Somerset Battle Through – Hampshire v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – AGEAS Bowl – 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 Hampshire 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. Hampshire v Somerset. 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th May 2021. AGEAS Bowl.

Hampshire. J.J. Weatherley, I.G. Holland, T.P. Alsop, S.A. Northeast, J.M. Vince (c), L.A. Dawson, F.S. Organ, L.D. McManus (w), K.J. Abbott, K.H.D. Barker, Mohammad Abbas.

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

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

First day 6th May – Somerset battle through

For the third time in their five matches in this competition to date Somerset won the toss and elected to field. Poor W.G. Grace must be wondering what the world of cricket has come to. Somerset also fielded first when Leicestershire won the toss and elected to bat. They have won all three of the matches in which they have fielded first. The only match they have lost was the one in which Gloucestershire won the toss and elected to field. Perhaps by the end of the day even Grace was beginning to have doubts about his famous dictum. Or perhaps it is just that we live in a different cricketing world with different cricketing conditions. For by the end of a day on which they bowled Hampshire out for 79 and ground out a lead of 63 with still five wickets standing, Somerset had done more than enough to justify their decision.  

It was a day in which only 221 runs were scored in 96 overs and nearly seven hours of cricket. But 15 wickets fell against a background of demanding, imploring and despairing appeals for leg before wicket and caught behind. The cause was a another ball moving in the air and off the seam. At times the bowlers did everything but pray to the umpires, but the umpires stood, for the most part, as motionless and unanswering as idols cast in stone. Every appeal has the committed supporter holding their breath as the decision is awaited. The time before it becomes clear that the finger will not be raised, or is, seems interminable, whichever side the watcher supports. There was a lot of suspended breathing on the first day of this match. The umpire’s arms though did move enough to send back three batsmen caught behind by Steven Davies and another three leg before wicket.

The Somerset bowlers settled quickly to their task as the match began under sunny skies, the shadows on the square as sharp as if they had been cut out with scissors. In the fifth over, Lewis Gregory with that easy flowing, lazy looking, run up and action of his moved a ball away late from Ian Holland. Holland, attempting to drive, edged straight into Craig Overton’s midriff at second slip. There is rarely any escape when the ball is edged there or anywhere else in Overton’s vicinity at slip. Hampshire were 7 for 1, I sat a little more upright in my chair and the sun falling on the Blackdowns beyond my laptop suddenly looked all the brighter.

Overton, Gregory and Josh Davey took the first 19 overs between them, in itself a sign that help is expected from the pitch. Davey replaced Overton after Overton’s fourth over and then Overton replaced Gregory after his eighth. The quality of the bowling, the patience which the bowlers showed as they repeatedly tested the batsmen and implored the umpires, together with the helpfulness of the pitch, the patience of the batsmen too, was all reflected in a score at the end of those 19 overs of 31 for 2. The first ball of the 16th over had crashed into the left-handed Alsop’s pad. Davey, angling the ball in from around the wicket, and the slip cordon had let out an enormous appeal, convinced it seemed of the rightfulness of their cause. The umpire thought otherwise and remained remorselessly statuesque as the appeal first stopped in its tracks and then subsided into disappointment. To the next ball, Alsop, if not statuesque, did not move far forward in the crease, and was struck on the pad as the ball came in. This time the umpire lifted his finger and Somerset supporters in front of their screens must have breathed again.

The Somerset bowlers had been remorseless in keeping the batsmen under constant threat with accuracy and movement. When Tom Abell, an increasingly effective fourth seamer for Somerset this year, replaced Davey he did not allow the pressure to relax one iota. The five overs he bowled up until lunch cost two runs. He bowled in combination with the single-minded accuracy and probing pace of Overton. A score of 32 for 2 after 20 overs, with the constant threat of wickets which such bowling in such conditions brings, brought further pressure of its own. Joe Weatherley pushed Overton into the covers and set off instantly for a single. When George Bartlett hit the striker’s end stumps Sam Northeast was not close enough to even begin grounding his bat. Hampshire were 36 for 3 and Weatherley stood head bowed at the bowler’s end.

Within an over Abell had beaten Weatherley and then, two balls later, with a perfectly directed late outswinger found the edge of his defensive push. Davies skipped one step to his right, took as straightforward a catch as any wicketkeeping catch is, and Hampshire had sunk from 26 for 1 to 36 for 4. 37 for 5 in the 23rd over when Liam Dawson, off his fourth ball, tried to turn Overton to leg. He was caught at second slip by Gregory moving smoothly to his left to catch a waist-high ball just as he might a wayward tennis ball on the beach. There was no need for a back to my chair now, for I was bolt upright, eyes locked in a stare at the happenings taking place just three feet away from me on my laptop. Laptops, or whichever of the myriad devices on which cricket can be watched these days, across Somerset must have looked back at owners with just such eyes as the bowlers put ball after ball on a spot which gave the batsmen no rest and little opportunity.

