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 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 beyond the River and Lord Ian Botham Stands, had promised to bring hope of more. In the event it was Middlesex who prospered with the bat the day long, albeit with some assistance from some Somerset bowling which 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 for Marchant de Lange’s pace they needed their three front line pace bowlers to make early incursions into the Middlesex batting. 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. The 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, usually almost unheard-of, 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 the 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 to an extent come with the rations on mornings providing some help to bowlers. As Middlesex moved past 50, and Gubbins steered Gregory to the Somerset Stand near the Garner Gates for four, Abell turned to himself as fourth seamer. As lunch approached Overton was back and that top edge from Holden brushed Davies’ gloves as Somerset faces, and I suspect, Middlesex ones, winced. In Overton’s next over he twice bounced Holden and Holden twice pulled him neatly to the Somerset Stand as the morning seemed conclusively to have gone to Middlesex.

In Overton’s next, Holden added to the pressure on Somerset as he drove for four through the off side. Middlesex were 82 for 1 with one ball to be bowled as one o’ clock approached. Holden held Overton up while he inspected the pitch and while he did so the hour chimed. For the one ball still to be bowled, Overton produced an absolute snorter. It pitched full, moved away off the seam, defeated Holden’s defensive pus and Davies took one of the more straightforward of catches behind the stumps. Somerset’s fingertips gripped the match a little more tightly, Somerset supporters breathed a little more easily and Middlesex ones must have winced again.

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 Stand boundary, brought four more. When Leach replaced Abell, Handscomb cut him through backward point to the Ondaatje Stand. In Leach’s next over Handscomb, who looked intent on building the foundations for a long stay, drove him through midwicket to the Somerset Stand.

When Handscomb pushed Leach straight of mid on for a single, Roelof van der Merwe, fielding at mid on as substitute for Davey, set off like a greyhound out of the traps, intercepted the ball with his left hand and flicked 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. 129 for 3 gave Somerset an opening that had looked to be closing when Gubbins and Handscomb were making progress. It was not exactly edge of seat time, but it was time to lean a little closer to the screen.

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. The absence of a fourth front-line seamer immediately made itself felt. Whilst Overton kept the batsmen in check from the Trescothick Pavilion End, Lammonby suffered at the River End. In his second over, 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 cost seven runs with Gubbins steering him neatly past the two slips to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary and Middlesex passed 150 in the 49th over. Three runs an over is not normally a rate of scoring in this day and age fast enough to cause comment, and Overton, Davey and Abell gave nothing away, but on a helpful pitch at 150 for 3 the Somerset heart knew Middlesex had established a clear advantage.

There seemed no respite for Somerset as Gregory immediately came under pressure when he replaced Overton. Twice in an over Gubbins clipped him of his legs square to the Somerset Stand for four. In his next over Gubbins cut him square to the Caddick Pavilion. But off the last ball he attempted to steer Gregory past third slip for four and edged him to Overton at second. In a day of Somerset slip fielding nightmares, Overton began to give Somerset supporters another as he parried the ball upwards but saved them further pain when he caught it on the way down. Gubbins had made 75 in three hours and Middlesex were 170 for 4. After the departure of Handscomb, and doggedly supported by White, Gubbins had begun to take the game away from Somerset. Middlesex still had the ascendancy, but once again Somerset had forced a toehold.

From there, as the afternoon wore on, that toehold was loosened as White and Simpson began to build another partnership. Abell had some success in holding the batsmen in check, but no wicket came his way. Gregory had already taken two wickets but was unable to greatly stem the flow of runs, and Lammonby was exposed in the absence of Davey. Ten came from his last over before tea with Simpson clipping him off his legs and steering him past slip for two fours and pushing him into the onside for two. At tea Middlesex were 208 for 4. Given that the bowlers were still finding some movement there was little doubt in the Somerset mind that they were on the threshold of building a daunting, if not commanding total.  

After tea, Simpson immediately gave notice of Middlesex’s 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 point where a third slip’s hands might have been waiting had there still been a third slip. It did not exactly sum up Somerset’s day, for Middlesex had held their own against the tighter bowling and made good headway against the rest, but it did recall in the Somerset mind the missed catches that had helped Middlesex along.

Overton and Abell came 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 would normally make appear the easiest thing in the world. “What is wrong with our slips today” asked the bemused text. Then Lammonby, having been driven through the covers to the Somerset Stand for four by Simpson, moved a ball away off the seam. Simpson edged to a demonstrably relieved Hildreth, now Lammonby’s only slip, who made no mistake this time. Simpson 33. Middlesex were 239 for 5 with White on 45, accumulated while Gubbins and Simpson had kept Middlesex moving forward at the other end.

Now 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. 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, Davey being unable to bowl after a lengthy absence from the field for an x-ray. Andersson began by steering Lammonby past the two slips to the covers store for four and then drove him through the covers for four more. Abell was driven through the covers and then in his next over, driven again through the covers and steered, if a little perilously, past second slip, all for four. When the new ball arrived, it was with relief rather than anticipation for Somerset supporters, for Middlesex had reached 280 for 5 and, if the pitch continued to offer help to the bowlers, Somerset’s grip on the game was becoming tenuous indeed.  

And indeed, Overton did bring relief, bowling five determined overs for four runs and the wicket of Andersson who was lbw 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 5. 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 continue to exert control in the morning, use it to take wickets and then bat long and hard in conditions which may be far from conducive to their needs.

Close. Middlesex 308 for 6.