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 for all four days in the ballot.
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. Hampshire 285 for 7. Hampshire trail by 75 runs with three first innings wickets standing.
Third day. 5th June – Somerset rampant
This has been a match worthy of the County Championship at its best. Good, hard cricket. Sometimes flamboyant, sometimes dour, but always incessant in the pressure each team has applied to the other. First Hampshire knocked Somerset back on their heels by reducing them to 113 for 7 before a coruscating counterattack from Gregory and van der Merwe left Hampshire facing a mountain 360 runs tall at the end of the first day. Then Hampshire spent a long, hot second day clawing their way back into contention as they ground out 285 runs for the loss of seven wickets against some persistently accurate bowling from the Somerset pace attack. Only van der Merwe’s slow left arm provided any respite from the constant pressure.
At the start of the third day Hampshire began with the prospect of climbing to somewhere near the heights Somerset had reached in their first innings and then putting them under pressure in their second. It was a nervous start for the Somerset crowd, pleased about being back at the cricket, but keen too to see their team push for an advantage and for a place in the first division of the second phase of this year’s Championship.
The Cooper Associates County Ground is nothing without atmosphere, and for this match there has been atmosphere aplenty. “C’mon boys,” someone shouted as Davey ran in to bowl the first ball of the day to Felix Organ. The third ball , Organ played to mid on for a single and the fourth McManus, 91 not out overnight and Hampshire’s main hope, edged low between second and third slip. Abell, at third slip, dived to his left and accepted the catch as if it were an offering from the cricketing gods. “Hooray,” someone shouted, followed by cheers which metamorphosed into applause and a ripple of animated chatter. The crowd was now fully activated and echoes of pre-coronavirus days began to fill the air.
Somerset never looked back, and the atmosphere never subsided even if at times it shifted from the mix of cheers, applause, and occasional shouts of encouragement that are the ground’s lifeblood to the palpable silence that grips it when tension bites. At times when a bowler ran in the dropping of the proverbial pin could have been heard. Applause too when Organ cut the fourth ball of the second over, bowled by Gregory, to the Somerset Stand for four, Somerset supporters, as ever, acknowledging good play by the opposition. Cheers when there was a huge leg before wicket appeal to the final ball of the over and the umpire’s finger was raised. Organ had gone for 26, Hampshire were 292 for 9, any Hampshire hopes of near parity on first innings were hanging by a thread and the old Taunton buzz was in full flow.
For six overs Abbott and Wheal kept Hampshire hopes intact as Gregory and Davey worked to limit any narrowing of Somerset’s lead. Typical of the cut and thrust, Wheal attempted two glances in an over from Gregory. One reached the Lord Ian Botham Stand off the inside edge, the other off the face of the bat. As the bowlers tightened their grip, the batsmen dealt in singles until Davey beat Wheal beautifully with a ball that moved away off the seam. Gasps. Davey’s next ball cut in, hit the pad and there was no escape for the batsman. “What a ball!” someone said, but the ball before must deserve some of the credit. It was a brilliant piece of bowling which might have removed a batsman from higher up the order than Wheal. Hampshire 311, 49 behind Somerset. The intensity of the cricket across the Hampshire innings could perhaps be judged from its 105 overs, 21 more than Somerset’s 360 had taken. It had been captivating toe-to-toe, give-nothing cricket.
For Somerset, Davies and Byrom set out to build on the first innings advantage. Davies, with typically understated authority, drove Abbott, bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End, through point and clipped Barker over midwicket to cries of, “Shot,” both to the Caddick Pavilion boundary. The second came to rest in front of that spot next to the Caddick Pavilion favoured by many for a chat while they keep an eye on the cricket. A spot that has been rendered devoid of spectators by the coronavirus regulations. Had there been people there to talk not many minutes would have passed before the word ‘graceful’ passed their lips as Davies displayed his art 80 yards from where they stood.
Byrom’s start was less auspicious, a boundary from a thick edge to a sparsely populated Gimblett’s Hill his only score. An edge off Abbott low to McManus behind the stumps soon followed. He walked off to silence until a flicker of applause broke out as he reached the boundary. He has not had the best of returns to the side, and in these coronavirus times there is no crowd in the Colin Atkinson Pavilion to spark applause for a batsman returning there after another low score. Somerset 13 for 1. Byrom 4. Lead 62.
The second wicket partnership between Davies and Abell, Hampshire’s seven-hour occupation of the crease notwithstanding, now unequivocally stamped Somerset’s authority on the match. They added 139 runs at nearly five runs an over. Abell set the tone to loud applause with a classic cover drive off Abbott to the Somerset Stand and followed it with a forward defensive stroke as classical in its construction as the cover drive. It was, in two balls, the two pillars of an in-form Abell innings, decisive attack and equally decisive defence. For longed-for batting grace and classicism after the coronavirus interregnum, to watch a partnership between Davies and Abell was a dream realised.