James Vince, perhaps the one remaining batsman who might offer a major threat to Somerset hinted at it when he clipped Overton over midwicket for four. But any doubts creeping into the Somerset mind, or hopes into the Hampshire one, were dispelled in Overton’s next over by the ball of the morning, although that is a claim which might attract a number of challengers. It was straight, cut in markedly off the pitch, took the inside edge and crashed into the stumps. Vince 6, Hampshire 42 for 6. 43 for 6 at lunch after 29 overs. The score, albeit in helpful conditions, did not flatter the bowlers. The pressure placed on the batsmen was intense and continuous, the leeway offered, none. The lunchtime analyses of the bowlers give clear evidence of that. Gregory 8-5-9-1. Overton 11-5-16-2, Davey 5-1-13-1, Abell 5-3-2-1. It took a minute or two to absorb all the happenings of the morning before I could leave my chair and find some lunch.

It was not a day to return late to your seat, although it took an over or two for the bowlers to re-create the pre-lunch intensity. Davey was glanced by Felix Organ to the fine leg boundary and Gregory driven through the covers for four by Lewis McManus. Nineteen runs came from the first four overs and the first pangs of anxiety rippled through the Somerset stomach, perhaps balanced on the emotional sporting seesaw by the first strands of hope at the other end for Hampshire supporters. No Somerset supporter, especially those of us who were there, will ever forget Kyle Abbott’s 17 wickets for 86 runs at this ground in 2019. Somerset would have to face his pace again in this match and Mohammed Abbas too who has been in outstanding form for Hampshire this year. This pitch might suit both, and Somerset could not afford a partnership which might bring any sort of total which would give them a base from which to pressurise the Somerset batting.

Then, as a partnership looked like it might develop, Gregory cut a ball back into McManus just enough to beat the inside edge of a drive and hit the stumps. McManus 13, Hampshire 65 for 7. 68 for 8 when, in his next over, Gregory bowled wide of off stump and, like McManus, Organ attempted to drive. This time Gregory found the inside edge and Davies took the catch. Hampshire simply could not get a foothold in the innings. When Davey induced just a hint of outswing to Abbott it was enough to find the edge of a defensive bat and for Davies to take the catch diving across James Hildreth at first slip. It was all beyond disbelief for this watching Somerset supporter. Then, finally, in Gregory’s next over, Keith Barker played a slashing drive which sent the ball through backward point for four. Two balls later he repeated the stroke. This time, the connection was sufficient only to send the ball into Davies gloves and Hampshire had a total of 79 to defend. That those 79 runs took 40.3 overs to make stands alongside the ten wickets as testimony to the sheer excellence of the Somerset bowling and of the destructive movement of the ball off the pitch.

The question on the minds of most Somerset supporters would now have been: can our batsmen withstand the bowling assault which would undoubtedly come from Mohammad Abbas and Kyle Abbott? Tom Banton had had a nightmare start to the season as an opening batsman and had been replaced by Eddie Byrom. Byrom had gained a reputation in 2018 as an intensely defensive opening batsman who could hold an end secure, at least until the shine had been removed from the ball. But now, we saw a different Byrom. By the end of Barker’s first over he had seven runs after two attempts to turn the ball to leg. The first flew past the slips for four and the second went where intended for three. A straight drive off Abbas in the second over brought four more. Tom Lammonby began more circumspectly to the movement which Barker was finding, defending every ball, and departed leg before wicket to the final ball of Barker’s over. It fitted the dispiriting mould of Lammonby’s dismissals this year. When, in the next over, Byrom attempted to drive Abbas again he was caught at gully for 11, Somerset were 11 for 2 and in familiar territory. Suddenly 79 looked a little more daunting and the nightmare of 2019 swirled around the Somerset mind.

Abell and Hildreth were now at the wicket and they soon made their intent clear. Hildreth with a neat cut off Abbas for an all-run four. Two fours came from Abell in an over from Abbott, one driven through the off side and one edged past the slips. In Abbott’s next over Hildreth clipped a ball off his legs for four more and Somerset were suddenly within a boundary of being halfway to Hampshire’s score. But, in conditions such as these, hope can so easily come before a fall. A ball later, Hildreth tried to play Abbott into the on side, was struck on the pad and Somerset were 36 for 3. One more wicket now and Somerset’s score would match Hampshire’s at the same point in their innings. It was a crucial moment, and the edge of the seat was preparing itself for use.

