Puck Changes the Mood – Somerset v Middlesex – County Championship 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 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.A.Brooks*, J.H. Davey, M.J. Leach.

*J.A. Brooks was substituted for L. Gregory under the ECB COVID-19 Protocol from the third day.

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.

Overnight. Middlesex 357. Somerset 178 for 4. Somerset trail by 179 runs.

Third day 1st May – Puck changes the mood

This match is quite a tussle. Middlesex established a first innings lead of 89 having worked their way through Somerset’s last six wickets on the third morning for 90 runs. It might have been a decisive moment in the match had it not been for Somerset’s Overton and Davey who on the third afternoon led the way in reducing Middlesex’s second innings to 117 all out. It left Somerset with 207 to win, a greater task than it sounds on a pitch still offering pace and bounce and some movement. When Somerset fell to 17 for 2, with both openers gone, 207 seemed a universe away.

Then, Abell and Hildreth responded to adversity with a coruscating, Somerset to the core, five-runs-an-over partnership that began to melt the target like the rising sun melts snow in April. At 95 for 2, with four overs of the day left, Somerset needed another 112 runs to win. Somerset supporters would have had fingers crossed, at least metaphorically, wherever they were watching the live stream or following the score. If any blinked they would have opened their eyes to the close of play news that Middlesex had taken two late wickets and the match was balanced, at least mathematically, on the edge of a knife sharp enough to have cut the Gordian knot. Somerset were 104 for 4 and needed another 103 runs to win. Ahead of the morrow, Middlesex supporters will fear a substantial partnership or two, Somerset ones the opening final morning bursts of Murtagh and Helm. Either eventuality could effectively finish this game. If they do not, it could slide all the way along that knife edge to the end. Sleeping on the discomfort of such impossible riddles is the birthright of the lifelong Somerset supporter and not one would give it up.

On the third morning Bartlett and Goldsworthy, Somerset’s two young lions of the night before, began against the sharp edge of the Middlesex attack in the form of Murtagh and Helm, and beneath clouds above the Quantocks suited to the role of backdrop to an outdoor production of King Lear. Bartlett was soon underway with a glance, for which deft is too strong an adjective, off Murtagh to Gimblett’s Hill. But from there the Somerset innings never really developed any shape or built the momentum it would have needed if the heights of Middlesex’s first innings 357 were to be approached.

First Goldsworthy, after his impressive debut on the previous evening, played defensively to a ball from Helm and edged it to Simpson. Goldsworthy had made 39, Somerset were 188 for 5, still 169 behind. Then Bartlett, after that propitious start and going on to his fifty by turning Murtagh square for three, began to look vulnerable. He edged Helm straight into Robson’s hands at second slip, from where the ball fell to earth. A thick edge followed as did a cut of some pedigree to the boundary in front of the Garner Gates. But, as Bartlett tried to take the game to Middlesex, the consistently impressive Helm beat his drive, took the edge of the bat and Simpson took the catch. Somerset were 195 for 6, Bartlett 55, and Middlesex’s 357 seemed as far away as it had been when Bartlett and Goldsworthy had come together at 98 for 4.

The loss of Goldsworthy and Bartlett brought Davies and Overton together, two batsmen not unfamiliar with the task of rebuilding faltering Somerset innings. Davies, who so often forms the backbone of the Somerset middle order with innings of silken grandeur, seemed to scrabble around in this innings as if he were looking for his lost touch and never looked like he would find it. His two runs were ground out over forty minutes and when he drove at a ball from Finn the resulting edge was caught at backward point by Holden. Somerset were 218 for 7, still 139 runs behind the Middlesex total they had begun to threaten at the end of the previous evening.

Overton meanwhile had attacked from the outset. Helm was turned behind square for four to where the old scoreboard once stood. In the next over, the Ondaatje Stand boundary received attention as he twice cut Andersson backward of point and once drove through backward point off a thick edge, but still the Somerset innings would not take wing, or Middlesex would not let it. Davey, batting one place higher than expected after Lewis Gregory had been withdrawn from the match under the ECB COVID-19 Protocol because a member of his private bubble was feeling unwell and was awaiting the outcome of a COVID test, began as positively as Overton had. He ran three when a top edged pull almost reached the Somerset Stand boundary and turned Finn behind square for four. Then before he could make any real impact, he was out clipping Finn to long leg where Helm took an excellent catch diving full length to take the ball. That left Somerset faltering again at 228 for 8, still 129 behind.

