Fortune and Ferocity – Somerset v Hampshire – County Championship 2021 – Taunton – Day 1

This match was played with restricted crowd numbers due to the coronavirus regulations in force. Somerset members were allocated tickets by ballot. The author was successful in the ballot for all four days.

County Championship Group 2. Somerset v Hampshire. 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th June 2021. Taunton.

Somerset. E.J. Byrom, S.M. Davies (w), T.B. Abell (c), J.C. Hildreth, G.A. Bartlett, L.P. Goldsworthy, T. Banton, L. Gregory, R.E. van der Merwe, J.H. Davey, Lange.

Craig Overton and Jack Leach were with the England squad for the two-Test match series against New Zealand and so not available for selection for this match

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

Toss. Hampshire. Elected to field

First day. 3rd June – Fortune and ferocity

“You couldn’t make it up,” said the man next to me of Somerset’s near-miraculous recovery as Marchant de Lange’s first six, off Kyle Abbott, disappeared over long off and into the churchyard. “More! More!” demanded someone from the Somerset Stand as if they were calling for an encore at a folk concert. And an encore there was. Two balls later Abbott bounced de Lange. De Lange hooked and an enormous six cleared the long square boundary, the wide area of outfield beyond it and hit the upper reaches of the Caddick Pavilion on the full. Applause and cheers filled the air and there was not an unsmiling face in the house. The crowds were back at Taunton, and they had been right royally rewarded with a day of cricket straight from the land of fantasy which might have filled many of their heads during the long coronavirus interregnum. This was Somerset through and through, for the close of play score of 360 all out had been built from the crumbling foundations of 43 for 5 and 113 for 7. The rains of May had stayed away too, although June was not yet as glorious as it likes to claim.

The day had started with staggered entry times and allocated socially distanced seating. I had been allocated a seat near the front of the River Stand, previously the Trescothick Stand, somewhere I have rarely sat since transferring my allegiances to the top of the Trescothick Pavilion during the 2018 season. It provided a view just wide of a line from third slip to the right-handed batsman and a more natural elevation for watching cricket, but no shade in the event of a day of relentless sun. That did not matter here, for the sun was only occasionally in evidence, the lights were called in aid after tea and a dozen overs were lost.

From the River Stand the pitch looked almost as green as the unprepared one next to it. With some humidity in the air and an almost complete covering of lowish grey cloud a difficult morning for batting beckoned. “Welcome back to the Cooper Associates County Ground,” said the announcer to warm applause from the fast-assembling crowd. “The toss is about to take place,” he advised. There is always a delay between the toss and the announcement of the outcome, but it is not difficult to read the signs if you know what to look for. The Somerset bowlers, in tracksuits, continued with their practice with no sign of urgency. The Hampshire players meanwhile left the field with some alacrity. Somerset would not be bowling.

Eddie Byrom faced the first ball of the day from the left-arm pace of Keith Barker, bowled from the River End. The ball struck him on the pad and Barker appealed. “Nonsense,” shouted a pantomime Somerset voice as the umpire’s arm remained motionless. It all had a familiar ring to it, and it felt as if something approaching normal service had resumed. In his next over Barker removed the need for assistance from the umpire when he defeated a straight defensive stroke from Byrom and hit the stumps. The green pitch, overhead conditions and the wily left arm of the 34-year-old Barker were already bearing fruit. When the left-handed Steven Davies, moved up to open in place of Tom Lammonby, drove Abbott through the covers to the Caddick Pavilion dugouts the comment was, “He didn’t put much effort into that stroke,” followed by a voice from a steward’s walkie-talkie saying, “It’s all going very smoothly.” The latter a reference to the coronavirus-related arrangements for the crowd rather than the cricket I assumed.

In the middle, endeavouring to make things go smoothly there too, Davies and Abell played with studious care. Abell might have been taking a practical examination with his classically correct defensive strokes and precise leaves against some accurate bowling, especially from Barker who was also getting movement. After eight overs Somerset had reached 9 for 1. Barker had not conceded a single run while Abell had added to Davies’ boundary with an off drive off Abbott which reached Gimblett’s Hill. Then an on drive for two off Barker brought forth the first cry of, “Shot,” heard at Taunton for nearly two years. The first cover drive seen by a crowd in that time came from the bat of Davies off Abbott. It brought forth a volley of applause which followed the smoothly struck ball all the way to the boundary and then dissolved into the Taunton buzz of old. People were back at the home of Somerset cricket, and they were not holding back in their appreciation.

