Hard Grind – Somerset v Hampshire – County Championship – Taunton – Day 2

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 of the match.

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, M.de Lange.

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.

Overnight. Somerset 360.

Second day. 4th June – Hard grind

This was a day of cricket of a different stamp to the first. A day for roundheads rather than cavaliers. The sun shone all day, the Somerset pace bowlers stuck hard to their task and the Hampshire batsmen to theirs. In one respect the day was a mirror image of the first. The bowlers worked up an advantage before the batsmen turned them back. The cricket though was of a very different brand. Whereas the later Somerset batsmen had conducted a headlong charge, the Hampshire ones, for over after over, stood their ground. 360 runs for ten wickets in 84.2 overs on the first day. 285 runs for seven wickets in 96 overs on the second. The heights of the first day were not reached on the second, but the cricket enthralled nonetheless as the two sides pressed for supremacy in a match which might have a significant impact on whether either or both proceeds to the top tier in the second phase of this year’s County Championship.

Somerset were without their talisman strike bowler, Craig Overton, with the England Test squad, although not playing in the Test at Lord’s. You might not have known it, at least in the first two sessions of the day, as the rest of the attack stepped forward to fill the gap. Josh Davey, understated but underestimated at the batsman’s peril, was as ever, more threatening than his stealth-like run up suggested. Bowling from the River End, twice he went past the outside edge of Cameron Steel’s bat to gasps from the crowd. Ian Holland clipped him square to the Somerset Stand boundary, then edged the next ball wide and low of van der Merwe at fourth slip. Van der Merwe, like a cat after a bird, took off and snared the escaping ball. Hampshire 15 for 1. Holland 9. Crowd cheering.

Somerset have played an extra batsman this year which has perhaps contributed to their rotating their three main pace bowlers at the start of an innings. Here Davey bowled a six-over opening spell, Gregory a four-over one to be replaced by de Lange and then to return to replace Davey at the end of his spell. The left-handed Alsop replaced Holland. He drove de Lange square and powerfully to the Caddick Pavilion. De Lange’s next over he tried to defend from the crease, edged low towards the slips where Abell, at third slip, dived low to his right and took the catch with barely a molecule of air between his knuckles and the grass. It was an exceptional catch and brought cheers to match. Hampshire 30 for 2. Alsop 4. Off the last ball of the over, Steel, on 15, looking hurried by de Lange’s pace, played an indeterminate stroke and the ball popped back, head high, to de Lange who took the catch. Hampshire were 31 for 3 from 14 overs, and Somerset’s 360 was suddenly looking daunting.

Now, batsmen and bowlers locked horns as the two sides grappled for supremacy. It was a morning of intense, no-quarter-given cricket played under bright sun but in an atmosphere touched by tension as Somerset tried to push home their early advantage and Hampshire fought to keep their foothold in the match. Five singles, one off the edge, in the next five overs the limit of Hampshire’s success, as Sam Northeast and James Vince, Hampshire’s premier batsmen, fought to establish themselves. The bowlers tested them, de Lange beating Vince, Gregory going past the outside edge of Northeast’s bat and then striking his pads to a huge leg before wicket appeal. A drive through the covers by Northeast off Davey momentarily released the pressure on Hampshire but the bowlers immediately closed in again, restricting the batsmen to two runs from the next four overs. An over from de Lange, in which Northeast steered him neatly to the River Stand and drove him through the covers, both for four, gave Hampshire momentary relief, but a lunch score of 67 for 3 from 29 overs told its own tale.

The bowlers continued to press in the hour after lunch. A fast, short ball from de Lange struck Vince who also edged Gregory perilously close to Hildreth at slip. Gregory beat Northeast twice in succession and found an edge that fell safe. “It isn’t looking comfortable out there,” someone said. As if in response, Hampshire struck. Vince steered Davey to the third man boundary and Northeast drove Gregory through the off side to the Lord Ian Botham Stand and reached the Gimblett’s Hill boundary with a neatly guided hook. 97 for 3 the score, with 30 runs added since lunch in 12 overs. There was a slight sense of unease around me at the thought that Hampshire might be getting through the worst. The unease was immediately relieved when Vince, attempting to maintain the increased tempo, cut Davey hard, did not keep the ball down, and was excellently caught at backward point by the substitute fielder, Kasey Aldridge as the ball flew above his head. The cheer that erupted drove away the growing tension and Somerset had regained the initiative.

