Abell Leads the Way – Gloucestershire v Somerset – County Championship 2021- Nevil Road, Bristol – Day 3

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.

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.

Overnight. Somerset 45 for 1.

Third day. 22nd May – Abell leads the way

“Shot!” The crowd had truly come alive. It is a shout which has been synonymous with watching County Championship cricket since at least 1958 when I attended my first match. It punctuates the buzz, chatter and applause that ripple around a ground as a match unfolds. It was not in evidence at all in 2020. It was not much, if at all, in evidence on the first day of this match when the cricket had to battle with a gale, poor light, flying mizzle and enveloping rain. On the first day, after a season and a half of being on the outside of the closed doors, just being at the match was enough. On this, the second day of play, although the third scheduled day, the sun shone. Not all the time, but for much of it. Enough for the skin on my face to tighten through the evening as I drew together my thoughts and notes for this report.

After more than a season cocooned with cricket coming from the screen of a laptop and the first two days of this match watching the rain, it was as if heaven itself had come among us. I was back at the cricket, the sun was shining, and after a month of cold wind and rain, it was warm on the face. And when a stroke earned it, a cry of “Shot!” rang out from somewhere in the crowd. A small crowd, perhaps five or six hundred, but a crowd nonetheless. The first cry I heard was in response to an on drive from Tom Abell. The ball did not reach the boundary, but he and Byrom mustered two, and “Shot!” it was. The cricket was back to somewhere near where it should be, with the sun in the sky and spectators in the stands.

The crowd’s response to Abell’s drive did not just mark the return of some of the old normality. It marked a stroke that, while it produced only two runs, made up in quality what it lacked in quantity. It presaged an innings out of the very top drawer of county cricket batting, full of classical style, quality and fighting spirit. Gloucestershire may be top of Somerset’s County Championship group, but they left barely a mark on Abell during his nearly seven hours at the crease, and that on a wicket helpful to bowlers.

The ravages of the rain on the second day and overnight meant a delayed start, but at a quarter to twelve play began with a promise from the announcer of 92.4 overs in what remained of the day. Matthew Taylor opened proceedings by completing an over cut short by the rain of the first day. A leg bye off Byrom’s pad awakened the scoreboards from their two-day slumber. The muffled sound of ball on pad rather than bat was clearly audible, one of the sounds of a day at the cricket I had not heard since the end of 2019. A thick edge for four from Byrom, applause for a good over from Taylor and that lovely on drive from Abell for the two runs which brought forth that iconic cry of, “Shot,” and it was beginning to feel as if I had never been away. Then, never far away, a reminder of the times as the names of the different vaccines floated by from a conversation between a couple of thirtysomethings discussing their forthcoming coronavirus vaccinations.

But, for the most part the cricket was the focus of the day. Hard cricket. The County Championship at its give-nothing best. “The Gloucestershire bowlers are relentless,” one Somerset supporter said to me at lunch. That was reflected in the scoring rate. After 29 overs, Somerset were 66 for 1. The overriding picture of Abell throughout the day was one of intense concentration, of him playing a classic forward defensive stroke, of leaving the ball with arms and bat held aloft and every so often finding the boundary with one of those classical drives, cuts, pulls or that increasingly effective glance of his. Byrom was less composed, more functional than classical, but his play was, for all that, as effective as Abell’s.

As the morning sun slowly worked its way across the sky between occasional bands of cloud, the scores of the two batsmen, in close consort each with the other, were painstakingly built, as, between the runs, they fought to keep the ever-persistent Gloucestershire bowlers out. Their scores were always within a run or two of each other. Occasionally, where a ball merited positive attention it would receive it. Abell clipped Worrall crisply off his legs just behind square to the Mound Stand for four, the stroke as certain as any of his stock of defensive strokes. As if to encapsulate the morning in an over, Byrom drove the first ball of a Taylor over neatly to long on for three to appreciative applause while Abell, as neatly, played out the remaining five balls for no runs. The score at the end of the over provided further evidence of the intensity of the toe-to-toe nature of the play from two teams grappling for top spot in their Championship group. Somerset 73 for 1 from 31 overs. Byrom 34. Abell 34. “A pleasant day of cricket in the sun,” I wrote in my notebook.

