Somerset shape the day – Middesex v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Lord’s – Day 3

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 313 and 87 for 2. Somerset 172. Middlesex lead by 228 with eight second innings wickets standing.

Third day. 10th April – Somerset shape the day

At the start of the final day of this match Somerset will need 173 runs to win with seven wickets standing. In one sense that is a simple statement of fact. But in the minds, and in the hearts, of the supporters of Somerset and Middlesex it is so much more than that. For them it is a statement replete with meaning, charged with hope and dripping with anxiety. It is laden with the ifs and buts, with the twists and turns, and with the incessant tension of a third day which breathed vibrant life back into a match which had seemed, to all intents and purposes, over at the end of the second day.

It would be too much to say the match has been turned on its head, for Middlesex still hold the stronger hand, particularly so after the fall of two late Somerset wickets. But Somerset supporters would have looked disbelievingly at the end of the second day at anyone who had suggested their team would be in this position when the light and the rain suddenly decreed that play should be suspended two thirds of the way through the third day. The suspension came just as the target, those two wickets notwithstanding, was coming close enough for Somerset supporters to begin to believe, and Middlesex ones to fear, that a Somerset victory might just, just, be achievable.

First-class cricket has that special joy, or torture, engendered by the fact that a match, however evenly balanced, however great the tension, however important the outcome, can be arbitrarily suspended overnight because the required amount of play for the day has been completed or the weather so dictates. And so, the tension that had within its grip every Somerset and every Middlesex supporter exactly halfway through the 30th over of Somerset’s second innings was suddenly placed in limbo until eleven o’clock on the fourth day. It was as if, with Hamlet halfway through his soliloquy, the theatre had decided to stop the production and ask everyone to come back the next night to hear the rest of it.

There had been a very different feeling as the ‘crowd’ came back to their screens at eleven o’clock on the third day. There is little tension in the expectation that a side, ahead by 228 runs with eight wickets in hand, will build an all but insurmountable lead. It is a feeling well known to cricket supporters on the wrong end of that equation as they wait for a declaration. With Middlesex ending the second day on 87 for 2 and with Gubbins and Eskinazi seeming in complete control, any suggestion that the last eight wickets would fall on the second morning for 56 runs would have been dismissed as nonsensical.

Even when, in the third over of the morning, Gubbins attempted to cut a ball from Overton which was wide of off stump, and perhaps moving further away, and edged it high to a leaping Gregory at second slip, the thought of a Middlesex collapse did not enter my head. It may however have entered the heads of the Somerset players before they came onto the field because they bowled and fielded with such a purpose it was as if some of the great performances of 2019 and 2020 had come to visit. This was the Somerset team that takes to the field intent on shaping a match to their own design, and that is what they spent the rest of day doing.

After the fall of Gubbins, Eskinazi began to make progress at nearly four runs an over supported by a virtually scoreless Robbie White. Twice in an over he drove Gregory for four, once straight back past the stumps. A cut off Overton to the Grandstand was of similar quality. The cricket had all the feel of those sessions when a side is working towards a declaration and the fielding side finds it beyond its power to stop them. At one point Hildreth, at his perennial place at first slip, cast his eyes towards the heavily overcast heavens, whether in hope or anticipation of salvation from the light, or just out of curiosity, I cannot say. Such was the run of play that intervention from the weather seemed Somerset’s only hope.

Middlesex were 113 for 3, 254 runs ahead. It might as well have been a thousand for all the hope there seemed to be for Somerset. And then came that intervention in the flow of play, ubiquitous in these times, the hand sanitizer break. It was noticeable as I reviewed my reports on Somerset’s Bob Willis Trophy campaign for inclusion my book on the subject how many times a hand sanitizer break seemed to precede the fall of a wicket. Whether it was the break, or the introduction of Leach to the attack that was more influential in what followed is known only to the cricketing gods.

White came forward in defence to Leach’s first ball. The ball turned, took the edge of the bat and Gregory took the catch at slip. 113 for 3 had become 113 for four. The shape and nature of the game changed from that point. As the Somerset fielders celebrated, Middlesex suddenly looked vulnerable. An innings that had been progressing at nearly four an over slowed to two. Eskinazi, who had been responsible for most of the scoring on the third morning, scored only five more runs in the next seven and a half overs before he was caught at second slip by Overton off Davey who, with Leach, had been responsible for putting a tourniquet on the Middlesex scoring. It was an astonishing catch which epitomised the passion and determination with which Somerset were playing. The ball flew fast, wide and low to his right. Overton half dived, half reached, almost to where third slip would have been and took the catch one-handed just a few short inches above the ground. 127 for 5, Eskinazi 53.