After ten overs Somerset had battled their way to 19 for 1. In the 11th over, Abell came forward in defence against another inquisitorial ball from Barker, and edged it in a low arc to Dawson reaching down between his ankles at second slip. Somerset 20 for 2. Abell 8. Davies meanwhile seemed impervious to the machinations of the ball and drove Abbott square to the Caddick Pavilion. But Barker had the measure of the pitch, the overhead conditions and the other Somerset batsmen. Within four balls, Hildreth had come half forward and edged to McManus behind the stumps, Bartlett had succumbed leg before wicket, Somerset were 26 for 4 and Barker’s inquisition had produced the remarkable figures of 7-4-4-4. There was no buzz now, just a stunned mumble broken only by occasional snatches of anxious chatter. Lewis Goldsworthy came to the wicket and for nearly 40 minutes alongside Davies he resisted Hampshire. But, with the score on 43, he edged Brad Wheal, who had replaced Abbott, to McManus behind the stumps, departed for 7 and Somerset had lost their fifth wicket. The mumble fell to a hush and Somerset’s hopes of progressing to the first division in the second phase of the competition were under threat. It was not the return to Taunton the crowd had come to see.

Enter Tom Banton, back in the side as an extra batsman in place of Jack Leach who is with the England squad. Banton had begun the season as an opener alongside Tom Lammonby. Neither had succeeded and both had since dropped out of the side. Now, he changed the tone of the Somerset innings as he tore into the bowling with a mixture of raw power and serendipitous luck. Within the over Wheal had been driven fiercely to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary. A top-edged hook and a more controlled one were soon flying fine to the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary. Holland was driven through the on side for four more, all to mounting applause. A hook, with a hint of a top edge, off Wheal which cleared the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary turned the applause into cheers. Banton’s boundaries, rotation of the strike and a Davies square drive to the Somerset Stand off Holland had lifted the crowd, and took Somerset to 78 for 5 at lunch of which Banton and Davies had added 35 in seven overs, Banton making 23 of them.

Lunch was not quite the affair of old. My habitual circumnavigation was cut short by the ground perimeter being divided into three segments, one for the players and coaches and two for spectators from different sections of the ground . My segment ran from the Lord Ian Botham Stand, along the path, it is too narrow in the confines determined by the Tone to qualify as a concourse, behind the River Stand and Somerset Stands and onto Legends Square where a barrier denied entry to and beyond Gimblett’s Hill. At least, from the River Stand, my perambulation towards Legends Square began in an anti-clockwise direction like my circumnavigations of old. Masks were required as soon as you left your seat which challenged the eyesight of more than one septuagenarian as they tried to identify, through steamed-up glasses, a masked cricket-watching acquaintance not seen for a year and a half. The conversation though was as good as that of old and the looks were as wry as ever when the familiar Somerset score was discussed, although Banton’s innings had made an impression. Some acknowledgement too to the green tinge on the pitch and the bowler-friendly clouds looking down.

A Davies cover drive off Barker which flowed uninterrupted to the Somerset Stand boundary got Somerset moving again in the second over of the afternoon session. Banton followed with an edge wide of third slip off Abbott which ran down to the River Stand boundary/ Two well-taken runs turned square elicited a shout of, “Well run boys,” as the crowd began to urge their batsmen on. The applause was more extended when Banton drove Barker through the covers towards the Caddick Pavilion and the three runs brought up the fifty partnership. Banton had been at the wicket just 11 overs and had 35 of those runs. When Davies edged Abbott through the slips for four he brought up Somerset’s hundred, good fortune against a still-moving ball mingling with precision batting to carry Somerset forward. An on drive from Banton, beautifully leaned into, to the Somerset Stand against Barker roused the crowd again but an attempt to repeat the stroke resulted in an inside edge and a quivering leg stump. Banton had made 45 in just over the hour. Somerset were 108 for 6, but looking back from beyond the close it felt like Banton had changed the nature of the day. His innings provided the impetus for all that followed.