They began under a tense quiet, for more early wickets would put Somerset under pressure. After Davies drove Barker through midwicket to the Caddick Pavilion, the boundaries began to flow and the applause to mount. Barely an over passed without the ball finding the rope, sometimes more than once. Abell took 11 runs from a single Abbott over. An on drive brought two, a square drive four, a straight drive to the Trescothick Pavilion four more and a single kept Abell on strike. Anticipation grew among the watchers, a temporary aberration apart when Davies lapped Barker into hands of Organ in front of the Garner Gates. A groan was cut short when the ball, like some cruelly rejected visitor, ejected itself from his hands and fell sullenly to earth. Davies soon re-ignited the anticipation with a stunning off drive to the Trescothick Pavilion. In the next over he steered Wheal through third man to Gimblett’s Hill. The stroke took Somerset’s lead past 100 which gave the spirits another boost, a sense not dissipated when the batsmen eased more conservatively to lunch which Somerset reached on 59 for 1. Davies 29, Abell 28. Lead 108.
One effect of the coronavirus regulations was less movement among the crowd than I recall in pre-coronavirus times. Whether because people were adhering to the request to minimize unnecessary movement, or because complying with restrictions has become part of life, or because circumnavigations of cricket grounds are precluded by the player zone, I know not. In pre-coronavirus times people could always be seen walking around the ground during play, perhaps ‘trying to take a wicket’, or gathering between the pavilions and stands to chat and watch. It was as much a part of watching cricket for some as sitting in their seat for two hours was for others. Not now. I have yet to see play held up because of movement behind the arm since the crowds returned. Only a few moved during sessions, perhaps to answer a call of nature or to buy a drink. The consequence for me, and probably for others given that the baby boomer generation proliferates in a Championship crowd, was a rheumatic knee becoming painful as the session approached its close and the need to exercise it grew. My occasional circumnavigations or hot drink purchases during a session of play were timed to exercise a knee before it complained. My other tactic was to sit on the end of a row and periodically stretch my legs into the aisle. The allocator of socially distanced seats takes no account of my knees and having an empty seat on either side of me does not quite work for the legs need to stretch to their full length and not even the capacious River Stand permits that.
The lunchtime perambulation around the open parts of the ground required by my knees and the need to experience at least some of the old times revealed the main discussion point among other wanderers to be around the timing of any Somerset declaration. I stuck to my assumption that Abell, or whoever makes the decision on declarations in modern cricket, would be infused by the usual caution of those who actually make and take the responsibility for decisions and doubted there would be a declaration before the morning.
But for the moment, it was back to two hours or so of knee-constricting sitting and the Davies-Abell partnership. Abell left little doubt that Somerset would continue to attack when he cut Abbott backward of point to the Somerset Stand in the first over after lunch. A thick edge, again off Abbott, crossed the boundary below my seat and brought forth a high-pitched cry of, “Yeah!” from someone not much more than one tenth the age of the surrounding baby boomers. As he watched Abell, I reflected that I had probably reacted with similar joy when I first watched Somerset and Peter Wight play over 60 years before, and that a septuagenarian seeing me then might, in his tender years, have seen Lionel Palairet’s lofted drive. Such are the wanderings of the mind in the returned ambience of watching live Championship cricket.
Davies too found the boundary with some smoothly struck strokes off Barker. An off drive ended its journey in front of the narrow gap between the Lord Ian Botham Stand and the River Stand where spectators on the move since 2019 have had to squeeze in ever more tightly after a floodlight pylon joined them and a steward as they watched from there. When he steered Barker through third man to the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard, Hampshire were persuaded to put in a third man. Before the over was out Barker had been cut with exceptional softness of touch, but with such resulting force, I found myself trying to work out how Isaac Newton would equate his third law to such an interaction between bat and ball. Someone in front of me put it more succinctly than my convoluted thought processes could manage. “Pick ‘ee out of the stingers,” the cry. Oh, what a joy it was to be back at live cricket.
Now, Organ’s off spin drew Davies’ attention and the stingers continued to take a battering. With more obvious force in his strokes, Davies swept Organ behind square to the Somerset Stand and drove him over long on to Gimblett’s Hill. When Davies dropped a ball from Wheal at his feet, Abell continued to apply pressure with a shout of, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” and a scampered single. Now he took up the charge. He played Organ with some Davies-like finesse, twice sweeping him fine towards the Colin Atkinson Pavilion, on both occasions for two. After that a comment of, “Well done, Tommy,” broke through the applause following an expansive cut through backward point off Wheal to the Ondaatje boundary.
