An Exceptional Performance – Hampshire v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – AGEAS Bowl – Day 4

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.

Overnight. Hampshire 79 and 110 for 4. Somerset 336. Hampshire trail by 147 runs with six second innings wickets standing.

Final day 9th May – An exceptional performance

When Josh Davey trapped Mohammed Abbas leg before wicket late on the final afternoon, Hampshire’s long rearguard action which stretched across 131 overs was finally at an end. It left Somerset needing two runs to win. But that final Hampshire wicket was almost followed by a sting in the tail for Somerset. As the players went off for the change of innings a huge dark cloud hung over the Atrium of Hampshire’s Pavilion. The sword of Damoclese itself could not have hung more threateningly.

As the players approached the middle for the restart they suddenly froze, batsmen and fielders alike, as if they had metamorphosed into a tableau. The reason soon became apparent as an umpire held up a light meter and then placed it on the stumps. Had that meter reading been at or below the level recorded when play was suspended on the previous evening the playing regulations would require the umpires to suspend play. As the light meter lay balanced atop the stumps, the anticipation of a Somerset victory hung nervously in the air. The weather is indeed the third team in any cricket match.

Until fifteen minutes before that moment, a long, intensely gruelling day of cricket had gripped the attention as the Hampshire batsmen fought tooth and nail to save this match against a Somerset team straining every sinew and ounce of determination to force a victory. The sinews most stretched were those of Craig Overton who bowled 40 of those 131 overs at pace and with unwavering concentration and intensity. The evidence, if any were needed beyond that of the eyes of those who watched through the live stream, can be found in bowling figures of 40-17-66-5. If evidence is needed of the cutting edge of Overton’s bowling it can be found in the fact that his five wickets were those of five of Hampshire’s top six batsmen. He epitomised Somerset’s efforts. Hampshire’s efforts were epitomised by the innings of Felix Organ batting at nine after Kyle Abbott’s use as a nightwatchman the previous evening. Organ batted for over two hours and faced 108 balls for seven runs. The most enduring image of the Hampshire innings was of him leaving the ball or of his bat coming straight down the line to repel it. “They shall not pass,” seemed to be the Hampshire watchword.

The day had started with Hampshire on 110 for 4, needing a further 147 runs to wipe out the remaining deficit and then to bat on far enough to squeeze Somerset out of the game, assuming the weather stayed its hand. The pitch seemed to offer less than it had on the first two days and patience and concentration would be the main weapons of bowlers and batsmen alike. Overton began with a persistent, tight line on off stump or thereabouts, constantly keeping the batsmen on their mettle. Gregory concentrated wider of off stump and moved the ball away. After ten overs, Hampshire had added just 16 runs, reducing the deficit to 131. Joe Weatherley had driven Gregory through long on and James Vince had glanced him to fine leg. Three scoring strokes, those two boundaries and a three to Vince off a thick edge from another Gregory delivery, had constituted 11 of those 16 runs. It set the pattern for the day, bowlers offering little and batsmen barely risking less.

The most disconcerting aspect to the Somerset supporter was the apparent lack of the threat from the pitch that had been a feature of the first two innings of the match. A long day was in prospect, the commentators of old might have said. Nearly an hour had elapsed, with that prospect biting harder into Somerset hopes as each over slipped by, when Josh Davey bowled to Weatherley with Davies standing up to the stumps. It was a straight ball with no movement discernible to the camera. Weatherley came forward in defence as he had done for much of his innings, but this time he edged the ball into Davies’ gloves. The reaction of this Somerset supporter was more one of relief than elation, for it had begun to feel like a wicket might never come. Patience is a virtue and Somerset’s bowlers had just reaped its first reward. Hampshire were 130 for 5. Weatherley 44 from 209 balls in nearly five hours at the crease. The deficit now 127.