Middlesex led by 268 with five wickets standing, but Somerset had roused themselves. Hope flickered for a moment, but the head doused the flicker with the thought that even if Middlesex were bowled out, Somerset would probably need to make the highest score of the match to win, and that would be a gargantuan task in these early season conditions. And then the Middlesex innings broke under the pressure which Davey and Leach were applying. Within the space of six balls three wickets fell for no runs. Simpson leg before wicket to a straight ball from around the wicket from Davey, Roland-Jones, also leg before wicket to a straight ball from Davey, and Andersson, looking bemused, leg before wicket to Leach’s arm ball. 127 for 4 before the fall of Eskinazi had become 131 for 8. The lead was now 272 but only two wickets remained. Somerset had regained fingertip contact with the game.

It remained only for Gregory and Leach to finish the proceedings of the Middlesex innings. Helm played an indeterminate stroke to a ball from Gregory a foot outside off stump and edged to Davies. Bamber tried to slog sweep Leach to, perhaps into, the Grandstand and was struck in front of leg stump. 143 all out. Middlesex’s last six wickets had fallen for 16 runs and Somerset would need 285 to win. It was a huge target in the context of the game. But to this watching Somerset supporter, it felt so much better than something with a three or even a four at the front of it, which might have been a reasonable expectation at the start of the day.

Almost immediately the task became larger still when, off the seventh ball of the Somerset innings, Lammonby played smoothly forward to Bamber and edged straight to Eskinazi at first slip. It was a crucial moment. To face it, Abell walked down the Pavilion steps. More wickets at that point would have made an improbable task impossible. Abell does not shirk these challenges, and he seems to understand the importance of trying to shape or reshape a game rather than to respond to its shape. With Banton, he immediately set himself to the task of continuing the work of the bowlers in reshaping this one.

They began positively and gradually accelerated until they were taking Somerset forward at nearly five runs an over. Before the over in which Lammonby’s wicket fell was out, Abell had driven Bamber through the covers for four. It looked like a statement of intent. In Bamber’s next over Banton announced his intent with a square drive which beat the pursuing fielder to the Grandstand. Singles and twos leavened the mix and pushed the score along. In one over from Murtagh there were four scoring strokes, in the next from Roland-Jones there were three. A straight drive from Banton off Bamber raced to the Pavilion boundary and a cover drive to the Grandstand followed. Abell began to edge ahead of Banton and glanced Helm perfectly to the Warner Stand boundary. It is a stroke that has been Abell’s downfall too often but here it looked the part. In an over from Helm, Abell flicked a ball of his pads just behind square, it bisected the field and added to the tally of boundaries sent to the Grandstand rope. In the same over, a ball a little short and wide was cut gloriously to the Tavern boundary.

It was uplifting stuff if you were a Somerset supporter. The eyes opened wider, the heart beat faster and the seed of hope began to produce shoots. Then Roland-Jones, who had appealed his heart out, finally persuaded the umpire to raise his finger. Banton had been struck on the pad and departed for 37. The score was 79 for 2 and the head cautioned the heart that Somerset still needed more than 200 runs to win. Suddenly, the target seemed an awfully long way off. When Hildreth departed in the same manner to the same bowler Somerset were 101 for 3. When the gloom closed in, Abell and Bartlett had stretched that to 112 for 3, but it had taken them a further six overs to gather those 11 runs and Bartlett had struggled to settle. It was perhaps time to regroup as the Somerset brain, and probably Middlesex ones too, calculated that a Somerset victory was still a distant 173 runs away with three key wickets gone. Abell’s 62 not out, scored as always in classical fashion, had taken just 87 balls. It has given Somerset a sniff of a chance in their run chase, but with three top order wickets already gone, Somerset need Abell to start again on the final morning and that is something batsmen established the night before often fail to do on the morning after.

At the end of the third day Somerset may be some way short of where they would have liked to be when they set out on the first day. But they have given themselves a chance, and are in a far better position than their supporters could have dared hope when the day began. As to the final day, and in the cold light of the evening, with early season conditions and the pressure of the chase to contemplate, my head fears a finish around lunchtime. My heart hopes for one around tea with the edges of the seats of armchairs across both counties worn beyond repair. Middlesex supporters’ hopes will lie the other way. As to how the edges of those seats will fare, the answer to that question lies within the age-old vagaries of cricket and is beyond my skill level to predict. And that is why some of us have spent a lifetime torturing ourselves with this game of endless possibilities.

Close. Middlesex 313 and 143 (S.S. Eskinazi 53, J.H. Davey 3-16, M.J. Leach 3-18, C. Overton 3-26). Somerset 172 and 112 for 3. Somerset need another 173 runs to win with seven wickets standing.