Gloucestershire ask some tough questions – Somerset v Gloucestershire – County Chmpionship 2021 – Taunton – 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 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 301 for 8. Gloucestershire trail by ten runs with two first innings wickets standing.

Third day. 17th April – Gloucestershire ask some tough questions

After two days of this match Somerset and Gloucestershire had fought themselves to a virtual standstill. At the start of the third morning Marchant de Lange, with two wickets in the space of five runs, Payne returning a low catch from a leading edge and Taylor having no answer to a full ball which struck his pads, gave Somerset the narrowest of margins over Gloucestershire on first innings. It was so close that had this been an election rather than a cricket match Gloucestershire would have been within their constitutional rights to request a full recount. Of all the innovations cricket is to be subject to in this second season of the coronavirus, that, mercifully, is not one of them. By the end of the third day, recounts were no longer in the thoughts, for Gloucestershire were threatening to win by a landslide such was the scale of the destruction of Somerset’s top and middle order either side of lunch.

Somerset’s problems started with the second ball of the second over of their second innings. As he had in the first innings of this match and in the second innings at Lord’s, Tom Lammonby shaped to defend, this time to Higgins, and edged the ball, this time to the keeper. It was his third successive failure to score and that, for the fourth time in four, for Lammonby had only made five in his other innings at Lord’s, brought Tom Abell to the wicket before his time. He did not long survive, falling lbw for six trying to turn Higgins square for runs. Somerset were 18 for 2, with the not unfamiliar picture of early Somerset wickets taking shape, and James Hildreth, short of runs himself this season, was on his way to the wicket.

Banton, continuing his run of truncated starts, first turned Payne behind square to the Somerset Stand for four. But he was soon walking back to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion, where the Somerset players are housed as part of the coronavirus precautions, having edged a straight ball to Dent at third slip. Banton had made 18 and Somerset were 36 for 3. Within an over Bartlett, who played a key innings at Lord’s, had joined him. He was out without scoring and in almost identical fashion, although caught behind the wicket by James Bracey, rather than in the slips. Somerset were 37 for 4, and lunched precariously on 47 for four, just 50 ahead. It was, for the Somerset heart, a depressing lunch in cricketing terms as two days of hard-fought equality unravelled in front of their screen-watching eyes.

The County Championship is the most demanding of cricketing examiners, and Somerset were at imminent risk of failing to answer the questions set by the Gloucestershire bowlers at the most crucial point of the match. And yet, hope tried to hold its ground alongside the depression, for Somerset are not strangers to recovering from positions of jeopardy, the match at Lord’s being only the most recent, if extreme, case.

After lunch, Hildreth and Davies began to fuel the hope, although the Gloucestershire bowlers continued to ask a series of searching questions. Hildreth began by driving Payne through the covers for four, and in his next over steered him neatly through backward point to the covers store for four more. Then Davies, with one of those silken drives which are a hallmark of his, reached the boundary where the large box scoreboard stood until a few seasons ago, next to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. It took Somerset to 62 for 4 and the prospect of some sort of base for a recovery.

Hope in its early stages is a fragile entity, and it did not long survive as Davies edged Payne defensively to Hankins at second slip and Overton was forced to dig out Payne’s next ball which arrived in the form of a piercing yorker. He had no answer though to the ball from Higgins which cut in sharply from outside the off stump and clipped the top of it on its way through. Gregory, whose second innings had been so crucial to the victory at Lord’s, came in and drove Payne through extra cover to the scoreboard that has replaced the old box scoreboard. It stands next to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion roughly on the site of the even older scoreboard which for many years preceded the box scoreboard and the Pavilion. But when he tried, two balls after a sanitiser break, to turn Taylor into the on side the ball looped to Higgins at midwicket and Somerset, hope now all but in ruins, were 88 for 7, just 91 ahead.

Hildreth, in whom any slight vestiges of hope resided, had meanwhile quietly accumulated 32 runs at one end, including three deftly steered or glanced boundaries, as wicket followed wicket at the other. Now he drove Goodman through extra cover to Legends Square with an almost dismissive smoothness which belied the mayhem that was enveloping Somerset. It was an innings which suggested the old Hildreth capacity to play on a different plane to those playing around him, but with Somerset at 92 for 7 renovation of the innings looked beyond even Hildreth’s capacity to effect.

Then, with Somerset looking over the precipice, the match was paused for an hour and twenty minutes while the nation paid its respects to the Duke of Edinburgh whose coronavirus-limited, socially distanced funeral was taking place in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The players and officials paid their own respects with a minute’s silence at three o’clock.

On the resumption, Davey, who had joined Hildreth just before the suspension in play, now began to play with his trademark air of calm, and in stark contrast to all, Hildreth apart, that had gone before. As the early season shadows of the players lengthened across the grass, runs came but slowly as the pair fought to establish a partnership. Solid defence from both ends, and the occasional easily run single as Gloucestershire set the field deep for Hildreth, leant an air of calm to proceedings. Only occasionally did a boundary puncture the scene. Hildreth, smoothly stroking the ball as ever, steered Higgins through backward point and drove him square on the off side, both to the Somerset Stand. Davey pushed wide of the slips and lofted van Buuren between the line of the stumps and mid-on to the River End. Hildreth eventually went to 50 when he rose to his toes and turned Payne behind square for a single. Otherwise the slow ballet of determined defence and occasional singles played into the deep continued.

A glance through my notes quantified the rate of scoring by revealing that the 33 runs the pair had added had taken 16 overs to a deep set field. Setting the field deep to a recognised batsman batting with the lower order can be a depressing tactic to the spectator, and I am not convinced of its effectiveness, for too often I have seen large partnerships develop as wicket-taking opportunities are reduced. Here, as the partnership continued, a reverse sweep from Davey over the heads of the slips and a cover drive from Hildreth which brought up the fifty partnership both evaded the field to reach the boundary. When Hildreth was leg before wicket trying to late cut Goodman the partnership had taken 25 overs over its 54 runs. 142 for 8 was a recovery of sorts from 88 for 7, but it seemed unlikely it would have a major impact on the outcome of the match. As to the reasons for Somerset losing seven wickets for 88 runs, the excellence of the Gloucestershire bowling apart, someone who played a lot of club cricket in his time launched a text to point out that five of Somerset’s batsman had been out whilst rooted to the crease, the implication being that more foot movement might have helped.

Within seven runs of the departure of Hildreth, de Lange, eschewing the long handle had been leg before wicket to van Buuren trying to defend whilst right back on his stumps, and Davey’s long vigil ended on 22 when he edged Higgins to Brathwaite at slip. 149, and a lead of 152, the limit of Somerset’s endeavours, and the match was there for Gloucestershire to take. In the ten overs remaining before the close they had already banked 28 of those runs at the cost of Dent’s wicket, he having played on to a sharp ball from a pumped-up Overton. Gloucestershire should win this match around lunchtime on the final day, for taking Gloucestershire’s remaining nine wickets before they gather the 125 runs still needed seems beyond even Somerset’s remarkable powers of recovery. The only counter to that thought is that in the examination of skill and character that is cricket nothing is certain.

Close. Somerset 312 and 149 (J.C. Hildreth 64, R.F. Higgins 4-29). Gloucestershire 309 (J.R. Bracey 118, M.D. Taylor 56, C.D.J. Dent 50, M. de Lange 4-63, C. Overton 3-63) and 28 for 1. Gloucestershire need 125 more runs to win with nine wickets standing.