Oh, W.G. – Somerset v Middlesex – County Championship 2021 – Taunton – Day 1

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 Middlesex. 29th and 30th April, and 1st and 2nd May 2021. Taunton.

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

Middlesex. M.D.E. Holden, S.D. Robson, N.R.T. Gubbins, P.S.P. Handscomb (c), R.G. White, J.A. Simpson (w), M.K. Andersson, L.B.K. Hollman, T.J. Murtagh. S.T. Finn, T.G. Helm.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bowl.

First day 29th April – Oh, W.G.

Oh, W.G., does’t thee turn, head slowly shaking, in thy grave? It was a day when the sun shone bright, Somerset played two spinners and the wicket had a tinge of green as far as the eagle-eyed camera could discern. Before a ball was bowled my heart sank as the wonders of modern technology brought news from the ground that Somerset had won the toss and asked Middlesex to bat. Where the toss is concerned, I am a W.G. man, even when there is a tinge of green, and nothing happened on the first day to dissuade me of that view. More than six decades of watching Somerset play cricket has left me, based on my anecdotal memory it is true, convinced that the percentages weigh heavily in favour of batting on winning the toss, almost whatever the conditions. Forty minutes after lunch, Middlesex were 121 for 2, the ball was losing some of its early vim, Jack Leach had just replaced Tom Abell at the River End, Peter Handscomb had steered him neatly past James Hildreth at slip for four and another insertion anecdote was being lowered into the well of disappointed hopes.

After the victory at Leicestershire, where most of the Somerset batsmen found some runs, and before the toss, a bright sunny morning over the Blackdowns beyond my laptop screen and over the Quantocks on it, had brought hope of more. In the event it was Middlesex who prospered with the bat the day long, albeit with periodic assistance from the Somerset bowling, which at times did not reach its normal heights, and some strangely slippery-fingered attempts at catching.

With Somerset having brought in Lewis Goldsworthy’s slow left arm and batting for Marchant de Lange’s pace they needed their three front line pace bowlers to make early incursions. Overton soon found the edge of Robson’s bat, but the ball flew wide of fourth slip and ran down to the covers store for four. Robson was less fortunate against Gregory when he edged behind and Davies took an excellent full-length diving catch almost in front of Hildreth at first slip. In the next over it was the left-handed Holden who edged Overton wide of fourth slip, this time with the ball running down to the benchless Gimblett’s Hill, the regular haunt of groups of familiar faces in other times. That boundary took Middlesex to 27 for 1, neither one thing nor the other in terms of which way the match might sway, but it was perhaps the apogee of Somerset’s day.

From there, as the morning unfolded, the Somerset bowling seemed oddly lacking in its usual fizz and verve. There was movement, particularly off the seam, the edge of the bat was not infrequently beaten, and thick edges brought a steady trickle of runs past the slips. Unlucky for the bowlers perhaps, but in truth the usual sharpness and energy which exemplifies Somerset’s bowling and fielding, and which pressurises batsmen into error, seemed lacking. Errors of a different type, almost unheard-of in recent Somerset seasons, crept in. The left-handed Holden was a repeated beneficiary. He was caught when the ball flew straight to third slip, but Gregory had bowled his third no ball of the fledgling morning. Then, again off Gregory, Overton sank to his knees in disappointment at second slip as the ball no-one would have expected him to miss ran down to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary for four. When Holden attempted to hook Overton, the edge brushed enough of Davies’ glove as it reached skyward for only one run to result. Whether, on another day, Davies might have reached that extra inch or so is beyond knowing, but it jarred the Somerset mind, for it fitted a pattern of a dispiriting morning for the Somerset screen-watching supporter.

At the other end, Nick Gubbins was adding to the feeling by making more assured progress for Middlesex. An early off drive for three off Overton and a cut backward of square for two off Gregory set the tone for an innings which gave Middlesex a growing advantage. There were thick edges and playing and missing too, and a big appeal for caught behind off Davey, but such things come with the rations on mornings providing help to bowlers. As Middlesex moved past 50, and Gubbins steered Gregory to the Garner Gates end of the Somerset Stand for four, Abell turned to himself as fourth seamer. With lunch approaching, Overton returned only for that top edge from Holden to brush Davies’ gloves as Somerset faces winced. Then, twice in an over, Overton foresook his full length and bounced Holden. Holden pulled both neatly to the Somerset Stand boundary, and the morning seemed conclusively Middlesex’s.

With one o’clock a few ticks of the clock away, and Middlesex on 82 for 1, Overton prepared to bowl the final ball of an over. Holden, as batsmen do in those circumstances, held Overton up while he inspected the pitch. As he did so, the hour chimed, but Overton’s final ball still had to be bowled. He produced an absolute snorter. It was quick, pitched full, moved away off the seam, defeated Holden’s defensive push and Davies took one of the more straightforward of catches behind the stumps. As Davies’ gloves closed around the ball, Somerset’s fingertips gripped a little more firmly onto the match.

Middlesex returned from lunch with Peter Handscomb, their Australian captain, in place of Holden. He immediately played with assurance, cutting Davey square to the Somerset Stand. Gubbins meanwhile restarted with a neatly executed cut off Abell through backward point to Legends Square. A cut off Davey, square to the Caddick Pavilion boundary, brought four more. When Leach replaced Abell, Handscomb cut him through backward point to the Ondaatje Stand and drove him through midwicket to the Somerset Stand. It had been a confident resumption from Middlesex, and an anxious one for the watching Somerset supporter, for there was every hint in the untroubled way in which the batsmen were playing of more to come.

