The match of a lifetime – Middlesex v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Lord’s – Day 4

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 143. Somerset 172 and 112 for 3. Somerset need another 173 runs to win with seven wickets standing

Final day. 11th April – The match of a lifetime

I saw my first Somerset match in 1958. I was seven years old. I am now 70 years old. It is difficult to recall in the intervening years seeing an outcome quite so remarkable as this one. For an ardent Somerset watcher that is quite a claim. At the end of the second day Middlesex led by 228 runs with eight second innings wickets standing. Middlesex’s first innings 313 was generally held to be some way above par for the conditions. Midway through that second day it had been put into its true perspective when Somerset’s reply subsided to 89 for 9 with numbers ten and eleven at the wicket. Somerset were not so much staring into the abyss as laying in pieces at the bottom of it.

By the morning of the truncated third day Somerset’s bowlers had woken up to their true potential. By lunch they had reduced Middlesex’s second innings’ overnight 87 for 2 to 142 all out, taking the last six wickets for 16 runs in the process. It still left Somerset, in the context of this match and its early season conditions, the mammoth task of scoring 285 to win. The final morning began with Somerset at an indeterminate 112 for 3, still behind in the game but having spent the third day halting the flow of the Middlesex flood tide of the first two days. To win the match Somerset would have to turn that tide and set it flowing heavily in Somerset’s direction. I am currently under doctors orders to monitor my blood pressure. If Somerset were to win this match it would not be a day to take a reading.

Abell and Bartlett began with some solid defence against some determined bowling from Murtagh and Bamber. In the first ten overs there were just 23 runs with three boundaries, with one of those coming from a thick defensive edge. The tension of such cricket, long drawn out, as the balance of a tight match changes almost imperceptibly over time tests the pit of the stomach, and the edge of the seat, to the limit. Every appeal causes the breath to be held until the umpire, after what seems to be an eternity, gives a decision. The clock and the score move forward in slow motion. For the commited cricket supporter the world outside the game is forgotten. After those interminable ten overs Somerset’s target had been reduced from 173 to 150. Still a mountain to climb if you were watching in the Somerset interest, shrinking foothills I suspect if you were for Middlesex.

Then, the renewal of the overnight innings established, Abell stated Somerset’s intent. Defence turned to measured attack as he glanced Murtagh perfectly to the Pavilion boundary. The glance has been too often Abell’s downfall. Not this time. There was a certainty and a command about the stroke that generated an extra beat of hope in the Somerset heart. Whatever the outcome of the match, Somerset would not be daunted in the attempt to win it. Bartlett soon followed with a cover drive off Roland-Jones to the shorter square boundary in front of the Grandstand. Somerset needed 137 more runs. The realisation dawned that they were over halfway to the target with still seven wickets standing. The pit of the Somerset stomach thought about relaxing by a flutter or two, and then thought better of it. The Middlesex one must have been tightening by the run.  

When Bartlett drove Roland-Jones through the covers and the Middlesex fielder, racing furiously after the ball, flicked it back inches from the rope the batsmen ran two and the Somerset target fell from 130 to 128. It is astonishing how much difference the reduction in the tens digit in the runs required box on a scoreboard makes to how a supporter feels, one way or the other, in a close match, and this was now the closest of matches. The commitment and determined application of the Somerset batsmen, the undiminished and persistent accuracy of the Middlesex bowlers and the way the fielder had put his heart and soul into chasing that ball epitomised the very best of County Championship cricket.

Tom Abell is an excellent batsman as his innings demonstrated. His strokes are classical, correct and precise in the old way and a joy to watch. But, for Somerset, he is a captain first and foremost. His command and decisiveness in the field demonstrate that. His batting too. As in this innings, his batting so often sets the tone for the rest of the Somerset innings. His approach on the final morning left no doubt. The intent was clear. Somerset would attempt to take control of the match by batting in a systematic, positive, but controlled way. It would too keep the Middlesex bowlers and fielders under constant pressure.