When Leach joined Overton they worked to at least pick up the Somerset innings and get it close enough to the Middlesex total to give their bowlers a chance of keeping the Middlesex lead within range. For ten overs they battled and added 39 diligently accumulated runs. On top of the accumulation, Leach found the boundary three times, once with an on drive to the Lord Ian Botham Stand off the leg breaks of Holman, once when he steered Finn to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary and then when he brought up Somerset’s second batting bonus point with an upper cut to the same place. Overton completed his boundary tally when he pulled Hollman to the Legends Square boundary. It could not last of course as the Middlesex bowlers kept to their task. Eventually, Leach popped Finn to Holden at short leg and Finn celebrated a five-wicket haul. Brooks, replacing Gregory, soon followed when he edged Murtagh to Simpson and Middlesex carried a potentially decisive lead of 89 into their second innings.

At 44 for 0 the lead had reached 133. With their batsmen having suffered no great alarums, Middlesex were in complete control of the match. Brooks had offered little threat and Overton had made no headway. The only issues which might have exercised a Middlesex supporter were whether the rain that had caused an early lunch would interfere again in the match, and the timing of a declaration. Then a bowling change and one of those interventions worthy of a Greek god of old reversed the direction of the innings. Davey replaced Brooks. Off his second ball, Robson cut uppishly, but rocket-like. At point Banton took off skyward equally sharply and miraculously plucked the screaming ball out of the air, and, or so it seemed from all that followed, sucked the air out of the Middlesex innings.

Until that point Robson and Holden had driven Middlesex further and further ahead, clipping, glancing, cutting and driving the bowling to the boundary, almost at will, and at four runs an over. A square cut by Holden off Brooks and an on drive from Robson off Overton stood out. But, from that catch onwards, the Somerset bowlers turned on the Middlesex batsmen and routed them. Even the apparent setback of Hildreth dropping Gubbins at slip off the final ball of that first Davey over soon paled into history, for Somerset were on the move and Middlesex, from a position of strength, were in retreat.

When Holden drove Overton back to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary in the next over, Overton responded with a quick, lifting ball which seemed to startle the batsman into edging behind. 48 for 2. Lead 137. Gubbins and Handscomb responded with dogged defence. It was five overs before another run was scored. In the fourth of those overs another bowling change brought another wicket. Abell replaced Overton, cut a ball away from Handscomb and Davies took an excellent catch diving towards first slip. 50 for 3. Lead 139. Three overs later Gubbins tried to steer Davey through backward point and Davies had another catch, this one straight to him. 54 for 4. Lead 143. In Davey’s next over Simpson, who had already edged just short of third slip, edged there again. This time higher and Abell took the catch. 62 for 5. Lead 151. The bowlers, Davey in particular, seemed unstoppable and before the over was out Andersson had edged wincingly close to the stumps. Somerset supporters were suddenly daring to hope. Middlesex ones perhaps beginning to fear.

After the fall of Simpson, the bowling seemed to lose some of its bite. But, with the exception of Brooks who had a tendency to concede a boundary in most overs, if the bowlers could not take wickets they were conceding barely a run an over. Eventually the pressure told. Andersson tried to turn Overton square, got a leading edge and Overton took a neat return catch, reaching out with his right hand as he moved away to his left in his follow-through. 77 for 6. Lead 166. “Yes!” I shouted, hand pumping the air. It was as much in relief as excitement for Somerset dare not allow Middlesex to regroup and get their innings moving again. I doubt I was the only screen watcher to react so. Now, Hollman struck for Middlesex with a square drive to the Somerset Stand off Brooks, but Overton was almost irresistible. He cut a ball into White, a tremendous appeal followed and White departed lbw for ten after over an hour of grim resistance. 82 for 7, 85 for 7 at tea. Lead 174. Supporters of both sides wondering.

