A Mountain to Climb – Somerset v Middlesex – County Championship 2021 – Taunton – Day 2

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.

Middlesex. M.D.E. Holden, S.D. Robson, N.R.T. Gubbins, P.S.P. Handscomb (c), R.G. White, M.K. Andersson, J.A. Simpson (w), L.B.K. Hollman, 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), L.P Goldsworthy, C. Overton, L. Gregory, J.H. Davey, M.J. Leach.

Overnight. Middlesex 308 for 6.

Second day 30th April – A mountain to climb

Somerset began with Gregory from the River End and Overton from the Trescothick Pavilion End. For Middlesex Luke Hollman began by steering Overton past third slip and by cutting Gregory through backward point to the Somerset Stand, both for four. Another no ball from Gregory and a bouncer from Overton which cleared Davies’ upstretched arms added to the Middlesex score. Then, as the bowlers settled, they began to assert some control and seven overs passed for 11 runs.

Eventually Overton’s persistence found a way through. Hollman came forward in defence to a ball angled in from around the wicket. Delivered by Overton’s perfectly perpendicular arm the ball beat Hollman for pace. In what is perhaps the most spectacular sight in cricket the off stump cartwheeled, only coming to rest several yards beyond its mooring point. It was the sort of delivery and result which brings gasps of wonder and cheers of delight from supporters around a ground, and would have done so on this occasion from supporters in front of screens across Somerset and beyond. Feelings of relief too, for the Middlesex score, if slowly, was beginning to reach heights which would have given even the most worrisome Middlesex supporter cause for comfort.

There was some relief from a Somerset perspective when Davey, who had needed an x-ray on the first day, replaced Overton and seemed to be his normal self. Abell replaced Gregory and, with the lights on, forced a thick edge from White before being driven through extra cover to the boundary in front of where the old scoreboard stood. Whether that was a further sign that Somerset had come into the match a front-line pace bowler light remained unresolved as the forbidding dark clouds which had been hanging over the Quantocks for several overs began to drop their contents on the ground. With Middlesex on 338 for 7 the rain forced players and umpires from the field and the full covers came on.

With an early lunch taken, more possible rain in the forecast and an already imposing total, Middlesex began the second session in a hurry. Somerset opened with Abell. White left no doubt about Middlesex’s intentions when he cut and drove through the off side to the boundary and retained the strike with three runs. That took Middlesex to within one run of a fourth bonus point. What followed can only be described as an incredible end to the innings as the irresistible force of the Middlesex advance met the immovable object of Davey’s calm precision.

White pushed at the first ball of Davey’s over and edged it to Hildreth at first slip. After the nightmares in the slips of the first day, Hildreth brought normality to the second. The ball flew straight into his waiting hands and there it stayed. White was out for 92. It was scored over nearly four and a half hours as he provided the backbone to much of the Middlesex innings. Finn presented himself to face the second and third balls of the over. They were carbon copies of each other. Finn looked decidedly out of batting sorts as his bat came down in defence, but some way from the vicinity of the ball which on both occasions was essentially straight. Both balls hit the pads and on the second occasion the umpire felt impelled to raise the finger.

The last man, Murtagh essayed something akin to a drive at his first ball and edged it over and wide of the slips to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary. Whatever the provenance of the stroke it served Middlesex’s purpose, for it took them to 351 for 9 and a fourth batting bonus point. To his second ball Murtagh stepped back towards fine leg, attempted to pull the ball, which was pitched on off, to somewhere on the leg side. It flew high over the slips heads to the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary. Encouraged, he essayed the same stroke to the final ball of Davey’s over. This time the ball flew wide of the slips but found George Bartlett patrolling the boundary in front of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion where he plucked it out of the air to end the Middlesex innings.

Such overs were common in years gone by in the days of ‘nine, ten, jack’. They are much more rare in these days when the ‘tail’ has metamorphosed into the lower order and most bowlers can hold a bat. They do though, occasionally put in an appearance in four-day cricket when, more rarely than in the days of three-day cricket, some quick lower order runs are needed to move the match on. What is certain is that such an over would have had a crowd alternating between the sort of cheers and tear-filled hysterics which used to enliven the old days. Where four days are available the cricket is enlivened by the often continuous tension which results from the unfolding balance of a match with time to play itself out as the teams strain to gain the upper hand.