At 163 for 3 just 122 were needed and the momentum that Abell sought was established. Somerset supporters, wearing out the seat edges of their armchairs and staring at their screens, would have found hope rising in their chests to balance the jitters in their stomachs. Abell drove Bamber through backward point for four and Somerset seemed on the cusp of launching the final assault towards a remarkable victory. Middlesex supporters must have been fearing the worst. But this was cricket, and the Middlesex bowlers were keeping doggedly to their task in spite of the rising pressure. Then Abell, defending, misjudged. Simpson, standing up to the stumps, appealed for the catch. Abell turned on his heels and walked off without waiting for the umpire, and young Ethan Bamber had collected another wicket. For a frozen second the Somerset cricketing world stood still. Only Abell moved. This match was not yet over.

The moods of the respective bands of supporters, spread hither and thither by the pandemic, must have moved a little closer together as the balance of the match began to even up again. Closer still when Steven Davies was leg before wicket to Bamber without scoring. Craig Overton has more than once played a key role in moving a Somerset innings forward when it has faltered. When he drove Bamber spectacularly off the front foot and through the covers to the Mound Stand for four a hint of Somerset relief was breathed. When he came forward in defence to Murtagh and edged behind, Middlesex supporters must have sat up in their armchairs while Somerset ones sank in theirs. The score was 187 for 6. Somerset still needed 98 and suddenly had just four wickets standing. The persistence of the Middlesex bowlers had been rewarded. Somerset’s calculated assault on their target was faltering. The pendulum of the match had just crossed the perpendicular and was swinging back into Middlesex’s favour. And, as is the way in cricket, with the match thus suspended, the players left the field for lunch with Somerset still needing 98 more runs.

At the fall of Overton’s wicket George Bartlett was 43 not out scored from 107 balls. They were crucial runs. He had joined Abell on the third afternoon with the score on 101 for 3. It was a crucial moment in the Somerset innings. Another wicket then would have brought a state of some crisis with still 184 runs needed. Now he was still there, 86 runs and 26 overs later with Somerset again facing a crisis. It is not the first time Bartlett has scored runs or occupied the crease when Somerset have needed it most. At Edgbaston in 2019, on the only other occasion I can recall Somerset winning a match after conceding a first innings deficit of these proportions, 111 on that occasion against 141 on this, he came to the wicket at 170 for 5 with Somerset needing 258 to win. He scored 54 not out and with Dom Bess (40 not out) he saw Somerset home. In 2018 against Yorkshire at Taunton he joined Matthew Renshaw with the score on 5 for 1. Bartlett scored just 39 but he stayed with Renshaw, who went on to score one of his three centuries for Somerset, while they added 140 in a total of 202 all out. In the first match of the 2019 season at Trent Bridge, with Somerset facing a Nottinghamshire first innings total of 265, he came to the wicket at 36 for 3. He and Abell then added 223 for the fourth wicket with Bartlett scoring 133. Somerset won all three matches.

Back at Lord’s in this match, with lunch eaten and Middlesex threatening to take the match away from Somerset, Bartlett was joined by Gregory. Any doubt about how Somerset would approach the task ahead with their dwindling batting resources were removed when Gregory drove the third ball after lunch straight back past Murtagh for four and the next through the covers for three. In his next over, Murtagh was clipped square to the Grandstand boundary. In the next, Bartlett pulled Helm emphatically from outside off stump to long on, again for four, and at the end of the over drove him square even more emphatically for four more bringing up his fifty in the process. Had there been a crowd the Somerset contingent would have recognized the value of Bartlett’s contribution and the applause would doubtless have been accompanied by a shout or two of, “Come on George.” I would not bet either against there having been a number of such shouts from in front of laptops scattered across Somerset and beyond.

That boundary took Somerset to 207 for 6 with now 78 needed. Two more tens digits had fallen away in three and a half overs, and 78 felt so much better than 98. The momentum Abell’s innings had established was driving Somerset along again. But still the Middlesex bowlers ran in with little sign of wilting. I was breathing just a little more easily, but my head kept cautioning that the situation would look very different if another wicket fell. When Murtagh all but broke through Bartlett’s defence and then found the edge of the bat my blood pressure must have risen a point or two. When the edged ball ran down to third man for four instead of finding the hands of a slip fielder, my Middlesex counterparts must have suffered similar agonies.

