Working the Clay – Somerset v Gloucestershire – County Championship 2021 – Day 2 – Taunton

lThis match was played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus restrictions in place. This report was therefore written following a day watching Somerset 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. Somerset v Gloucestershire. 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th April 2021. Taunton.

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

Gloucestershire. K.C. Brathwaite, C.D.J. Dent (c), J.R. Bracey (w), T.C. Lace, G.L. van Buuren, R.F. Higgins, G.T. Hankins, G.F.B. Scott, D.A. Payne, M.D. Taylor, D.C. Goodman.

Overnight. Somerset 312. Gloucestershire 13 for 0. Gloucestershire trail by 299 runs with ten first innings wickets standing.

Second day. 16th April – Working the clay

I know not whether I suffer from ill-luck or bad judgement, but wherever I have lived in this country I have found myself tending a garden consisting of heavy clay soil. There is no quick way of working clay. You just have to put your back into the job, digging systematically along one unforgiving row after another, ploughing doggedly on until the job is done. It was like that for the Somerset bowlers on the second day of this match and perhaps for the Gloucestershire batsmen too, although they might have felt they ended the day just ahead with only 11 runs needed to overhaul the Somerset total and two wickets still standing. The movement in the air and off the pitch which had been plainly evident for much of the first day had, apart from the occasional sharp remnant, faded like the melting of the morning frost. There was nothing for it but for the Somerset bowlers to work their way through one unforgiving over after another on what had become a mainly unforgiving pitch. And then do the same with one spell after another.

It was not just the pitch which was unforgiving. The Gloucestershire batsmen, who had melted more quickly than that morning frost under the heat of the Somerset attack in the Bob Willis Trophy in 2020, had developed the strength of resistance to bowling that a clay garden has to digging. Many names in the Gloucestershire team were the same as in 2020, but this was a different team to the one that had travelled down the M5 nine months before. Their defeat of Surrey in the first round of this year’s County Championship matches makes perfect sense after the first two days of this match.

The signs had been there on the first evening as Kraigg Brathwaite and Chris Dent scored 13 runs in three overs with little apparent concern. They continued where they had left off as they immediately applied pressure to the Somerset bowling in the opening exchanges of the morning. Brathwaite set down Gloucestershire’s marker when he drove Lewis Gregory through the covers to Legend’s Square with a stroke which might have caused the ghosts from the old Stragglers to sit up and take note. They would have winced and gasped when in the next over Craig Overton found the inside edge of Dent’s bat and the ball flew agonizingly close to the stumps and down to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary for four runs. But both Brathwaite and Dent found enough balls to turn into the on side, including two boundaries from Brathwaite and one from Dent, for Gloucestershire to pass 40 in the eighth over. Somerset’s 312, although still a considerable way in the distance, was not looking quite so secure as it had done at its conclusion.

And then, suddenly, I found my arm shooting upwards towards the heavens and my mouth emitting an involuntary, “Yes!” Overton, against the run of play, had persuaded a ball to cut in, hit Brathwaite’s pad and his appeal had persuaded the umpire to raise his finger. Gloucestershire were 41 for 1 and Brathwaite had to depart, if reluctantly, for 18. The reaction, after Gloucestershire’s five runs an over start, was more one of relief than triumph. It was put back into the perspective of the early morning exchanges in the next over. Gregory pitched short twice in succession to Dent. Twice Dent pulled. The first ball flew off the edge over the slips and became lost in the covers stored in front of the Lord Ian Botham Stand as again Dent was blessed by luck. The next though was pulled well enough to the Somerset Stand boundary. When Gregory pitched the next ball up, Dent clipped it off his legs and sent it back to the Somerset Stand boundary. Gloucestershire were 55 for 1 from 11 overs and Somerset knew they had a battle on their hands.

That onslaught immediately brought Davey into the attack. That, together with Overton bowling an eight over spell and De Lange replacing him, brought some semblance of order into the proceedings. From there, and for the rest of the day, the two teams fought unremittingly for supremacy as Somerset dug heavily and long for each wicket, and Gloucestershire hewed their runs out of the bowling at little more than two and a half an over. In the 23 overs between the 11th over and lunch just 42 runs were scored for the loss of one wicket. In the eight overs after that wicket fell at 87, ten runs were scored with Leach adding an additional degree of miserliness to the attack. For Gloucestershire, Chris Dent was the man out at 87. On 50, he went forward to defend against the persistent de Lange and edged to Davies. He had hit nine fours, only three of them after the Gloucestershire scoring rate slowed and scored his remaining 14 runs from 73 balls. At lunch James Bracey, who had replaced Brathwaite, had been at the wicket 23 overs for 24 runs. As hard as it had been for the batsmen to score runs so was it for the bowlers to penetrate their defences. From the perspective of the watching Somerset supporter the gradual rise in the Gloucestershire total which took them to 97 for 2 at lunch did not make for restful watching, particularly as Bracey looked increasingly assured as he worked his runs out of the increasingly demanding bowling.  