With 357 on the board in this match and a pitch still providing bounce and some movement the upper hand was with Middlesex and the strain with Somerset. With two young, inexperienced openers in Banton and Lammonby whose highest partnership in six innings this season is 25, with the next best being only 10, the strain must have been immense, particularly as the skies under which the innings started would have done service in any biblical epic you care to name.

“Watchful” used to be the word to describe an opening pair treating the bowling with studied suspicion. Murtagh and Helm opened the bowling for Middlesex, and Banton and Lammonby treated each ball like a suspicious package, not attempting to touch it unless they had to. It was ten overs before a positively struck boundary reached the ropes. Lammonby had earlier mustered a thick edge through backward point off Murtagh to where the old scoreboard once stood, yet when he clipped Helm neatly off his legs to the Somerset Stand in the tenth over the score had reached just 14. Until then, he and Banton had left most balls. To the untrained eye they did not look confident, more as if they were feeling their way and being careful not to trip in the process.

In the twelfth over Finn pitched a teasing ball on off stump, Lammonby had to play, misjudged and edged the ball to Simpson who caught it falling easily to his left. It was reminiscent of most of Lammonby’s dismissals this season and Somerset were 16 for 1. 16 for 2 when, from the first ball of the next over, Banton was lbw to the ever-threatening Murtagh, struck on the back leg trying to drive. Lammonby had made 13 and Banton 3 in three quarters of an hour at the wicket. Somerset, still 341 behind and yet to register an opening partnership of substance this season, were facing a mountain to dwarf even the voluminous dark clouds which had hovered over the Quantocks as the innings began.

Now Abell and Hildreth, the experienced heart of Somerset’s top order, stared the threat of collapse, and perhaps beyond, the prospect of defeat in the face. Here they worked as a true partnership, finding the boundary where they could and rotating the strike where they could not. An over from Finn, as they worked to establish the partnership illustrates the point. Hildreth drove the first ball through the covers towards the distant Somerset Stand boundary. It was hauled in, but the batsmen had crossed for three. Finn hit back with a big lbw shout against Abell before Abell played him into the off side for a hard-run two. A clip to leg brought a single before Hildreth retained the strike with another single off the last ball. It was enterprising but controlled batting which realised seven runs in an over which had commenced with the score at 25 for 2.

From there Abell and Hildreth maintained their momentum. The next over from Murtagh produced six runs including a straight drive from Hildreth which skimmed the grass beneath Murtagh’s foot and ran down to the Lord Ian Botham stand boundary. In the next over Abell cut Finn spectacularly and square to the Somerset Stand for four more. Such batting does not come without risk. In an over from Helm Abell was dropped twice, first at third slip and then at first, the ball running down to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary for four. There were, of course, quieter overs in this phase, particularly from the unlucky Helm. Andersson was tried but his two-over spell was brought to a premature end when Hildreth, playing like the Hildreth of old, drove square to the Somerset Stand, pulled through midwicket to the Ondaatje Stand and cut through backward point to the Garner Gates boundary. Batting of that ilk lifts the spirit of the watching supporter even if, when tea was taken, Somerset were still 271 runs beneath the Middlesex mountain.

Hildreth is not the best at surviving the over immediately before or after an interval. Here he edged the first ball after tea, from Murtagh, straight through to Simpson who barely had to move, and Somerset were 86 for 3. Hildreth made 39 runs from 44 balls in an hour at the crease. Abell, having begun with renewed intent with an on drive to the covers store off Finn and a pull behind square to the Somerset Stand off Murtagh, clipped Finn confidently but did not quite keep the ball down. Andersson at midwicket leapt full-length down the line of the ball and took the catch just above the ground. Abell had made 41 and Somerset were 98 for 4. He and Hildreth had got Somerset moving and into the foothills of the Middlesex mountain, but just as Somerset hopes were beginning to rise, and perhaps Middlesex ones beginning to feel the first wobble, they had faltered, and the Somerset heart sank just as the Middlesex one picked up its beat again. Such is that emotional seesaw on which opposing supporters sit.