Somerset had a clear edge in terms of the match, but Gloucestershire were ahead of Somerset in the Championship group with a game in hand. With less than two days playing time left and a possibly terminal forecast for the last day, Gloucestershire were all but certain to retain an advantage when the final stumps were drawn. Somerset’s ambitions were realistically limited to narrowing the gap by taking more bonus points than Gloucestershire. At least though, from a Somerset perspective, a base had been built. Four byes, four leg byes and two singles in an over helped Somerset forward. Then Byrom edged Payne to third man for two and, off the next ball, to Brathwaite, Gloucestershire’s West Indian Test player, at first slip. Brathwaite dived low to his right and caught the ball at the second or third attempt. It was difficult to unravel his desperate scrabble for the ball from square, but Gloucestershire had struck back and Somerset were 85 for 2 after 36 overs. Byrom 38.

From there, as the sun retreated and cloud began to gather, Abell launched something of a counterattack. A perfectly played glance off Higgins ran down to the Pavilion boundary, to be followed by four leg byes and then, to another cry of, “Shot!” a spectacular cut backward of point crossed the Mound Stand boundary. Twelve runs from the over, followed in the next over, from Payne, by a ball turned sharply off his legs by Abell for four more. Three more leg byes, there were 25 in the innings, took Somerset to a slightly early lunch as those clouds began to deposit a brief visitation of light rain. Somerset were 105 for 2 with Abell four short of a half century and Hildreth, who had replaced Byrom, on 1.

No sooner were the players off than the rain stopped and lunch brought another return to the old times. The crowd was relatively small and the concourses behind the stands relatively wide. It meant there was space enough for people to meander to and from the food outlets and stop to chat to people they had not seen for over a year and a half without getting in each other’s air as it were. And the chat, beyond the usual, polite, “How are you?” was of the cricket. In particular the discipline of both the Gloucestershire bowling and Abell’s batting. It had been a session-long duel worth the watching someone thought. The main difference from the old times was, I thought, the greeting smiles were broader and warmer as befits a meeting between friends after a long absence.

The afternoon began with Somerset trying to establish a different rhythm to the play. Hildreth and Abell launched a brief assault on the bowling. The first ball of the afternoon, from Payne, Hildreth steered to third man for two, the fourth he drove wide of mid off for four and the fifth past mid off for three. In the next over, Abell clipped Higgins crisply off his toes for four. It brought up his fifty. He lifted his bat to the dressing room and to applause from the Mound Stand extended longer than the norm for a fifty. People had waited a long time to applaud a fifty and had been rewarded with one worth applauding. Next, Abell executed a late cut to third man for two as Somerset’s afternoon batting sped along. Another late cut, this time from Hildreth off Payne, reached the boundary. In the three overs after lunch Somerset added 20 runs. It set the heart running if you were a Somerset supporter, and with the score on 125 for 2 one optimist speculated aloud about the possibility of Somerset reaching 400 and five batting points.

But, as that other Somerset supporter had said, the Gloucestershire attack was relentless, and held its nerve in the face of Somerset’s assault. When Hildreth attempted to drive Payne straight back down the ground he was bowled, a look at a replay suggests a touch of inswing. Hildreth had made 15 and Somerset were 127 for 3. The swing was not of course detectable from my seat square of the wicket, but what followed left little doubt that the bowlers were moving the ball and beginning to regain some traction on proceedings. The ball began to beat the bat, the batsmen fell back on defence, and the post-lunch torrent of runs was reduced to a trickle. Four-day cricket is like that. It is a game of phases, of moods and rhythms. Now the mood tensed, and the rhythm slowed as the bowling bit. For those ensconced in the game such cricket grips and I found myself leaning forward a little more earnestly in my seat.