Then, with the afternoon session barely under way, Somerset began to make progress when Overton struck for the second time. He first forced a thick edge to the River Stand as Lace attempted to drive him square. When, off the next ball, Lace tried to attack him again with another drive the ball went straight to Banton at extra cover and Gloucestershire were 105 for 3. Van Buuren tried to break Leach’s hold by driving him square for four, but in the next over Overton managed to find some of the residual life in the pitch and cut a ball into him. In reacting to it van Buuren edged to Gregory diving towards first slip from second. Gloucestershire were 119 for four and Somerset supporters would have breathed a little more easily as their team perhaps just edged ahead. But, at the other end, Bracey was still at the crease, pressing the Gloucestershire case. He mainly hewed runs out of the bowling, but with 37 now to his name he was looking more unmovable by the over. And a six hooked into the Somerset Stand off Overton demonstrated he was prepared to attack the ball if the opportunity presented itself.

Ryan Higgins joined Bracey and together they added 41 in 13 overs as Gloucestershire worked to increase their scoring rate from the two an over to which it had been constrained since the fall of Dent. In an over from Gregory, who several times employed the short ball with little apparent effect, both batsmen pulled him for four, Higgins in front of square to the Ondaatje Stand and the left-handed Bracey to the Somerset Stand. For the most part though the Somerset bowlers stuck hard to their task and, like that unrelenting clay soil in its grip on a spade, held the scoring in check. Eventually, Higgins tried steer Davey through the off side and edged the ball to Hildreth at first slip. He had made 23 and, with Gloucestershire on 160 for 5, Somerset perhaps had just moved ahead. When Hankins was lbw to a ball which de Lange might just have persuaded to cut in the score was 177 for 6 and Gloucestershire, still 135 runs behind, were suddenly at risk of foundering in the face of the determined Somerset bowling. With tea coming at 189 for 6 Somerset were still ahead.

The honours of the morning session had been just about, from a Somerset perspective, evenly distributed with Somerset managing two wickets but restricting Gloucestershire to 84 runs. The afternoon had belonged to Somerset with the wicket column raised to six and Gloucestershire still 123 runs adrift of Somerset’s first innings total. The evening session, as residents of the flats were seen on their east-facing balconies clothed for winter rather than spring, belonged to Gloucestershire as, with Bracey and Matthew Taylor to the fore, they closed the gap on Somerset to just ten runs for the loss of two more wickets.

When Gregory returned after tea, he bowled a fuller length and conceded just nine runs in six overs with four of those coming from a straight drive to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary by the ever-present Bracey. But the pressure of accurate bowling tells. When Scott came forward in defence to a ball from Gregory which swung marginally away he edged it to Overton at second slip. Gregory raised his arms to the horizontal, apparently as much in relief as celebration, and Gloucestershire were 203 for 7, still 109 behind. The persistence of the Somerset bowling was beginning to weigh down like clay weighs down a spade.

First, Somerset reached their apogee in the Gloucestershire innings when, with the score on 203, still 108 runs short of the Somerset total, George Scott played forward to a ball from Gregory which swung marginally away, took the edge and flew low to Overton at second slip. Now, it seemed to the watching Somerset supporter, the advantage so hard won might be pushed home, especially with the new ball due in six overs. Instead, pushing as hard in one direction as Somerset were in the other, Bracey and Taylor, asserted themselves as the pitch continued to become more unresponsive.

As they made headway the number in the wickets column remained steadfastly stuck on seven. At the same time, those reducing tens digits that had delivered such rising hope in the runs required column as Somerset chased a high target against Middlesex brought rising anxiety to the Somerset mind here as they fell away in the lead column. With the Somerset lead in the seventies Bracey guided Davey to fine leg for four and brought up his century off 208 balls. As the Somerset lead fell into the fifties, an all-run four to the Colin Atkinson boundary depressed the Somerset spirit further. A cover drive from Taylor off Gregory to Legends Square took the lead down to 47 in the 93rd over. The re-introduction of Leach in the 94th was an admission that the new ball, in spite of the efforts of the Somerset bowlers, had failed to deliver on its promise. When Bracey reverse-swept Leach for four, again to Legends Square, the Somerset lead fell to 39 and the Somerset heart sank further as it seemed Gloucestershire might be preparing to press home their advantage.

Then some relief. Bracey played a tired-looking defensive prod to a ball from Gregory angled across him and edged to Hildreth at slip. Gloucestershire were 274 for 8, Bracey 118 scored in nearly six hours at the crease, and Somerset hopes of parity at the end of the two first innings revived. For the moment at least. But a Gloucestershire lead looked the more likely outcome by the close as Taylor and David Payne negotiated their way through the bowling and Taylor, driving de Lange through backward point to the Somerset Stand boundary, went to a maiden first-class fifty in the final over of the day. As the third day dawns Somerset still have much clay to dig with bat and ball.

Close. Somerset 312. Gloucestershire 301 for 8. Gloucestershire trail by ten runs.