With the Somerset score now advancing at four and a half runs an over the ambient chatter and the cheers for the boundaries began to take on the proportions of pre-coronavirus days. When Davies slog swept Organ into the lower reaches of the Somerset Stand the smiles were visible as far as the eye could see, hands crashed together in tumultuous applause and cheers accompanied the ball into the stand. A glance at the scoreboard, for those who had not already made the calculation, revealed the six had taken Somerset to 154 for 1 and the lead to 204. That re-charged the applause just as it was fading from the six. And then, with Somerset in full flow, Hampshire struck. Organ defeated Davies’ attempt at a sweep, struck the pads and a relieved Hampshire appeal bore fruit. Davies’ 82 had taken less than two and a half hours and the applause followed him all the way to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion.
“The incoming batsman is James Hildreth,” brought forth the exhortation, “C’mon Hildy.” Hildreth has not been in the best of form in 2021. He did not look long for the crease here. There was a flowing cut behind point towards the Ondaatje boundary for three and a cover drive to the Caddick Pavilion boundary which brought forth loud applause, but on 13 an attempt to guide Organ into the on side resulted in a leading edge. Organ took a sharp catch low down, diving well to his right. Somerset 182 for 3. Lead 231. The partnership had added 30 but the pace of scoring had dropped, and declaration calculations could again be heard.
With tea about half an hour away, Bartlett joined Abell who had continued in his characteristically classical style. It was one of those innings which stands out from the norm, and it was approaching a century. While Hildreth was trying to establish himself, Abell had dominated the bowling. He had pulled powerfully through midwicket to the Ondaatje boundary, and two drives through extra cover, one for two and one for four, were struck towards Legends Square. Organ the suffering bowler. Now, a glance to Gimblett’s Hill off Holland followed and two virtually identical back foot drives through the covers off Organ raced to the Somerset Stand boards and took Abell to 98. As all eyes looked on in expectation or hope an attempt at a gentle late cut off Organ deflected the ball into the stumps. It is the fourth time in his first-class career Abell has been out in the nineties, including on debut. That is set against eight first-class centuries. The quality of the innings though could not be denied, and he walked off to a tremendous, extended standing ovation. Somerset 203 for 4. Lead 252. On the cusp of, but not yet a match-controlling lead. An over and a ball remained before tea in which Bartlett stated his, and Somerset’s, intent by cutting Holland through backward point to the Ondaatje Stand for four.
Goldsworthy’s Championship innings have generally been gritty affairs rather in the image of a student intent on getting a difficult maths homework right. Here we had another and like the others the cricket belied the 20 years of his age. Bartlett, all of 23 and with four centuries to his name, already engenders relief when he emerges from the Pavilion with bat in hand. Now the pair formed a partnership which in most minds had, by its end, taken the game beyond Hampshire’s reach. Goldsworthy opened his account against Abbott with what looked no more than a defensive stop, but the ball raced to Legends Square. Abbott, who was repeatedly punished in this match, suffered more in his next over. Goldsworthy glanced him fine for four. Twice Abbott bounced Bartlett, once so high a no ball resulted along with pantomime jeers. To the next Bartlett unleashed an uppercut over third man which came down among the Somerset Stand spectators next to the Garner Gates, now to cheers.
Organ and Wheal brought some respite for Hampshire, bowling five overs for 11 runs, but could not break through. Then Somerset advanced again. “Oh yes!” someone said as Bartlett late cut Organ towards the River Stand. “Shot!” the cry to a cover drive from Goldsworthy which brought up the fifty partnership. “Shot!” again as he drove Wheal backward of point. Now Bartlett took the lead, although his attempt to drive Organ resulted in the ball being in the air for an eternity. As it drifted endlessly towards the Trescothick Pavilion, James Vince, eye constantly on the ball, set off from mid on. Constantly he adjusted his run as the ball seemed to be dragging him further than he wanted to go. Eventually, it seemed to climb forever, it fell through his outstretched hands and, insult added to injury, rolled over the rope. Three balls later, Organ dropped short, Bartlett pulled hard towards the Caddick Pavilion boundary and Northeast, hand over eyes as if searching a distant horizon, lost the ball in the lowering sun. When Bartlett drove Organ over the long off boundary and into Legends Square Somerset had reached 300.
With the end of the day approaching, Goldsworthy continued that assault with a lofted drive off Holland over wide long which went with one bounce into the Garner Gates gap. When he tried to repeat the stroke, he was caught by Organ running in. He had made 36 and added 108 with Bartlett in an hour and a half. Somerset 311 for 5. 360 ahead. Bartlett 68. For the rest, Davey joined Bartlett, from where they all but took Somerset to the close before Davey was caught behind off Barker from the last scheduled ball of the day. That Davey had been sent in as nightwatchman was perhaps an indication that Somerset, 372 ahead at the close, did not intend to declare overnight.
Close. Somerset 360 and 323 for 6. Hampshire 311 (L.D. McManus 91, S.A. Northeast 67, J.H. Davey 5-78). Somerset lead by 372 runs with four second innings wickers standing.