Bartlett, who had replaced Hildreth, struggled to settle, although he did steer Taylor neatly to third man for three. It profited him little because he was lbw to his next ball, the first ball of Worrall’s second spell. Bartlett had made five, Somerset were 135 for 4, those hoping for 400 looked destined to be disappointed and Gloucestershire’s supporters were sitting a little more upright in their seats. Even more so when Lewis Goldsworthy, in his first failure in the Championship, defended against Worrall and edged straight to Bracey behind the stumps for 2. Two balls later Davies, Somerset’s lower order rock in 2021, was caught low to his right by Dent at third slip. From the heights of 127 for 2, Somerset had fallen to 143 for 6. All four wickets suggesting, from square, a degree of movement. Worrall had taken three of those wickets in nine balls and had changed the shape of the Somerset innings. Three wickets to Worrall, but they were taken on the back of a Gloucestershire bowling performance which had never lost its threat.

Gloucestershire now had two bowling points, and the Gloucestershire crowd, quiet during the Abell-Byrom partnership, had found their voice. A third bowling point seemed inevitable. For Somerset, even one batting point seemed doubtful. But Abell had hewn 60 runs out of the Gloucestershire attack and looked as immovable as The Reverend Toplady’s Rock of Ages. Joining him was Craig Overton, Abell’s Somerset equivalent with the ball and averaging over 30 with the bat this season. Overton has a reputation, and a record, as a boundary-plundering batsman. In recent times he has added to that a capacity for dogged occupation of the crease and judicious run gathering when Somerset have needed it. They needed it here for the rhythm of the game had moved against them.

For 12 overs, Abell and Overton concentrated on defence, protecting Somerset’s diminishing supply of wickets. They added just 21 runs in those 12 overs, five of them extras. At one point four overs passed for two runs as Gloucestershire worried away at the batsmen. The batsmen gave not an inch and the chatter in the crowd subsided as the battle for bonus points, and survival, was played out in front of them. Relieved applause came from Somerset seats when Overton clipped Higgins behind square for an easy two and then leaned into an on drive for four. The nature of the play may be gleaned from the fact that that was Overton’s first boundary in nearly an hour at the crease. Then cheers came from the Gloucestershire seats when Overton walked up the wicket to Higgins, perhaps to obviate the swing, and edged behind, straight into the gloves of Bracey. In the hour that Overton had been at the wicket Somerset had advanced by 33 runs. The wicket brought the score to 176 for 7 as the two teams fought each other, inch by inch, towards the next bonus point. At tea, four overs later, Abell and Gregory, who had replaced Overton, had added just four more singles.

In the 32 overs between lunch and tea Gloucestershire took five wickets and Somerset scored 75 runs, 20 of them in the first three of those overs. Abell had scored 29 of the runs as he fought to keep the Somerset innings afloat. Twenty-nine runs in over two hours and yet his innings could not be described as dour, for even when Abell’s focus is almost entirely on defence he plays with a classical style. The MCC Coaching Manual of old brought to life. For ball after ball, his feet moved into position and the straight face of the bat came down the line to meet the ball. If the ball could be left the bat was held high above his shoulder. Where runs were taken the word which best described his strokes was ‘decisive’. It was an innings of full-on defensive strokes, occasional, neatly applied steers or glances or, just three times according to my notes, emphatically struck boundaries. The one with which he had brought up his fifty, a straight drive to the Ashley Down Road End off Taylor and a glance, fine to the Pavilion boundary off Worrall, were as classically struck as any you will see. It was a masterclass in extended, controlled accumulation and the 75 runs which were now posted against his number on the scoreboard were Somerset gold dust in the developing context of the match.

Somerset’s 180 for 7 at tea, built around Abell, had ground its way forward at two and a half runs an over. Then, as it had immediately after lunch, the rhythm of the innings took on a faster beat, this time with more success, as a different Somerset emerged for the evening session. Led by an assault from Gregory, with Abell continuing to stand firm at the other end, Somerset attacked at nearly four and a half runs an over. In the second over after tea, Gregory lofted a pull off Taylor which all but cleared the rope at backward square leg. In Taylor’s next over he repeated the stroke and this time the ball cleared the rope. Off the next ball, Gregory employed the stroke again, the ball took the top edge and flew skyward towards deep fine leg, hotly, but unsuccessfully, pursued by the keeper. Just two runs this time, but Gregory’s intent was clear. Clearer still when the last ball of the over cleared the boundary between deep midwicket and long on. Fourteen runs came from the over, the score was 204 for 7 and the batting point that Somerset had chiselled away after for so long had suddenly been snatched by Gregory.