Davey was once the unsung hero of Somerset’s attack. No more. His value is well known in Somerset. He is quiet, unassuming and understated, even when he appeals. He struck again in his next over. Bowling just outside off stump he cut a ball back as Dawson put his pad forward and lifted his bat above his shoulder. The appeal for leg before wicket may have been understated but the raising of the umpire’s finger was emphatic. Dawson departed for a pair, Davey had taken his second wicket of the innings and Hampshire still trailed by 123 runs with only four wickets standing. “Yes! Well done,” my instinctive reaction to an empty room and the Blackdown Hills beyond as my arms shot above my head in celebration. Within the space of ten minutes the anxiety for the Somerset supporter of that long wait for the first wicket of the morning had been transformed into anticipation of more to come. Somerset were firmly on track.

The immediate response from Hampshire was for Vince to sweep Leach behind square for four for the second time in Leach’s first two overs of the morning. Two sweeps so close together stood out, for the Hampshire batsmen had, to use the linguistic currency of the coronavirus pandemic, shown an abundance of caution. The pressure from the bowlers had been unrelenting, and now Lewis McManus edged his third ball just short of third slip. Winces from Somerset supporters and gasps of relief from Hampshire ones no doubt greeted the sight as they sat, eyes glued to their screens.

Gradually Vince and McManus established a partnership. McManus and Davey fought out a maiden, Vince and Leach did the same. Two more overs of the day’s allocation had slipped away from Somerset while Hampshire’s deficit remained unmoved at 117. In the hour from the fall of Dawson to the call of lunch 15 overs were bowled, the new ball was taken, 21 runs were scored, and no wickets fell. Such runs as did come were scored off the legs. Twelve of them came in boundaries as each batsman clipped to long leg and Vince glanced fine. Overton’s four overs with the new ball immediately before lunch cost one run as the batsmen worked only to keep him out and he offered them no leeway. Every ball brought hope to Somerset watchers as they dreamt of a wicket, and relief to Hampshire ones when the wicket did not come. Context is everything in cricket and nothing happening in the context of this day gripped as much as when something does happen on another day. Lunch brought some relief from the tension with Hampshire on 165 for 6, still 92 behind.   

Immediately after lunch, Overton swung a full ball away from Vince and was driven through the covers for the first boundary of the day on the off side. After that abberation the pre-lunch norm was resumed as three runs came from four overs. Overton continued his unrelenting assault on the batting. A thick edge off Vince’s bat ran to the third man boundary, but when Vince tried to clip a ball that was homing in on off stump to leg he edged between Davies and Hildreth at first slip. Davies took off horizontally and caught the ball in front of Hildreth as Hildreth moved to his left and positioned his hands to take the catch which never reached him. It was a stunning catch by Davies and Overton had his fifth wicket. Hampshire were 177 for 7. Vince 42. Vince and McManus had batted 22 overs and added 43 runs, but the deficit was still 80 and there were still nearly 60 overs left in the day if the weather, now sunless and with more cloud forecast, held long enough.

When, six overs later, with just nine runs added, Davey aimed a full, gentle outswinger a foot wide of off stump the smooth curve it cut through the air made it look a harmless thing of beauty. As McManus reached to drive it through the covers with a swing of the bat as smooth as the arc of the ball he connected only with the edge. Hildreth, at first slip, took a neat half step to his right and took the catch waist high. McManus had batted nearly two hours for 19. Hampshire were 186 for 8, still 71 behind. Neither the overs nor the weather seemed to be an immediate concern for Somerset now as they set about taking the last two Hampshire wickets to wrap up a comprehensive victory.

At least that must have been Somerset’s plan. Felix Organ and Keith Barker had other plans. Twenty-eight overs they batted. Organ with that straight bat intent only on keeping the ball out. Barker, particularly in the latter part of his innings, scored more freely than any batsman in the Hampshire innings, Alsop’s brief foray on the second evening apart. In the eight overs after the departure of McManus, Abell and Davey conceded 12 runs and the deficit edged down to 59. From there Leach and Gregory, then Overton who beat both batsmen, took up the attack, but Organ and Barker held firm. Twice in two overs Barker used his reach to reverse sweep Leach to the boundary and Hampshire reached tea on 219 for 8. Barker was on 25, he and Organ had batted for over an hour, the deficit had shrunk to 38 and the floodlights were on as the clouds of Damoclese gathered. It was an uneasy tea for the watching Somerset supporter.

