It’s Good To Be Back – Gloucestershire v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Nevil Road, Bristol – Day 1

This match was played with restricted crowd numbers due to the coronavirus restrictions in place. Tickets were initially offered in a ballot but were ultimately generally available and still for sale online on the morning of the match.

County Championship Group 2. Gloucestershire v Somerset. 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd May 2021. Bristol.

Gloucestershire. K.C. Brathwaite, C.D.J. Dent (c), J.R. Bracey (w), T.C. Lace, I.A. Cockbain, R.F. Higgins, M.A.H. Higgins, T.M.J. Smith, M.D. Taylor, D.A. Payne, D.J. Worrall.  

Somerset. E.J. Byrom, T.A. Lammonby, 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. Gloucestershire. Elected to field.

First day 20th May – It’s good to be back

In some ways nothing had changed. In others everything had. I arrived at the ground, as was always my wont, in a tight race with the umpires, players, clouds and rain for the eleven o’clock start. Nothing new there. I was not the only one. I arrived outside Nevil Road’s Ashley Down Road entrance with a last-minute surge of similarly anorak-attired, backpack-carrying men, most of them just beyond a certain age. Nothing new there either. What was totally new was the small element of variety that had been introduced. It consisted of an array of different colours and designs of face masks and coverings with which the faces were adorned. The new world meeting the returning old. A quick scan of my ticket and an exchanged smile with the steward who scanned it and I was in. The old world again.

Then the new world intervened for a moment. “Do you know where you are sitting sir?” asked one of a host of yellow-jacketed stewards. A gentle reminder that all seats were allocated for this Championship match even though the crowd only numbered several hundred. No doubt the weather had deterred as many as were determined to defy it. And so, I ascended a flight of stairs at the rear of the Mound Stand to the block containing my allocated seat. When I reached the top, spread out before my eyes was a first-class cricket match and several hundred supporters. I had, of course, missed the first over but no matter, that was par for the course in the old world, at least in mine. Somerset were 4 for 0. I breathed a sigh of relief. No wickets.

As I stood at the top, looking up and back, from one end of the Mound Stand to another, the crowd had a slightly odd look to it. People were dotted about, rather as they might have been in the old world of the Somerset Stand at Taunton on a busy day. With such a crowd in the Somerset Stand at Taunton you would expect to see the rest of the ground crowded. Here, the rest of the ground was deserted, with no stand along the side which the temporary stand occupies for T20 matches. The crowd in the Mound Stand was like an oasis from the old world set in the desert of the new.

The way the crowd was dotted about did look slightly odd, another result of the new world. It looked rather like the awkward spacing of garden plants where the planting has attempted to replicate the randomness of nature. It never looks natural, at least to my eye. And this crowd didn’t look natural either. The crowd of course had not randomly distributed itself as it would have done in the old world. The new world, at least the regulations designed to protect people against the coronavirus, had distributed them differently. People were seated in alternate rows and, if attending on their own, in alternate seats. Families and, I presume, coronavirus bubbles sat together.

Once I was in my seat, the old world almost came back, or the Gloucester CCC seat-allocation computer is a Somerset supporter. Two rows in front of me was a Somerset supporter of my acquaintance. A row in front of that, two more, and two rows in front of them another. Within five minutes of my arrival another came to his seat, two along from me. I didn’t know him, but he knew the couple sitting four rows down. It was almost like old times at an away match. Somerset supporters present in comparative abundance. Not entirely like old times of course, none of us could move to sit with the others as we might have done in those days. Not that that stopped the chat or the banter, it just waited for breaks in play. It was as if the 20 months since we last sat and chatted at a cricket match had not happened, even if there was a slight air of unreality about it all.

And then Tom Lammonby was run out for three in the second over. The cricket was real enough and the run out sharpened the focus. He had turned a ball from Higgins towards square leg and set off for a single. He must have been the only person in the ground who saw that single. Eddie Byrom sent him back, but Ian Cockbain was on the ball in a flash and the stumps were broken with Lammonby clearly short of his ground. “What!?” said one disbelieving Somerset voice to equally disbelieving Gloucestershire cheers as Lammonby’s nightmare summer continued. It was then that it sank in that I had not watched cricket from side on since the end of the 2019 season. I often sit square, especially when Somerset are batting. When the only option is the live stream, the cricket is always from behind the arm. It is an excellent view for watching a batsman’s technique, a bowler’s skill, or moving, turning or flighted balls, but variety is the spice of my cricket-watching life and this, at last was heaven.