When a match starts to close in on its conclusion whilst balanced on the sort of knife edge that this one was a silence gradually descends on a spectator-populated ground. The tension grips everyone, the pit of the stomach is tensed beyond endurance and the fingers feel numb. Every last ounce of nervous energy is concentrated on the cricket. The eyes and the ears blot everything else out and the silence becomes so intense it can almost be felt. There is too a superstition among cricket supporters that speaking of hope, or moving, even taking off or putting on a jacket or jumper, whatever the temperature, or doing anything at all at such times might bring cricketing disaster on their team. I had been exchanging texts with other Somerset supporters as the morning wore on. As the afternoon wore on the phone fell silent. No-one was texting. No-one wanted to break Somerset’s spell. Even the non-cricket person in the house sensed the tension and said nothing. The silence was deafening, and it made the tension bite all the harder just as it does at a ground.

When Gregory drove Murtagh through mid-on to the Pavilion boundary for another four and ended the over with a single to retain the strike, the runs required fell to 59 as another tens digit fell away. Gregory was playing a masterful attacking innings. Attacking, but the strokes were strictly from the coaching manual and struck with certainty, power and precision. He exuded and built confidence. The pendulum had swung back Somerset’s way. Now, Gregory lofted Roland-Jones between square leg and mid on and Bartlett cut Bamber beautifully through backward point, both for four. Another tens digit fell away and Somerset needed 46. As the partnership moved on there was a flick of Bartlett’s wrists and a ball from Bamber was cut like a rocket to third man. Another tens digit fell and Somerset needed 39. The boundaries were flowing now, and the score was hastened further by ones and twos as the field spread to try to contain the boundaries.

When Gregory clipped Bamber square to the Grandstand boundary the runs required fell to 26. Now, Bartlett and Gregory worked to close the gap in singles. “C’mon! C’mon!,” I heard myself shouting, not with impatience at the singles but in encouragement to the batsmen to retain their control of the match. The influence on the situation a shout at a computer screen nearly 200 miles from the ground can have is of course nil, but at times such as these it is an involuntary action and cannot be stopped. The batsmen responded with more carefully garnered singles, taking away another ten digit as the runs required fell to 19. I am a habitually nervous Somerset supporter who can only relax when the runs are on the board, but even I breathed easily when the ground staff began unfurling the hoses for their post-match dousing of the square. As I relaxed, I spared a thought for Middlesex supporters, for we have all been on the wrong end of a close match. We all know what it feels like, and if you attend a County Championship match there is a camaraderie between opposing supporters that allows them to sit together and to share a friendly chat and a smile the whole day long, whatever the state of the game.

As to the remainder of this game, Bartlett and Gregory continued serenely to the end with the same control that had got them thus far. There was no sudden rush of hitting to end the innings, four overs added 14 runs until five were needed. The last over was entrusted to Bamber, a real prospect for the future. Gregory struck the first ball through the covers for four to bring the scores level and then took a single to take Somerset over the line, to use the modern phrase. Gregory and Bartlett celebrated. I looked on in blissful disbelief at what I had seen over the preceding four days, and my phone sprang into life as texts as disbelieving as my own jumble of emotions suddenly demanded attention. A year’s worth of cricketing emotion had been swallowed up, and this was just the first match of the Championship season.

Result. Middlesex 313 ((S.D. Robson 165, L. Gregory 5-68) and 143 (S.S. Eskinazi 53, J.H. Davey 3-16, M.J. Leach 3-18, C. Overton 3-26). Somerset 172 (M. de Lange 51, T.J. Murtagh 4-46, E.R. Bamber 3-24) and 285 for 6 (T.B. Abell 84, G.A. Bartlett 76*, L. Gregory 62*, E.R. Bamber 3-77). Somerset won by six wickets. Somerset 19 points. Middlesex 6 points.