After tea, the approach from Hampshire, at least from Barker, began to change. Overton bowled four overs immediately after the break. Three times against him Barker found the boundary, once with a stunning straight drive. Leach bowled four overs for two runs but presented little threat of a wicket. With the deficit down to 16 Abell and Davey returned. Within two overs and with the help of four leg byes the batsmen reduced the deficit to eight. At the end of that second over the umpire at the bowler’s end added to the tension when he placed a light meter on the stumps and took a reading. With little prospect of the light improving as the day wore on the third team in the match looked all the more threatening from a Somerset point of view.

When Barker took a single off Davey, Hampshire reached 250 for 8 and the deficit was down to seven. From my armchair even the Blackdowns took on a worried look, for a match which Somerset had dominated from the first hour of the first morning might, at the last, escape them. The Somerset bowlers could only, as they had done all day, keep working away at the batsmen as their supporters looked on, hoping, waiting, as they had done the day long, for a wicket.

Then, Davey got a hint of away movement off the seam, Organ’s front foot came down the pitch, as it had done for the previous two hours, the bat came alongside it, but this time the ball found the outside edge. The ball flew low to Overton’s right at second slip. Overton moved smoothly, his hands reached low, and took the catch inches from the ground. There was, I will readily confess, prolonged applause from the occupant of my armchair. I will not, I do not doubt, have been the only armchair occupant applauding or cheering, or both, at that moment. For Hampshire supporters, at the other end of sport’s emotional seesaw, Overton’s catch must have seemed like a hammer blow after that ninth wicket stand had defied all that Somerset could marshal against it for two long hours.

In one of those incongruous moments which cricket so often throws up, after all the efforts of their batsmen it was four byes which took Hampshire into the lead by one run. When Davey began an over against Hampshire’s number eleven, Mohammad Abbas Somerset hopes were high. For four balls Abbas kept Davey out with the weather ever threatening. The fifth struck the batsman firmly on the pad. There was a huge appeal. It went unrequited. With his final ball, Davey struck Abbas on the pad again. Even through a camera lens set high in the Pavilion it looked out. The umpire agreed and Somerset needed two runs to win, and Davey, the quiet man of the Somerset attack, had quietly accumulated figures of 24-10-30-5. Finally, with the umpire having placed his light meter on the stumps and with the sky looking not unlike the one in John Constable’s Stonehenge, Eddie Byrom clipped the first ball, from Holland, into the leg side and the batsmen ran the two runs Somerset needed.

It had been an exceptional performance from Somerset, batsmen and bowlers both. Much stood out. The focus and penetration of the bowlers in reducing Hampshire’s first innings to 79. Overton’s 40 overs bowled at pace in the Hampshire second innings and the wickets of five of the top six batsmen spread over 94 overs must rank as one of the great Somerset bowling performances. Davey’s trademark patience which enabled him to work through Hampshire’s second innings lower order. Abell’s first innings 64, spread over four hours, which held Hampshire at bay and moved Somerset forward when the wicket was still at its most threatening. Overton’s devastating first innings 74 which did so much to take Somerset from ascendancy to dominance. The string of batsmen who, before and alongside Overton, lifted Somerset’s innings beyond Hampshire’s reach. Spare a thought too for the Hampshire batsmen, Weatherley and Organ in particular, who fought so hard in their second innings, and so nearly saved the game. But, in the final analysis, it was the team which put in an exceptional performance across the whole match which in the end received its just reward.

Close. Hampshire 79 (L. Gregory 4-26) and 258 (K.H.D. Barker 52*, J.J. Weatherley 44, J.M. Vince 42, J.H. Davey 5-30, C. Overton 5-66). Somerset 336 (C. Overton74, T.B. Abell 64, K.H.D. Barker 4-67, K.J. Abbott 3-88) and 2 for 0. Somerset won by ten wickets. Somerset 22 points. Hampshire 3 points.