Liam Dawson has more than once taken a game away from Somerset, not least with a century in bowler-friendly conditions in the defeat in the penultimate Championship match of 2019 which derailed Somerset’s County Championship challenge that year. Now he had the opportunity, with Northeast, to bat Hampshire back into to the match. He did not make an auspicious start. His first two runs came from an inside edge off Davey, he played and missed to his first ball from Abell but survived the voracious appeal for a catch at the wicket. The lifelong supporter has seen it all before and knows that such a start to an innings can be as much a forerunner to a long innings as a short one.

Any resulting anxiety was dispelled when Abell, who had been generating lift, found just enough in the pitch to take the edge of Dawson’s defensive bat from where the ball flew straight into the hands of Hildreth at first slip. Joy was unbounded, in your correspondent and, from their reactions, everyone else. Somerset were whittling away Hampshire’s resistance. 110 for 5 in the 47th over the confirmation. Dawson had gone for three and Somerset still led by 250 runs. The Somerset heart pumped harder still when Abell moved his first ball to Lewis McManus away from the right-hander and comprehensively defeated the outside edge. The next ball, virtually identical, found the edge but fell inches short of Gregory at second slip. Heads all around were flung back in disbelief as wry looks portrayed minds thinking of what might have been.

Somerset use de Lange’s pace in short, hostile spells. He bowled another, of three overs, here. Since the start of play, every bowler had put the batsmen under pressure. There had been no respite. One of de Lange’s overs, a testing maiden against McManus, drew enthusiastic applause. Hampshire reached a gruelling 117 for 5 after 50 overs from Somerset’s three main pace bowlers and an increasingly pacey Abell. But when Abell asked van der Merwe to bowl from the River End the pressure on the batsmen began to ease.

McManus turned van der Merwe’s first ball to fine leg where Byrom ran long and hard, stopped the ball inches inside the rope and reduced four runs to two. His fourth was driven through midwicket to the Somerset Stand and this time there was no-one to impede its progress. In van der Merwe’s third over Northeast further released the pressure. He swept fine of Davey placed at short fine leg for the stroke and the ball ran down to Gimblett’s Hill for four. Northeast repeated the stroke but without imparting the same impetus to the ball and Davey chased it down, restricting Northeast to two. An ambled single to deep square leg took Northeast’s tally from the over to seven and seemed to symbolize the relaxation in pressure from the spinner.

Abell meanwhile, bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End with nippy discipline and giving the batsmen no rest between balls, restricted them to the occasional single. A gadfly constantly flitting in to nip its victim was the image that sprang to mind, and Hampshire, who had looked as uncomfortable as a gadfly’s victim for most of day, had only just managed to drag their scoring rate up to two and a half runs an over. Then Abell nipped in with a lethal bite. Northeast drove him through the on side towards the Ondaatje Stand, de Lange chased hard and held Northeast to two. Off the next ball, Northeast, misjudging the bounce, hooked, top-edged and Davies caught a looping catch between the leg slip and leg gully positions. Northeast, the backbone thus far of Hampshire’s attempt to keep a foothold in the game, walked off to generous applause from the Somerset crowd. Hampshire were 148 for 6 in the 60th over, still 212 adrift of Somerset. Northeast 67.

One perpetual thorn in the Somerset side over the years, Liam Dawson, had not troubled them in this innings. Another, Keith Barker, now walked to the wicket on the back of his exceptional six-wicket haul in the Somerset innings. He and McManus saw Hampshire through to tea on 157 for 6, still over 200 runs behind Somerset. A teatime perambulation detected quite a buzz around the ground. It also detected two main topics of comment. The constant pressure applied by the Somerset pace bowlers against the defensive Hampshire wall and the aid it received from some exceptional Somerset fielding. “One more push,” someone said.

