Hildreth Shapes the Day – Surrey v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – The Oval – 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th July – First Day

This match was played with socially distanced allocated seating due to the coronavirus regulations.

County Championship Group 2. Surrey v Somerset. 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th July 2021. The Oval.

Surrey. R.J. Burns (c), M.D. Stoneman, H.M. Amla, J.L. Smith (w), R.S. Patel, J. Clark, J. Overton, R. Clarke, R. Ashwin, D.T. Moriarty, G.S. Virdi.

Somerset. D.P. Conway, S.M. Davies (w), T.A. Lammonby, J.C. Hildreth (c), L.P. Goldsworthy, G.A. Bartlett, R.E. van der Merwe, B.G.F. Green, M. de Lange, J.A. Brooks. M.J. Leach.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day 11th July – Hildreth shapes the day

Sitting high in the Peter May Stand square of the wicket was a joy to gladden the heart even with the wicket pitched nearly a hundred yards away with a grey, if unthreatening, overcast sky and a crowd spread far and wide by social distancing. The great gasometer, empty and unused these days, stood as a silent monument to generations of cricketers past. It had already stood in its present form for 34 years when in 1926 Somerset’s Jack White, coming on to bowl the eighth over of the Surrey first innings, took 7 for 42 in three balls over 36 overs with his orthodox slow left arm bowling. Only Jack Hobbs, with 70 out of a Surrey total of 136, stood long against him.

The Peter May Stand is my favourite location from which to watch cricket away from Taunton. The gasometer, or to be precise, the framework which houses it, sat as it always does on my visits to the Oval, over my right shoulder. The distant pitch was discernible only as a thin strip of white, rather like a pipe cleaner with thin matchsticks sticking up at either end. When Somerset won the toss it came as no surprise to hear they had elected to bat, or that there were three spinners in each team. The announcement, “To open the bowling from the Vauxhall End, Ravichandran Ashwin,” brought a frisson of anticipation to the discussions going on around me. Given White’s exploits in 1926, perhaps the then Surrey captain, Percy Fender, might have been confronted by a similar-looking pitch when he won the toss and elected to bat.

In 2021, the now established coronavirus ritual of the teams emerging from different buildings continued. In 1926, both teams would have emerged from the Pavilion, but amateurs and professionals would have emerged through different gates. In 2021, the Surrey team took the field from the late twentieth century Bedser Stand which now adjoins that late Victorian statement of permanence that is still the Pavilion. The Somerset batsmen emerged from the striking twenty-first century J.M. Finn Stand that contains the Oval Conference Centre at the Vauxhall End. The traditional welcoming applause was doubtless no different to that which would have greeted the players 95 years before. And then, with Devon Conway having taken guard and Rory Burns and Steven Davies, erstwhile Surrey teammates, having touched gloves, Ashwin strolled in from the Vauxhall End, and bowled his off spin from around the wicket. Conway came forward, drove him along the ground to mid-off and we were under way.

Conway and Davies quickly settled Somerset nerves as they played Ashwin with confidence, Conway stretching a long way forward in defence, although he was beaten twice to gasps from the crowd. His driving was exquisite. Twice in an over he drove Ashwin for four, once through extra cover and once straight back to the Vauxhall End. Ashwin was partnered by Jordan Clark bowling seam at a little above medium pace from the Pavilion End. A cover drive from Conway, off Clark and directed towards the Peter May Stand was chased by Jamie Overton. The chase was reminiscent of those searing boundary chases for which he was renowned in Somerset colours. “Come on Jamie. Keep going,” someone along the stand shouted, a Surrey voice this time rather than a Somerset one, although he always seemed to have the measure of the ball. Three runs the final tally. It would have been four in Jack Hobbs’ day when fast bowlers, without the fitness regimes of today, conserved their energy for their bowling.

When Conway drove again, Clark’s delivery clipped the inside edge and cannoned into the stumps. It had the feel of an unwanted alarm clock shattering a dream before it had properly formed. Somerset were 31 for 1, Conway had crafted 21 and Somerset supporters dotted about the stands must have sighed at the thought of the innings that might have been. Their thoughts were immediately interrupted by a shout of “Well done, Jordan,” from a relieved Surrey voice.

Davies meanwhile was building an innings of his own and now pushed Somerset forward. With Dan Moriarty replacing Ashwin with his slow left arm, Davies twice dipped to one knee and slog-swept to wide long on for four. And then the more typical side of a Davies innings. Against Clark, with no apparent power in the stroke, he pushed through the covers for two. A neat paddle sweep off Moriarty added two more and took Somerset to 50 for 1 in the 16th over. Off Jamie Overton, bowling from the Pavilion End, a cover drive urged by a Somerset supporter to, “Come on, come on,” was pulled in by the fielder just short of the Peter May Stand boundary. Davies and the new batsman, Tom Lammonby, underpinned decisive attacking strokes with solid defence, stretching forward, sometimes advancing up the pitch to the spinners, and a sense of solid Somerset progress descended on proceedings. Singles and the occasional two helped sustain the sense of momentum. The air of calm was such that it was not dented by two thick edges to the boundary from Lammonby which dented Overton’s figures.