The crowd were buzzing now as the chatter that always follows a six rippled along the Mound Stand. Somerset were making headway, but still Gloucestershire stuck to their task. The fielding remained sharp, although for Gregory there were now four fielders on the boundary. Then, with the new ball in their hands, the Gloucestershire bowlers re-established some grip. Nine overs for just 16 runs passed before Somerset found the boundary again. Again, it was Gregory who loosened Gloucestershire’s grip. “Shot!” rang out again from further along the stand as he drove through the covers for four before clipping the ball off his legs for three more.

Somerset began to push again. A three steered to third man off Higgins by Gregory was followed by a two turned behind square by Abell, and quickly followed by a single to Abell. “Come on lads!” rang out from the crowd. It was a shout fuelled by Somerset’s rising total, and by the scoreboard registering 250 for 7 and Somerset’s second batting point. Abell, who had been coaxing his score along had reached 96. Four through the covers off Payne from a classic Abell drive in which the bat stopped abruptly as it made contact with the ball, there was no follow through, brought up his century. It was Somerset’s first century of the season. The applause from all was extended, and enthusiastic from the Somerset contingent. Abell raised his bat to the dressing room and to the Mound Stand. Two overs later Gregory was raising his bat as a forceful off drive, again off Payne, took him to 51 from 77 balls. Three overs later, Abell, with two fours off Taylor, one a sumptuous straight drive, the other driven past the diving point fielder, brought up the century partnership, made in 28 overs. It was heady stuff from the Somerset batsmen and the large Somerset contingent in the crowd, spread across the stands by pre-allocated tickets as they were, were wreathed in smiles and applauding for all they were worth.

When Gregory was bowled for 57 by Payne, Somerset needed eight runs for a third batting point, a point which had seemed beyond reach at 143 for 6. It took Abell three balls. He pulled the first ball of the next over, from Worrall, just over the upstretched arm of the deep square leg fielder for four, and then with as neat a flick of the wrists as you are likely to see, late cut the third ball to the third man boundary. Somerset were 300 for 8, Abell was on 132, three runs short of his highest first-class score, and the batsmen were running for the Pavilion. Somerset had declared with three batting points, Gloucestershire never did get their third bowling point, and Somerset were in the hunt for bowling points of their own. All the while Abell had led the way for Somerset with an innings of true distinction and all the way off the applause followed him.

Somerset had left themselves nine overs and whatever, if anything, the apocalyptic, as one Somerset supporter described it, weather forecast for the final day allowed. Overton began for Somerset from the Pavilion End with four slips waiting to pounce. In his first over he struck Brathwaite such a painful blow it caused him to sink, doubled up, to his knees. It was some time before he was able to stand with any ease. When he finally took his guard again, he responded by steering Overton wide of fourth slip for four. Those two had had an enthralling duel in the first innings and that classic cricket knee-bending blow and the retaliatory stroke suggested another might be about to ensue.

A single brought the left-handed Dent, the Gloucestershire captain, to the striker’s end. He immediately drove Overton to point but failed to keep the ball down. It travelled in a long, low arc straight towards me. Goldsworthy took off, dived long and low to his left in an arc of his own, across my line of sight, almost in slow motion it seemed from my angle, and caught the ball a foot above the ground. When, towards the close, Bracey edged Davey to the keeper, Gloucestershire were 14 for 2. From there they added two more runs before the end of play which came at about ten minutes past seven, 40 minutes past the scheduled close, sanitiser breaks perhaps taking their toll. More watchers lthan might have been expected had stayed to the end of this, the first near-full day of spectator cricket after the coronavirus interregnum. And as crowds had done for a century and a third of Championship cricket, they left discussing the day and wondering what the morrow might bring forth, not least with a thought to what the sky might unleash.

Close. Somerset 300 for 8 dec (T.B. Abell 132*, L. Gregory 57, D.J. Worrall 3-52). Gloucestershire 16 for 2. Gloucestershire trail Somerset by 284 with eight first innings wickets standing.