When the 20-year-old Lewis Goldsworthy, the only Somerset player born strictly in this millennium, and on his first-class debut for Somerset, joined 23-year-old George Bartlett, who had looked the epitome of discomfort since his arrival at the wicket after the fall of Hildreth, there were still 259 runs between Somerset and the top of that mountain. Before the over in which Abell’s wicket had fallen was out Goldsworthy had pulled Finn with confidence square towards the Caddick Pavilion and run two. His first-class batting career was underway.

Bartlett meanwhile was encountering troublesome rocks, mainly of the making of the persevering Middlesex bowlers, as he tried to take Somerset higher. Twice in two overs he drove at Finn. Once the ball cleared the slips and once flew wide of them. The result was eight runs. Who would be a bowler? A cover drive for three to the long boundary in front of the Somerset Stand looked more like it might have come from the coaching manual. Then, against Andersson, he was dropped at slip and, in the same over, clipped the ball off his legs to the Caddick Pavilion boundary. It seemed only a matter of time before Bartlett’s apparently charmed innings met its end. As it was, those frequently passing biblical clouds intervened and the players left the field for rain.

When the players returned with 14 overs still to play, Bartlett’s innings took on a different hue. He began with a genuine steer past the slips off Helm to the Ondaatje Stand for four which took him into the twenties. Being a Somerset supporter has never been a rest cure and, thus far in Bartlett’s innings, neither could it have been for Middlesex supporters hoping with each edge or miss for a decisive blow.

The earlier piebald nature of Bartlett’s innings was matched by the latest edition of the sky. Biblical cloud again over the Quantocks, summer blue over the ground. Beneath it all and alongside Bartlett, Goldsworthy had been working quietly away to establish his innings on this stage and now began to make it count. His first boundary came with a square drive off Helm to the Caddick Pavilion. His second in Helm’s next over with a straight drive which flashed past the bowler’s stumps on its way to the Lord Ian Botham Stand.

Now, Bartlett began to find his mark. Helm was cut through backward point to the Ondaatje boundary for four. It was an almost whimsical stroke for which the term nonchalant might have been devised. In the next over he drove Andersson through the covers to the Somerset Stand and then, nonchalantly the word again, glanced him to the boundary where the old scoreboard used to stand. The first of those boundaries took Bartlett’s stand with Goldsworthy past 50, of which Goldsworthy had just 16, and Somerset past 150. Somerset were leaving the foothills behind now, but still 202 runs of Middlesex’s mountain stretched above them. Raising Somerset spirits though Bartlett and Goldsworthy were, the Middlesex heart must still have felt the more secure.

With play moving into the final overs, instead of playing for the morning as used to be the way, Goldsworthy decided to launch his own assault on the Middlesex mountain. He drove Murtagh, still running in, through the covers to the old scoreboard stand boundary and finished the over by retaining the strike with a three. He retained it again with another three off Finn in the next over. In the penultimate over of the day, again against Finn, he steered the ball through third man to the Lord Ian Botham Stand and ended with an off drive to Gimblett’s Hill. It was a stroke which the connoisseur would have wanted bottled. It would too have had both the usual occupants of the benches that normally occupy the Hill and the ghosts that inhabit the area of the old Stragglers bar beaming with delight. It also brought the Somerset score to within one run of passing halfway in the climb up Middlesex’s mountain.

The final over, from Murtagh who had pressurised the Somerset batsmen all day, was a tense affair as the importance of a wicket falling, or not, must have gripped the watching supporters of both sides. In his previous over Murtagh had caused Bartlett to topple forward when trying to clip a ball off his toes. Simpson, standing up, had with lightning speed whipped off the bails but Bartlett’s foot was anchored. In the final over Bartlett faced all six balls, not a run came and two lbw appeals were turned down. The tension which that end-of-the-day cameo brought was perhaps a harbinger of what might follow on the morrow should Bartlett and Goldsworthy get a start and begin to climb further up the mountain.

Close. Middlesex 357 (R.G. White 92, N.R.T. Gubbins 75, M.D.E. Holden 49, J.H. Davey 3-33, C. Overton 3-60). Somerset 178 for 4. Somerset trail by 179 runs with six first innings wickets standing.