Some of Lewis Gregory’s best Championship innings have come when he has launched a merciless, risk-tinged attack on the bowling. His innings here was an exemplar of his method. He had not been at the wicket an over when he drove Abbott firmly through the off side to Legends Square. It was merely a harbinger of what was to come. He had been at the wicket two overs when Barker, who had been systematically unpicking the Somerset innings, struck for the sixth time. Davies, playing with the calm that sits at the heart of a storm, had kept Hampshire at bay with 47 effortless runs while six wickets fell at the other end. Now, every innings having its term, he became the seventh when he edged Barker, the leading edge of the storm, to the keeper. Somerset were 113 or 7 but that did not deflect Gregory from his purpose. Nor did it dismay Roelof van der Merwe. He drove hard at his second ball from Barker, the ball found the edge, but the good fortune which van der Merwe sometimes seems to carry around with him took it wide of third slip and it ran down to the covers store corner of the Trescothick Pavilion for four.

An inauspicious start to the partnership perhaps, but it presaged an assault on the bowling of such audacity it left the crowd staring on in delighted, at times almost delirious, disbelief. The pair added 171 runs in 147 minutes at all but five runs an over. There were, inevitably in such an assault, miscues and edges as risk mixed with certainty of stroke, but in impact it was a devastating display of batting. Gregory epitomised the early stages of the partnership when he drove Barker sharply through midwicket to the Somerset Stand boundary. Two balls later he repeated the stroke with the same flourish of the bat and the ball flew off the edge to the Ondaatje Stand at third man. Ferocity and fortune. The next ball he steered back towards the Ondaatje boundary for two more. Ten runs from the over, four more off the first ball of the next as van der Merwe drove Wheal viciously though the covers to the Somerset Stand. A single kept van der Merwe on strike from where he essayed a lofted on drive towards the Trescothick Pavilion. The ball flew towards the River Stand. The batsmen collected three runs and brought up Somerset’s 150. Someone even dared to mention the possibility of a bonus point.

Fortuitous the edged runs may have been but that did not blunt the enthusiasm of the crowd, or of the batsmen. When van der Merwe turned Wheal behind square, Gregory bounded up the pitch as if his train was about to leave without him. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” he called and he and van der Merwe hurtled through for two. The partnership hurtled too, rushing past 50 in its eighth over when van der Merwe lifted a ball from Abbott, now bowling from the River End, into the lower reaches of the Somerset Stand next to Legends Square. If the ghosts of seasons past who reside nearby had not already sat up to take notice of a burgeoning Somerset revival, they must have done in response to that stroke. 163 for 7 was not of itself a score of substance, but by their combination of swashbuckling luck and judgement Gregory and van der Merwe were raising spirits and planting seeds of hope in Somerset minds.

Those seeds of hope were soon germinating like over-watered forget-me-nots in a sun-filled spring. Gregory drove Abbott straight across the Lord Ian Botham Stand rope and then edged him through the upstretched hands of slip for two. Wheal was edged just short of and between the keeper and slip for four while Liam Dawson’s slow left arm was driven furiously through the leg side for the four which brought up Gregory’s fifty to socially distanced rows of loudly clapping hands and beaming smiles. Few would have predicted at 113 for 7 that Somerset would still be seven wickets down three runs short of their first batting point.

While Gregory plundered, van der Merwe rampaged. An extra cover drive off Abbott crashed into the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary, an attempted steer to the Ondaatje boundary flew off a thick edge to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary evading the gully fielder whose head almost sank to the ground as he bent in frustration. Fortune, it seemed, had decided to favour the batsmen. In an over from Holland the ball was driven into the River Stand for six and through the covers to the boundary in front of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion scoreboard as batting skill laid its claim to its share of the credit. An edge, also off Holland, hit the pad, ran loose and the batsmen raced for a single which brought up van der Merwe’s fifty and the hundred partnership to applause and tumultuous cheers.

As tea approached, the batsmen drew breath and the onslaught subsided, whether because of the approach of the interval or the return of the unrelenting Barker to the attack only the batsmen know. His performance had towered over the rest of the Hampshire bowlers all day, a fact that was marked by some warm and extended applause from the Somerset Stand when he was sent to field in front of it. Even so, neither the approach of tea, nor the bowling of Barker could completely constrain van der Merwe, I sometimes wonder whether anyone or anything can. He is an all or nothing kind of cricketer. He backed up as if expecting a run from every ball. When a single beckoned off Gregory’s bat his speed up the pitch would have beaten Gregory to his train. Now, he launched a ball from Dawson high over mid off and in among the occupants of Gimblett’s Hill.

