Safety First – Somerset v Hampshire – County Championship 2021 – Taunton – Day 4

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.

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.

Overnight. Somerset 360 and 323 for 6. Hampshire 311. Somerset lead by 372 runs with four second innings wickets standing.

Final day. 6th June – Safety first

The match was, to all intents and purposes, over as a contest before a heavy downpour effectively ended play for the day, the captains agreeing to conclude proceedings when a restart was scheduled for after five o’clock. The resulting draw left Somerset ten points clear at the top of their group table with two rounds of matches still to be played. That Somerset intended to make the match safe before making any attempt to win was evident from the outset. Bartlett and Banton, new to the crease after Davey’s dismissal to the last ball of the previous evening, batted with no sign of aggressive intent. They added just 19 runs in the first ten overs.

Snatches of conversation portrayed surprise about, and a number of theories for, Somerset’s lack of ambition. The state of the group table and the two-phase structure of this year’s competition meant that a defeat for Somerset would do their prospects of winning the competition more harm than a victory would do them good. A victory would in any event be hard to achieve for the bowling side on a pitch on which Somerset had scored over 750 runs at four runs an over and on which Hampshire had batted for 105 overs. My own musings settled on the seemingly innate caution of county cricket captains, particularly in an age of two division or two-phase Championship cricket when the price of defeat can be stinging.

As to the cricket, the first boundary of the day did not come until the fourth ball of the tenth over when Bartlett glanced Barker to Gimblett’s Hill to relieved applause. From there, it was as if an alarm had sounded and roused the batsmen from their slumbers. After those first ten overs Banton had gathered six runs. Off the first ball of the eleventh, bowled by Abbott at the end of his opening spell, Banton doubled his score with a spectacular uppercut which cleared a desperately leaping deep third man fielder and beyond him the boundary in front of the River Stand. An off drive clattered into the boards at Legends Square. Barker and Wheal, who immediately replaced Abbott, momentarily held back the rush of runs as they restricted Somerset to seven in three overs. It was only a momentary halt before the two batsmen unleashed a stampede to which Hampshire had no answer.

Banton began by driving Barker through the covers for four, hitting some Hampshire equipment just beyond the boundary in the process. The next ball he lofted to the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary. A single brought Bartlett on strike and the assault continued as he too lofted a ball to the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary. A single took him back to the other end. From there he stepped decisively away to leg and uppercut Wheal backward of point to the Somerset Stand and hooked the resulting bouncer to the Colin Atkinson boundary. A single brought Banton back to the striker’s end and a pair of twos. The blizzard of runs ended with Bartlett two short of a century, Banton ten short of fifty and Somerset five short of 400. It was breathtaking stuff and a buzz of anticipation that more might follow mingled with growing questions about the continued delay of a declaration.

More did follow. In the next over, from Holland, replacing Barker at the River End, all three shortfalls on the scoreboard were remedied. Bartlett bookended the over with a pair of singles, the second of which brought up his century, a raised bat, a hug with Banton, a disjointed, perhaps tension-releasing walk around the environs of his crease and an extended standing ovation from the crowd. In between Bartlett’s two singles Banton drove at and edged a ball to the Trescothick Pavilion for a boundary which brought up Somerset’s 400. The next ball landed in the Somerset Stand seats next to the Garner Gates to bring up Banton’s fifty. As the ball hurtled remorselessly towards one spectator, another shouted, “Don’t touch it,” in response to the coronavirus-related request from the umpires that spectators not touch the ball if it came into the stands. Applause again and another raised bat. The calls for a declaration were now almost universal but Bartlett took his guard for the next over from Wheal. Off the first ball a miscued on drive was caught by Vince coming in from the Trescothick Pavilion boundary and, after a moment’s uncertainty, Banton followed Bartlett off the pitch.

With about 40 minutes remaining before lunch Hampshire reached 17 for 0 after two overs, Steel having found the boundary twice. Against a 458-run deficit it seemed unreal and brought forth laughter and a cry of, “Eight and a half an over, they’re ahead of the rate.” But when the bowlers settled into a more testing regime and began to beat the bat the lighthearted chatter changed into a more intense murmur. A huge leg before wicket appeal from Gregory against Holland brought a momentary silence as people watched for the umpire’s finger. A finger that remained unmoved. A communal gasp of anguish rang around the ground when Davey forced an edge from Holland. The ball flew shoulder high just to the right of Abell at a wide third slip, Abell got both hands to the ball, but it fell to the ground. The shock was all the greater because Abell does not drop catches, at least not in the Somerset mind, even when, as he had been in this match, he moves up and down the slip and gully cordon according to need.

The Somerset bowlers were now on their metal and, two balls into the next over, Gregory let forth another colossal leg before wicket appeal. This time the umpire did raise his finger and an exultant shout of, “Yes!” rang out before being engulfed by a huge cheer and enthusiastic applause for Gregory. But the players immediately walking off for lunch without the over being completed reminded of how little time was left in the game. The score was 30 for 1 and four balls short of 66 overs remained for Somerset to take eight wickets.

In those pre-coronavirus times, which seem so long ago when you stop to remember them, and yet only yesterday when you are soaking up the newly returned atmosphere which pervades a county cricket ground during a Championship match, a lunchtime circumnavigation of the ground, always anti-clockwise in my case, was de rigueur. In these times of restricted crowds and coronavirus regulations circumnavigation is impossible. One segment of the ground is cordoned off from spectators to avoid any risk of virus spread to the players. Each team has its dressing room in separate buildings to minimize the risk of spread of the virus from one team to the other. At Taunton, the Somerset team has the Colin Atkinson Pavilion and the opposition team the Ondaatje Pavilion.