It is not so easy to assess the movement of the ball, but an element of playing and missing and gasps and groans from the slip cordon and batsmen frozen in the pose of a committed forward defensive stroke that failed to connect with the ball all told the same tale. Batting was hard work and the threat of a wicket ever-present. It held the attention like the ever-present band of dark cloud moving quickly, but unbroken across the ground. Early, Byrom and Abell worked the ball into the on side for singles, Byrom realised two from a smooth on drive which slowed on the outfield and produced some neat deflections to the deep fine leg fielder. As the batsmen established themselves the crowd began to find itself. Applause began to ripple across the stand for a good ball, a beaten bat, a good stroke or a good ball kept out. The old world was re-establishing itself. Then the chatter began to build, there was even a bit of a buzz at times.

As Payne and Higgins, and then Taylor, continued to test the batsmen Byrom and Abell played with the utmost care and attention. When James Bracey came up to the stumps to draw Abell back into his crease the movement the bowlers were obtaining was emphasised and someone said, “I wondered how long it would take for Bracey to stand up.” As the bowlers probed away, continuing to beat the batsmen, Somerset eschewed risk and dug in hard. This was batting of the old, see off the new ball and protect the stroke makers to come, type. As Somerset supporters held their metaphorical breaths, the hearts of Gloucestershire ones leapt in hope whenever a batsman was beaten and the applause rippled, 9 for 1 after four overs became 18 for 1 after 13. Byrom and Abell were building a base for the Somerset innings, if a precarious one.

When Worrall replaced Higgins the batsmen began to move Somerset forward. Byrom glanced through the air to fine leg for four. There was risk, the ball evaded the diving Bracey by a yard or so, but Somerset were moving. An Abell pull from outside off stump off Taylor rocketed to the long on boundary at the Ashley Down Road End. “That was a bit of a shot,” said the Somerset supporter two seats along from me. From where we sat it certainly looked spectacular. When Byrom steered Worrall to third man, an authoritative Abell could clearly be heard, his voice carrying to us on the wind, “Yeah. Two.” And two it was.

In the next over, from Taylor, Abell took two more from a turn just behind square and then drove straight to the Ashley Down Road End with that perfunctory drive of his where the bat stops dead as the ball leaves it. Byrom followed with another straight drive, this time off Worrall, to the Pavilion End, as smoothly executed as Abell’s was perfunctory. More applause from Somerset supporters making their presence felt along the stand. Since Byrom had marked the acceleration with that glance, Somerset had added 27 runs in seven overs. And then, with Somerset making real progress and with the embryonic match nicely balanced, the rains came. The players left the field with Somerset on 45 for 1 with Byrom on 22 and Abell on 19, three innings nipped in the bud.

And that was it for the day, at least in terms of cricket. The umpires and groundstaff were active in keeping things moving in case an opportunity arose to restart play. The umpires inspected several times, continuing to inspect even in light rain and set relatively short timescales for further inspections. The blotter was active even as the cloud that delivered the rain that finally sounded the death knell for the day thickened. The groundstaff battled with plastic covers billowing a dozen feet in the air. At other times they would be attempting to move covers on or off as they rippled like waves across a windswept sea. It was not just the waves. They were preceded by lines of spray blowing off the top of the rippling waves. Cricket, and the English summer, were back.

And around the ground the old scenes returned, with masks added. People standing under whatever cover they could find, if in smaller groups than usual, amiably chatting among themselves or with the stewards who were visible in numbers. Some spectators were from a younger age profile than the group I had entered with and those who tended to attend Championship matches in the old world. Perhaps that was a wisp of hope for Championship cricket in the new world. All were looking at the sky. Wondering if there was any prospect of further play. Discussing the state of the Group 2 table and which team needed to beat which team to aid their team. Then there were the half dozen people dotted about, naturally this time, still sitting in their seats cocooned in waterproofs, hunched under umbrellas, one person under two umbrellas, trying to keep their seats dry. There were hopeful looks at the sky when the sun appeared alongside the smallest imaginable patch of blue sky. But, as Shakespeare’s Feste said of the Surrey match, “That’s all one,” and it was.

So, in the end, just 20 overs and two balls, one wicket, four boundaries, carefully distanced seating, masks and a storm better suited to a night at sea. It was cold too. But it all fitted with the warmth of a pair of old slippers newly re-discovered from the old world. It was enough to warm the cockles of a cricketing heart. And, if you were a Somerset supporter, the Byrom-Abell partnership had been a wonderful piece of Somerset cricket against some good Gloucestershire bowling. “Well played lads,” someone said. But, above all it was just good to be back.

Close. Somerset 45 for 1.