After tea, Overton and Davey each bowled a seven-over spell as Abell called for every last ounce of effort from his two prime bowlers as each side tried desperately to pull the match their way. In Overton’s first over after the break Helm edged between wicket keeper and first slip, Davies dived across, dropped the catch and Somerset’s normally ultra-reliable keeper and slip cordon seemed to have dropped more catches in this match than they normally do in a season. When a match is so finely balanced as this one had become dropped catches hurt, and for the supporter the hurt is felt in the pit of the stomach. Gradually, Hollman and Helm edged the Middlesex total upwards. As they did the eyes, of both sets of supporters I suspect, began to look anxiously at the maroon score panel running a cross the bottom of the screen, and in particular at the total after the word ‘lead’. It was climbing run by run towards 200, a figure beyond which Somerset supporters would desperately not want it to climb far, while Middlesex ones would be willing it with every fibre in their bodies to climb as high as possible.

Hollman and Helm had taken the lead to within nine runs of 200 when Overton, still bowling with unremitting intensity, struck again. Helm was late in defence, struck on the pad and Overton was celebrating once more. 102 for 8. Lead 191. When Finn was late trying to turn Overton into the on side the pad was struck again and Overton had his fifth wicket, his third lbw and Middlesex were 110 for 9, 199 ahead. 206 ahead when Abell, who had replaced Davey after a seven-over spell, bowled Murtagh through a limp swing of the bat.  

207 would be a distant target on a pitch still providing help to the bowlers, and in Murtagh, Helm and Finn Middlesex had the bowlers to exploit it. But it must have been at least a hundred runs less than most Somerset supporters had feared, and most Middlesex ones had hoped for at the outset of the Middlesex innings. Middlesex were favourites still, but Somerset now had a distinct chance, and that had seemed unlikely three hours before. The chance seemed less distinct when both openers had again departed with less than 20 runs on the board, Banton bowled through the gate first ball and Lammonby lbw, both trying to defend and both to Murtagh. 17 for 2 was familiar territory, and it left a gaping hole in the foundations of Somerset’s innings.

And then came one of those interludes of disconnected Somerset magic. In a match which had been played with a gritty determination at around three runs an over, Hildreth came to the wicket and cut his second ball, from Murtagh, spectacularly square to the Caddick Pavilion. After Hildreth had survived a huge lbw appeal, Abell picked up the Hildreth mood and glanced Helm to the old scoreboard boundary. Hildreth then drove Murtagh straight back to the Lord Ian Botham Stand, and off three successive balls he cut Helm to the Somerset Stand and turned him twice to the old scoreboard boundary. It changed the mood of the match. It was as if Puck had detached himself from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, wandered onto the set of King Lear and set about turning the plot on its head. And as I looked at the sky above the Quantocks I noticed those clouds of the morning had gone and the sky had turned summer blue.

The merry dance which Hildreth and Abell led the Middlesex bowlers almost saw Somerset through to the close. Almost, but not quite. Hildreth misjudged an attempt to steer Andersson through third man for another four and edged the ball to White at first slip. He had made 43 from 38 balls and, with Abell, had added 78 runs in just over an hour at the crease. When Leach, the nightwatchman, turned Finn to short leg Somerset had ended the day neatly halfway to their target. The Hildreth-Abell partnership, and Hildreth’s innings in particular, may not have suited the purist, and the price of it was that ball guided in the manner of the innings into slip’s hands at the end, but it did show the sort of magic which enabled Puck to put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes, and it certainly lifted the Somerset mood from the desperate despond of 17 for 2 and the near certainty of defeat, to a heartbeat quickening at the possibility of victory.

Close. Middlesex 357 and 117 (C. Overton 5-34, J.H. Davey 3-28). Somerset 268 (G.A. Bartlett 55, S.T. Finn 5-77, T.J. Murtagh 3-49) and 104 for 4. Somerset need another 103 runs to win with six wickets standing.