The fall of Northeast turned out to be the apogee of Somerset’s day. After tea the Hampshire batsmen began to push back. McManus drove de Lange through the covers to the Somerset Stand and Abell to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary before pulling him through midwicket to the Somerset Stand. The grip of Somerset’s pacemen was loosening. With the new ball not quite due, Abell turned again to van der Merwe’s slow left arm spin. Barker attacked. One drive flew off the edge and past the slip fielder to Gimblett’s Hill, but an off drive to the River Stand and a reverse sweep from McManus through backward point to the Caddick Pavilion which took him to a hard-won fifty had more pedigree. That, and some less adventurous overs against Abell’s gadfly and de Lange’s raw pace, took Hampshire to the new ball on 216 for 6. In the hour and a half either side of tea, to an increasingly anxious quiet in the Somerset crowd, McManus and Barker added 68 runs for the seventh wicket and reduced the deficit to 144.

As the umpire held the new ball up to the scorers, with memories of Somerset’s lower order revival still fresh in the mind, there were some uneasy looks in seats around me. Immediately, McManus and Barker took the attack to Somerset. McManus turned Gregory, bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End, behind square and drove him through extra cover, both for four. Barker glanced Davey to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary and cut him through backward point to the Ondaatje boundary. With Hampshire on 235 for 6, the deficit reduced to 125, the uneasy faces were beginning to become fraught. Then Barker edged Davey, Davies dived towards first slip and dropped the catch. A desperate groan the instant reaction of more than one in the crowd as the fraught faces became horror-struck. But the horror-struck groan turned into an ecstatic cheer when Barker edged Davey’s next ball straight to Gregory at second slip. How sport can turn supporters’ emotions inside out in an instant. Hampshire 235 for 7. Barker 33. Partnership 87. Deficit 125.

A key breakthrough it seemed for Somerset with the new ball only in its fifth over. The crowd was buzzing again. The fielders continued to apply pressure. A substitute fielder ran hard along the Somerset Stand boundary, dived full length to deflect a steer from McManus along the boundary, jumped up and set off after it again before throwing it in and holding Hampshire to three runs. But Davey’s wicket was Somerset’s last success with the new ball and now McManus and Organ attacked it.

During the early part of the afternoon, I had sent a text commenting on how well Somerset were coping without Overton. Now I received a reply, “Perhaps we are missing Overton with the second new ball?” That might have had some point, for Overton bowls with sustained hostility combined with unrelenting accuracy neither of which cedes anything to the time of day. He looks the part in the van of the attack and the rest of the attack looks the part around him.

As it was, the last 11 overs brought 50 runs and took Hampshire, at pace, to within 75 runs of Somerset’s 360 without further loss. A McManus edge briefly raised Somerset hopes, but it just cleared the backward point fielder before reaching the boundary. Abell was clipped neatly off the toes to the Somerset Stand as Hampshire built momentum. At the other end, Organ launched into an over from Davey, driving him through cover for two, clipping him square to the Somerset Stand for four and then to Gimblett’s Hill for four more before ending the day with an off drive off Gregory to Gimblett’s Hill which would have impressed the old Straggler’s ghosts.

The last session, and in particular the last hour in which Hampshire scored at a run a minute, the old benchmark for fast scoring, had taken the gilt off Somerset’s day. Some even wondered if Hampshire might gain a first innings lead. After five sessions of Somerset dominance, the route to victory had begun to look harder with Hampshire’s innings eating into the time left in the match and the pitch showing no sign of deterioration. And then, with the sands of the match shifting, matters were adjourned until the morrow.

Close. Somerset 360. Hampshire 285 for 7. Hampshire trail by 75 runs with three first innings wickets standing.