With the score on 76 for 1, the sort of applause which marks the intervention of a home team favourite greeted the announcement, “A change of bowling at the Pavilion End. Amar Virdi.” Virdi, with his off spin, replaced Overton and brought swift reward. Davies, half forward after all the stretching that had gone before, was leg before wicket to Virdi’s second ball. Davies had played another innings of the type with which he has brought assurance to the top of the order. He departed with 42 of Somerset’s 76 for 2. It was one of those scores which gives little indication of the future course of an innings. Famine and plenty being equally possible for both teams.

Somerset 94 for 2 at lunch, with Lammonby on 26 and Hildreth on five, brought hope to Somerset supporters that it might constitute a base from which more might follow. For Surrey, hope was only a breakthrough away. Cricket, especially the extended battle of wills between two teams that is Championship cricket, is a game of precarious hope for those who can but sit and watch. With Rory Burns, Hashim Amla and Ashwin in the Surrey side the hope among Somerset supporters meandering the cavernous Oval concourses at lunch was for a first innings score too large for Surrey to overhaul. And all the while, picking away at the hope was the anxiety that Ashwin, Virdi and Moriarty might put Somerset’s young batsmen under severe pressure in their second innings if Somerset did not have a significant first innings advantage.

The pitch did look disconcertingly white from the stands, an indication to some that it might take spin as the match progressed. There was disappointment that not more had been seen of Conway, relief that Davies seemed to be establishing himself in the opening position, and hope that it would not affect his keeping. Keeping so understated, precise, and virtually error-free it goes barely unnoticed for much of the time. On the occasions when Davies is short of runs someone will always suggest playing a batsman who can keep rather than staying with the keeper who can bat. Someone once ended one such discussion by asking, “Think about it. Who do you think Jack Leach would rather have behind the stumps?”

The overcast conditions of the morning had given way to warm sun and wispy cloud by the time the players emerged from their opposite ends of the ground for the afternoon session. While Hildreth worked to establish himself, Lammonby took the game to Surrey. Clark opened from the Vauxhall End. Three times in his first over Lammonby stroked the ball towards the Oval’s deep boundaries, each time the batsmen ran two, twice at pace to cries of, “Well run.” The smoothest of on drives took the eye. Ashwin he guided confidently to a fine third man for two more and reverse swept, with the ball being kept well down, to the Vauxhall End boundary. When he drove Ashwin through the on side to the boundary in front of the now largely obscured Archbishop Tenison’s School of Test Match Special fame, an innings to remember was in the making. Two balls later Somerset hopes were pierced. Lammonby left a straight ball from Ashwin and lost his off stump to a misjudgement against a bowler of immense class and skill. He had made 42 confidently cast runs after a season of devastatingly low scores. Somerset were 113 for 3 and the substantial total for which Somerset supporters had hoped at lunch still seemed as uncertain as it had at 76 for 2.

Lewis Goldsworthy has made his mark this year with some useful innings at key times. He played another here as he and Hildreth continued the work of taking Somerset forward. Careful defence at first, again either well forward or occasionally back against the spinners, and mainly pushed singles, sometimes fast-run and well judged. Once, he played a fine glance to the Bedser Stand off Clark, the wicket being pitched well over that way. Against Ashwin, Hildreth drove through backward point and the ball just crossed the rope ahead of the fielder. When Moriarty replaced Clark at the Vauxhall End the batsmen played him with care until Hildreth cut him through backward point. From my seat the ball looked as if it was running to the Peter May Stand boundary along a line over which Concorde, in the opposite direction, used to fly into Heathrow.

There was no Heathrow when Jack Hobbs and Jack White played here in 1926. In 2021 there is no Concorde, and so the interested spectator must watch more pedestrian aircraft follow in its historical wake. At ground level, Goldsworthy began to progress with three twos off Ashwin played into the Oval’s open spaces, and Hildreth took Somerset past 150 in the 55th over with a neat clip off Moriarty to the Archbishop Tenison’s School boundary, and then followed it with an equally neat glance to the Bedser Stand to take his own score to 31. With still only three wickets down, and the prospect of the pitch taking spin as the match wore on, the hopes of Somerset supporters now had a more substantial score to rest on.