It soon became apparent that the Somerset batting was equal to the moment. Two fighting partnerships, which for intensity and determination matched that shown by the bowlers in the Hampshire innings, carried Somerset forward. The ball still moved in the air and off the pitch, and Hampshire had the bowlers to use it. But first Abell and Bartlett, and then Abell and Goldsworthy, who showed the grit and application he had shown in his debut against Middlesex a week ago, took Somerset from 36 for 3 to 137 for 5. 101 runs which may turn out to have had the value of cricketing gold dust on this pitch. They took 31 overs of the most intense concentration as both bowlers and batsmen applied pressure, and both at times seemed to be gaining the upper hand. But, as the score gradually mounted and the wickets held firm, the bowlers began to look less threatening and, towards the end, perhaps a little disheartened.

In the five overs from the fall of Hildreth to a brief shower which brought an early tea, Abell and Bartlett concentrated hard on defending their wickets, eked out just five runs, and Bartlett survived a huge leg before wicket appeal from Barker. Somerset were 45 for 3 in the 18th over, 34 runs behind. After tea Bartlett drove Abbott through the covers and Abell pulled Holland imperiously through midwicket, both for four. But from there, as the Hampshire bowlers came again, the next five overs realized four runs, a plethora of appeals and Bartlett was dropped low down at second slip. Then, the batsmen to the fore again, in an over from Holland, ten runs came. A three from each batsman and a four driven through extra cover by Bartlett. Four byes then took Somerset into the lead, still just three wickets down. When Abell drove Barker through midwicket for the second all-run four of the innings the score reached 90 for 3. Somerset were just 11 runs ahead, but the seven wickets still standing, and the obvious determination of the batsmen must have weighed heavily on Hampshire hearts just as they were lifting Somerset ones.

But the appeals were still coming from the Hampshire bowlers, almost by the over, and the bat was being beaten as the pitch continued to offer up aid. In such conditions, against top quality first-class bowling every batsman has his term. Here it was Bartlett. After an hour and a half at the wicket he finally misjudged a lifting ball from Abbott, attempted to steer it to third man and edged it high to Dawson at second slip. Somerset were 90 for 4, but Bartlett had made 27 critical runs as once again he had scored runs for Somerset when they were most needed.

Bartlett’s departure brought Lewis Goldsworthy to the wicket after his two crucial innings in the last match against Middlesex. The first had helped bring Somerset’s first innings to within distant range of Middlesex’s, and the second had been critical in Somerset’s match-winning second innings. Here he scored 24. Like Bartlett’s innings, relatively small in numbers, huge, to use the modern parlance, in the context of the match. For some time, as against Middlesex, he barely scored, taking 22 balls to get off the mark. But he perhaps gave an indication for the future that he knows how to lay the foundations of an innings. Meanwhile, Abell painstakingly took Somerset forward at the other end, the total taking nine overs to advance by ten runs after the fall of Bartlett.

Goldsworthy was at the end of his 11th over at the crease before he found the boundary, and that off an inside edge past the stumps. Eventually he began to accelerate, just as he had against Middlesex, with a glance to the fine leg boundary and a steer to third man for three, both off Barker. A four driven through extra cover off Holland hinted at more to come. But his innings had had its term and a ball from Holland cut in sharply, may have shaved the inside edge of the bat, and struck the stumps. Goldsworthy, in just his second match, had made 24 in 12 minutes under an hour and a half, but crucially had stayed with Tom Abell while they added 47. They had taken Somerset 57 runs into the lead.

And all the time, Somerset’s fighting captain had stood firm, not immune to being beaten, surviving appeals and leaving one or two balls uncomfortably close to the stumps. But, along the way, he had scored 52 runs in over three and a half hours at the crease, an exceptional piece of concentration, determination and skill in the prevailing conditions against the quality of pace bowling on show. He reached the boundary only six times in that three and a half hours, not least with the neatest of glances off Abbot. It is a stroke which used to take Abell’s wicket too often, but at which he now seems to be becoming more adept by the match.

Abell will score more fluent fifties and he will make more runs in three and a half hours, but he will rarely make 52 more valuable or hard-won runs than the ones he scored on the first day of this match. He took Somerset into the second day, with himself and nightwatchman Jack Leach at the wicket, 63 runs ahead of Hampshire with five wickets standing in some of the most bowler-friendly conditions they are likely to face. The match is far from won for Somerset, there will be opportunities aplenty for Hampshire to come back. There is much for Somerset still to do, but, for the moment, perhaps W.G Grace may be thinking again about his dictum.

Close. Hampshire 79 (L. Gregory 4-26). Somerset 142 for 5. Somerset lead by 63 runs with five first innings wickets standing.