As I wandered the parts of the ground open to spectators, people were standing and chatting almost in the old way. Almost, but not quite. Everyone was wearing a face mask, except those few sipping drinks. Some wore plain, functional medical masks. Others personal masks in a variety of colours and patterns. People were, for the most part, standing a little further apart than is natural for a conversation. In front of the new portrait of Marcus Trescothick on the side of the pavilion named after him, a portrait made up entirely of the names of members who had donated their 2020 membership fee to the Club, stood an ever-changing gathering of people looking at the portrait, perhaps seeking out their own name, or taking photographs. There was too the joy of one of the great aspects of championship cricket, the lunchtime perambulation punctuated by myriad fleeting conversations on cricket.

I returned to my abode for the day in the River Stand as the players took up where they had left off an age before, or so it seemed, but was only the statutory 40-minute lunch break. Gregory and Davey continued to test the batsmen and Hampshire continued the same determined defence with which they had ended the morning. Balls went past the edge or hurried the batsman to applause and cries of, “Well bowled.” Other balls were met with the obduracy of a straight bat or a well-judged leave. There was an occasional attacking stroke. Steel pulled Davey to the Somerset Stand and Holland glanced Gregory to the Lord Ian Botham Stand but two other boundaries came off thick edges. It was hard cricket from both sides but as Somerset pushed and Hampshire resisted the overs slipped by, and Gregory and Davey were fast exhausting their opening bursts already extended by the break of the lunch interval.

Then, with Holland playing well forward in defence, a ball from Gregory evaded the bat and bowled him. “Yeah!” went up the cry followed by applause and animated chatter as people began to wonder, “Is this possible?” Somerset had 60 more overs and Hampshire eight wickets to defend. When in the next over Davey struck Northeast on the hand and then beat his bat people edged a little further forward in their seats. Davey was bowling a spell which modern management speak would describe as ‘challenging’. In Davey’s next over, the pressure told. Northeast edged the ball low, fast and wide of Abell at a widish fourth slip, there being no third. Abell dived, hands closing on the ball. A cheer breathed its first and last in the same breath as Abell dropped the catch. It was difficult, but the effect was to stun the expectant crowd into a momentary silence before disbelieving conversations broke out. “The second one,” someone said with the sort of surprise that might have been shown had we just witnessed the second coming rather than a second dropped catch by Abell. Hampshire were 46 for 2 in the 18th over. A minimum of 57 overs remained, but the moment between the edge of Northeast’s bat and Abell’s drop was the apogee of Somerset’s hopes on the final day and you could feel the hope starting to seep away.

Soon de Lange and van der Merwe had replaced Davey and Gregory. De Lange generated noticeable pace and lift. He beat the bat several times, caused the batsmen to take sudden evasive action more than once and repeatedly hurried them. Once Northeast was tucked up but managed to deflect the ball to the fine leg fielder in front of Gimblett’s Hill. Once, Alsop was rushed into fending a ball into the leg side where it fell short of the short leg fielder. On another occasion he deflected the ball with an uncontrolled jab of the bat. The ball went over his head for four. The crowd responded to de Lange’s pace and hostility with gasps, applause and cheers of encouragement, but it profited Somerset nothing. Alsop made the batsmen’s point too with two drives, one past point and the other through the covers, both to the Somerset Stand boundary. De Lange was replaced at the River End by Abell who bowled to two short midwickets. Northeast emphasised Somerset’s fading hopes by pulling him behind square to the Somerset Stand. Another boundary was only prevented by a stunning diving stop from van der Merwe, one of the two short midwickets.

Van der Merwe bowled from the Trescothick Pavilion End with a slip, leg slip and short leg. Once, he defeated Northeast’s sweep, the ball ricocheted between pad and bat and then roll into the base of the stumps, but the bails remained steadfastly atop the stumps. The close fielders huddled around the stumps and looked quizzically at the offending bail as if they were expecting to find it set in glue. Gregory then gave the bail a gentle nudge as if it had been part dislodged and he were pushing it back into place. By the end of that over, the net result of Somerset’s endeavours was two wickets, two dropped catches and a part dislodged bail. Hampshire were 88 for 2 after 33 overs. Only 42 overs remained, threatening clouds were gathering from over the flats and a cold rain-bearing breeze was sweeping across the ground. If the bail was not omen enough, the scoreboard was giving the strongest of hints, as scoreboards often do, of where the match was going.

Within an over the tell-tale rustling oscillation of a crowd hurriedly putting items into bags, coats onto backs and umbrellas in the air was upon us. Within seconds the players were leaving the field, and the contents of the clouds were washing away Somerset’s now almost defunct hopes of forcing a victory. By the time my brand-new Somerset umbrella was in position my hat was more than a little damp to the touch. I am one of those who does not leave a cricket ground until it is beyond clear that there will be no more play. By the time the rain had stopped, 30 minutes had passed, an early tea had been taken, the full covers were on, and the flat covering was bearing water. A technical restart, with most spectators having left the ground, was announced for five minutes past five with 19 overs to be bowled, but even first-class cricket, with its tenacious adherence to the niceties of the rules and tradition had to bow to the inevitable and the captains agreed a draw. The result left Somerset ten points clear at the top of the group table, even when their eight-point deduction had been taken into account. They had controlled the match and, with two rounds of matches to come, had kept their destiny in their own hands.

Result. Somerset 360 (L. Gregory 107, R.E. van der Merwe 88, S.M. Davies 47, K.H.D. Barker 6-72) and 409 for 7 dec (G.A. Bartlett 100, T.B. Abell 98, S.M. Davies 82, F.S. Organ 3-115). Hampshire 311 (L.D. McManus 91, S.A. Northeast 67, J.H. Davey 5-78) and 88 for 2. Match drawn. Somerset 15 points. Hampshire 14 points.