Somerset’s progress notwithstanding, the contest between bat and ball on that distant pitch was all-engrossing. Most overs were being bowled by spinners in a fascinating duel with batsmen constantly using their feet in the struggle for control of the business area of the pitch. It was absorbing cricket. Somerset supporters were increasingly bolstered by the steadily rising score, and Surrey ones by Somerset being kept just below three runs an over and an intense need to concentrate on defending their wickets. Periodic shouts for leg before wicket or gasps at a beaten bat added to the tension. My notes tell me that this passage of play culminated in seven overs passing while ten runs were added. It seemed longer with four of those runs coming from one stroke when Goldsworthy clipped Moriarty just backward of square to the Archbishop Tenison boundary.

One of the strengths of four-day cricket are those moods and rhythms which add to the spectators enjoyment of it. Now Hildreth and Goldsworthy increased the tempo of the play, and of the heartbeat of those watching in the Somerset interest. Twenty-five runs came in four overs as the batsmen increasingly turned the day Somerset’s way. An on drive from Goldsworthy off Moriarty ran away towards the distant far side of the ground. The cricketing eye can focus on a five and a half ounce ball even at that distance, and I watched it all the way until it crossed the rope. Two fours in succession came off Virdi from Hildreth’s bat, now being employed with a sureness of stroke that told of Hildreth returning to his best. A sweep reached the long Peter May Stand boundary and a cover drive crossed the Archbishop Tenison boundary. A single off Virdi brought up Hildreth’s fifty to long generous applause. A cover drive, again off Virdi and more expansive than the first, crossed the rope in front of the school before the rhythm of the innings again slowed as the batsmen eased Somerset to tea at 197 for 3 and their supporters to a tea interval of some content.

After tea the sun held sway. Hildreth, looking as permanent as any batsman ever does, continued to shape the day. He and Goldsworthy pushed and guided singles and more twos than is the norm as the Oval’s wide acres continued to accommodate them with some ease. Hildreth swept Moriarty to the gasometer for four and cut him backward of point for two. Then Goldsworthy brought up the century partnership off 224 balls with a pulled single. But it was Hildreth who continued to lead the way. Virdi was driven through the covers for four, Moriarty cut through backward point for four more and late cut for two. Ashwin replaced Moriarty and was swept emphatically behind square for another four. It was batting perfectly designed for a sunny afternoon. The new ball, a four to the Laker-Lock Stand from the thick edge of Hildreth’s bat off Rikki Clarke included, did not hinder Somerset’s progress. Surrey, now well ahead of the required over rate, fell back on indulging in one of the less endearing rhythm changes of four-day cricket when the batting side is in the ascendant, extended discussions while adjusting and readjusting the field, and so the play slowed.

When Hildreth, on 96, swept Ashwin, who had continued with the new ball, towards the Vauxhall End boundary, the fielder set off in hot pursuit. The Somerset contingent in the crowd noisily willed the ball on, but it was beyond their powers. It slowed as if it were in fear of crossing the rope and the batsmen were kept to three. When Goldsworthy took a single and returned the strike to Hildreth the field placings took an age to determine, and then, when everyone was finally in place, a helmet was called for. “Come on Hildy,” the shout from the Peter May Stand as play resumed, but Hildreth was playing with complete control and bided his time.

Time enough for Goldsworthy to glance Clarke fine to the Bedser Stand and then, trying to repeat the stroke against Clark, into the hands of Smith behind the stumps. Goldsworthy had made 48, his highest first-class score and one of four scores in seven Championship matches this season above 35. All have been played at key junctures. Then Bartlett, who has a knack of making runs when they are most needed but has struggled more recently, was out leg before wicket playing half forward for two with Hildreth still on 99. When finally, Hildreth turned Clark towards the Peter May Stand and ran two, Somerset supporters dotted around the ground rose to their feet and, with Surrey supporters applauding at length from their seats, Hildreth raised his bat for his first century of the season and Somerset were 264 for 5.

From there Hildreth and van der Merwe seemed to be steering Somerset to the close with a base established for the second day. Then, Hildreth left a ball from Clark and his off stump cartwheeled spectacularly. It was a startling end to an innings which had exuded permanence. “He looked so comfortable, the dismissal came as a total shock,” said the incoming text. The ball had moved in a little to bowl him according to the text, but it was, “Nowhere near a leave ball.” The overall assessment of the online watcher was though of an “excellent innings,” a view echoed by all I spoke to at the ground. 107 Hildreth’s final tally. Somerset ended the day on 280 for 6 from 98 overs.

In 1926 by contrast, Surrey batted three balls short of 80 overs for their 136 before Jack White bowled Stanley Fenley for his seventh wicket to end Surrey’s innings. It still left Somerset with enough time, perhaps 40 or so more overs, in the remainder of the day, to reach 69 for 8 by the close. Different days. In 2021, “Not a bad day,” I said to another Somerset supporter as I left the ground. “It’ll do us,” the satisfied reply, perhaps the possibility of turn as the match wore on fuelling the optimism. 

Close. Somerset 280 for 6.