked to secure the other end before he too began to take some toll of the bowlers. Last wicket partnerships, particularly those involving numbers ten and eleven, have at their heart a rumbustious illogicality. Anyone who saw Charl Willoughby’s forays with the bat will understand the meaning of that. There was another example here. Such partnerships often involve the batting side’s worst batsmen being pitted against the bowling side’s best bowlers after the batting side’s best batsmen have succumbed for next to nothing. When the two worst batsmen score only six less runs than the rest of the batsmen put together it constitutes one of those bizarre occurrences that occasionally adds serendipitous spice to this great game.

De Lange unapologetically employed the services of the long handle. His main use of it was to swing the bat in an arc somewhere between a line drawn from third slip to mid-on and another along the line of the pitch, or to pull hard at anything short. He launched Helm and Bamber over mid-on for fours. He did though pay some attention to orthodoxy. Helm was driven through the covers to the Grandstand.

Leach, looking utterly determined to fight Somerset’s corner, played entirely with orthodox strokes, although mainly in defence whilst he established himself. Once established, and with de Lange in full destructive flow at the other end, he began to unfurl his drives. He leaned forward to drive Bamber to the Tavern Stand and drove Helm to the Grandstand. When Middlesex turned to Robson’s leg spin and Andersson’s medium pace, perhaps to take pace off the ball, Leach still found enough pace on the ball to steer Andersson past the slips to the Warner Stand boundary. Meanwhile De Lange drove Robson to the Grandstand.

At the start of the partnership enforcement of the follow-on might have been a realistic prospect, especially with a poor forecast for the third day. By the time the partnership was over, the Middlesex lead had fallen below 150, the follow-on having been avoided in true Somerset style when de Lange drove Robson over the Pavilion boundary for six. He was finally bowled for 51 when he stepped some way outside leg stump and tried to drive through the off. Somerset had by then posted a rather unlikely 172. De Lange’s 51 came from 50 balls, Leach’s 28 not out from 67. By the end of the partnership they had suspended reality for nearly an hour and a half and generated more than one cheer from the occupant of my armchair.

Overton suspended it a little longer when he removed Holden and Robson, both caught Davies, before the Middlesex score had reached 15. From there Gubbins and Eskanazi seemed in little trouble as they settled any Middlesex nerves. They scored almost at will until the Somerset bowlers brought some calm to proceedings by bowling the last nine overs for nine runs. Gubbins and Eskanazi took the score to 87 for 2 when bad light ended play about 40 minutes early. By then the Middlesex lead was 228 and the only questions hanging in the air were about the potential for weather interruptions on the third day, how long Somerset would have to bat to save the match and whether, after their first innings performance, there was any realistic prospect of them succeeding.

Close. Middlesex 313 (S.D. Robson 165, L. Gregory 5-68) and 87 for 2. Somerset 172 (M. de Lange 51, T.J. Murtagh 4-46, E.R. Bamber 3-24). Middlesex lead by 228 with eight second innings wickets standing.