Tea came at 232 for 7, 154 runs having been added in the afternoon session for the loss of two wickets under less than sunny skies. “Well played you two,” someone shouted as the players walked off to yet more applause and the sort of exited chatter that accompanies a school outing. The partnership had added 119 for the eighth wicket in 18 overs of uproarious stroke play. The crowd had cheered as much as applauded whenever the ball flew to the boundary or when an unlikely single was stolen. The batsmen had matched each other almost stroke for stroke and walked off within two runs of each other, Gregory on 59 and van der Merwe on 61. 232 for 7 was still not a score for the Somerset supporter to relax about, but the flood of runs that had flowed across the ground in the previous hour and a quarter seemed to sweep any doubts before it. As the batsmen disappeared into the Colin Atkinson Pavilion they left behind them a sea of smiling faces and bubbling conversations stretching from the Lord Ian Botham Stand to the Trescothick Pavilion. It had been a return to the Cooper Associates County Ground beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Dreamlike it may have been, but Gregory and van der Merwe had not yet finished. Immediately after tea, in spite of light now bad enough to need the floodlights, Gregory relaunched Somerset’s assault. He attacked Barker with a miscued attempt at an off drive which just cleared the long on boundary in front of the River Stand. Two balls later four byes brought cheers as the ball crossed the rope, and Gregory drove at a ball which went through third man to the covers store. In Barker’s next over he drove back over the bowler’s head to the Lord Ian Botham Stand. It was remorseless, and Somerset had reached 256 for 7, Gregory 74, van der Merwe 64. Another unlikely bonus point was on the board and talk was of a third, which at 113 for 7 would not have been considered even a fanciful prospect.

It was a partnership in which if one batsman drew breath the other breathed fire. Now van der Merwe set about the Hampshire bowling with another mixture of fortune and fury. In an over from Abbott, he turned the ball behind square and ran two to rising applause as the crowd continued to respond to the Somerset charge. He played and missed, clipped a ball neatly off his toes to the Priory Bridge Road boundary, steered another over backward point to the Somerset Stand boundary and attempted a spectacular, if speculative, failed hook at a high bouncer and left the crowd chuckling in amusement. A neat pull off Wheal and a fizzing drive through extra cover off Holland both went to the Legends Square boundary. The ghosts of all those who had watched from the old Stragglers bar down the decades would have drooled at the drive, and a man nearby said with awe in his voice, “What a Shot! What a shot!” And then, with no more than a defensive push, he played the ball gently between cover and mid off. He set off on the quickest of singles, Wheal, at cover, kept his cool, calmly intercepted the ball on the run and with a direct hit ran van der Merwe out by a distance.

He had scored 88 from 102 balls with 10 fours and three sixes. The applause followed him from wicket to rope and Somerset were within 16 runs of that third batting point. Gregory made short work of the point. He scored the last ten runs in two balls off Holland with a lofted on drive to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary and a straighter drive which cleared the rope. The 300 brought cheers, disbelieving looks, animated conversations, gently shaking heads, numb palms and beaming smiles all around, and for the moment the pandemic seemed easier to bear.

And still there was more to come as Somerset added another 60 runs in seven final overs. Davey, unassuming as ever, launched into the bowling, driving and then pulling Abbott through midwicket, taking the runs Abbott had conceded in the innings past 100. Wheal was driven straighter through long on to the River Stand and Barker, still persevering, straight back to the Lord Ian Botham Stand. Gregory drove Abbott straight to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary and hooked the next ball for four more. That brought up his century and the ground to its feet. It remained there for some time until the bursting emotion that had built up as Gregory led Somerset from the depths of 113 for 7 to the heights of 338 for 9 had spent its force. The result of it all was a furious height no ball from Abbott to ironic cheers from all around. Finally, having driven Abbott through the covers to the Somerset Stand off the first ball of his next over, Gregory was bowled, with the height of irony, defending. He had made 107 in just over three hours of the most glorious cricket.

And then came that final assault from Marchant de Lange before he was well caught by a diving Felix Organ in front of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. De Lange had scored 17 from eight balls, Davey 22 from 26, and Somerset had 360 and a fourth batting point. For those Somerset supporters lucky enough to be there it had been a return to the cricket beyond even the wildest of dreams from among the darkest points of the coronavirus interregnum. These have been serious times and cricket is only a game, as those who do not know it will tell you, but this day of cricket had been more than a game. It had marked one glorious step on the return to life as we knew it, and it had lifted the cricketing spirits of Somerset supporters to heights they had not known since some of the heady days of the 2019 Championship run. There will be much work for Somerset to do on the morrow, but for the moment this day was enough.

Close. Somerset 360 (L. Gregory 107, R.E. van der Merwe 88, S.M. Davies 47, K.H.D. Barker 6-72).