It is at such times that Roelof van der Merwe comes into his own, for he brings with him a capacity for serendipitous cricketing magic. When Handscomb pushed Leach straight of mid-on for an unremarkable, if quick, single, van der Merwe happened to be fielding at mid-on as substitute for Davey. He set off like a greyhound catapulted from the traps, intercepted the ball with his left hand, and in the same movement, flicked rather than threw it into the stumps with Handscomb just short of his ground. The relief of the Somerset fielders was palpable as they rushed to celebrate almost as fast as van der Merwe had leapt after that ball while eyes and mouths in front of screens must have been wide open in disbelief. 129 for 3 again just kept Somerset in touch. It was not exactly edge of seat time, but it was time to lean a little closer to the screen.

Until the absence of a fourth front-line seamer made itself felt. With Leach making no impact on the early season pitch and Davey off the field, Somerset turned to Tom Lammonby’s left arm medium pace. Whilst Overton kept the batsmen in check from the Trescothick Pavilion End, Lammonby suffered at the River End. In his second over, the left-handed Gubbins, who had just moved past 50, pulled him to the Caddick Pavilion dugouts and cut him square to the Somerset Stand, both for four. His next over, the 49th, cost seven runs with Gubbins steering him neatly past the two slips to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary as Middlesex passed 150. Three runs an over is not normally a rate of scoring to cause comment in this day and age, and Overton, Davey and Abell gave nothing away, but on a helpful pitch, at 150 for 3, Middlesex had established a clear advantage.

When Gregory replaced Overton at the River End he immediately came under pressure. Twice Gubbins clipped him off his legs square to the Somerset Stand boundary and once cut him square to the Caddick Pavilion. But when he attempted to steer Gregory past third slip for four he edged him to Overton at second. In a day of Somerset slip fielding nightmares, Overton threatened to give Somerset supporters another as he parried the ball upwards but saved them further pain when he caught it on its way down. Gubbins had made 75 in three hours, Middlesex were 170 for 4 and Somerset were back in touch.

From there, as the afternoon wore on, their grip was loosened again as White and John Simpson began to build a partnership. Abell had some success in holding the runs in check, but no wicket came. Gregory was unable to stem the flow of runs, and Lammonby’s bowling was exposed in the continued absence of Davey. Ten runs came from his last over before tea, with Simpson clipping him off his legs and steering him past slip, both to the boundary, and pushing him into the onside for two. As the batsmen walked off for tea with the score on 208 for 4 a commanding April score was in prospect.

After tea, Simpson gave notice of Middlesex’s continued intent when he drove Leach over long on to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion for six. Off the first ball of the next over White cut Overton square to the Somerset Stand for four. The second ball, he edged for four through the space where a third slip’s hands might have been waiting had there been a third slip. But more defensive fields had come as the Middlesex total rose and the rate of scoring increased through the afternoon. Through the day the batsmen had held their own against the tighter bowling and made good headway against the rest, but the absence of those hands was a painful reminder of the missed catches that had helped Middlesex along.

Overton and Abell bowled together and briefly stemmed the flow of runs, Overton forcing an edge from Simpson, only for Hildreth to drop the sort of catch at slip that he normally catches all season long. “What is wrong with our slips today?” asked the bemused text. As if in response, Lammonby, having been driven through the covers to the Somerset Stand for four by Simpson, moved a ball away off the seam. Simpson edged again to Hildreth, now Lammonby’s only slip. Hildreth took the catch as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do. Simpson 33. Middlesex were 239 for 5 with White on 45 quietly accumulated while Gubbins and Simpson were pushing Middlesex forward at the other end.

Now Martin Andersson took up where Gubbins and Simpson had left off. He scored 38 in three quarters of an hour at more than a run a ball in a partnership of 55 with the ever-present White. With Davey back on the field but unable to bowl after a lengthy absence for an X-ray, Lammonby and Abell were punished to the extent of 41 runs in the seven overs from the fall of Simpson to the taking of the second new ball. Andersson began by steering Lammonby past the two slips now in place to the covers store for four and then drove him through the covers for four more. Abell was twice driven through the covers and steered a ball, if a little perilously, past second slip, all for four. When the new ball arrived, it must have been with relief rather than anticipation for the screen-watching Somerset crowd, for Middlesex had reached 280 for 5, and if the pitch continued to offer help to the bowlers, Somerset’s grip on the game would become tenuous indeed.  

And indeed, Overton did bring relief, bowling five determined overs for four runs and the wicket of Andersson who was leg before wicket to a perfectly directed quick ball which Overton persuaded to cut in off the pitch. It was though both a relief and a warning to the watching Somerset support, and perhaps brought both disappointment and hope to Middlesex ones. Middlesex were 294 for 6. From there they, managed to squeeze a further 14 runs from the final 11 overs, White ending the day on 70, as the returning Davey and Abell maintained order in the closing overs for Somerset. If Somerset are to retain an interest in this match and look W.G. in the eye, they will need to exert some control in the morning, use it to take wickets and then bat long and hard in conditions which, Overton’s dismissal of Andersson suggested, may be far from conducive to their needs.

Close. Middlesex 308 for 6.