A Day of Changing Moods and Rhythms – Surrey v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th July – The Oval – Second Day

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.

Overnight. Somerset 280 for 6.

Second day 12th July – A day of changing moods and rhythms

Somerset further strengthened their grip on qualification for the first division of the second phase of the 2021 County Championship when Roelof van der Merwe pushed Ravi Ashwin straight of mid-on for a single to gather Somerset’s third batting point. It came in the 108th over of the innings and so left them needing two bowling points to be mathematically certain. When Hampshire ended the day still 130 runs short of five batting points with only five wickets and 16 of the first 110 overs remaining it seemed unlikely Somerset would need more than one bowling point. In the wider context, there had been news on the first day that Kent had had to replace their entire team because of COVID issues. On the second day, the Derbyshire v Essex match was abandoned due to the Derbyshire team being withdrawn from the match for the same reason. That, and fast-rising numbers of COVID infections nationally, caused some to ask if the second phase of the Championship might be similarly affected, or even take place at all.

As to the cricket which did taake place at the Oval, Somerset batted on the second day as they had on the first, attempting to compile a commanding total from the heights of which they might control the match. For Surrey, the bowlers continued hard to contest Somerset’s advance. Every run had to be worked for, and every wicket had to be hewn out of the rock of the Somerset batsmen’s defence. Van der Merwe, off Clarke bowling from the Vauxhall End, and Green, off Clark from the Pavilion End, each began with an on drive to the boundary. From there, 12 overs passed before the Somerset batsmen found the boundary again, Green sweeping Ashwin behind square to the gasometer end of the J.M. Finn Stand. In those 12 overs, 16 runs were ground out of the bowling, a two turned by Green off Clark to fine leg being the only scoring stroke to exceed a single. But one of those singles, to van der Merwe, registered that third batting point to applause, especially from the far-flung Somerset supporters spread about the Oval by the allocation of seating.

Slow and secure Somerset’s progress may have been, but it was not necessarily restful. Van der Merwe has stepped up to the mark with the bat in the Championship this year and he did so again here, gradually accumulating runs to add to Somerset’s total. And yet, even when cricket of this ilk is being played, he remains a jack-in-the-box of a cricketer. It is as if he is attached to a spring when he is at the crease, particularly the non-striker’s crease. Time and again as the ball was played, perhaps only a few yards from the bat, he would spring up the pitch as if in search of a run and then dart back, sometimes sent there by a stentorian shout of, “Wait!” or, “No!” from the ever-watchful Green.    

Then, Van der Merwe signalled a change of mood and rhythm with a whip of the bat which sent a ball from Moriarty off his legs to the deep square leg boundary. It immediately forced the retreat of a fielder to deep midwicket as Surrey sought to contain Somerset’s advance. A lofted drive for four, also off Moriarty, straight to the Vauxhall End sightscreen confirmed van der Merwe’s intent to Somerset cheers and applause. Green steered Moriarty to third man for three before three leg byes brought up the fifty partnership. It had taken 132 balls which emphasised the uncharacteristic restraint with which van der Merwe had played for the greater part of his innings. A sweep off Moriarty to the Archbishop Tenison boundary brought four more, but with Somerset now pushing hard at Surrey, a forward defensive to Virdi presented a catch to Ryan Patel at short leg. Somerset were 337 for 7 and van der Merwe departed with 41 crucial runs. He was the fourth Somerset batsman to depart with a hard-worked score in the forties which perhaps emphasised that runs had to be hewn out of the bowling, and that an innings had a term on this pitch.

Jack Leach, batting higher than he has been, joined Green and Somerset’s measured progress resumed. Immediately, Leach cut Virdi to third man for three and Green drove Clark through the on side for four. Leach did not bat entirely in his ‘they shall not pass’ mode as he and Green worked to rotate the strike and continue the momentum begun by van der Merwe towards the end of his innings. Green ended the morning by glancing Moriarty fine to the Bedser Stand and steering him through third man towards the Pavilion boundary for three. Somerset reached lunch on 360 for 7, and the sort of total they must have hoped for when they won the toss was taking shape.

Some might have hoped for faster progress after four sessions, but Somerset were without Tom Abell and Josh Davey, both injured, and Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton, both with England. That left a gaping hole in the normal side, and cautious position-building to make the match safe with qualification for the first division so close was an understandable approach. Given that many had feared Somerset might struggle in this match, the position they had worked themselves into came as some relief, and any runs to come in the afternoon would be a bonus.

Immediately after lunch, the rhythm of the innings changed again. It was almost as funereal as it had become the evening before. Surrey now changed ends as if auditioning for a slow-motion replay. Leach did opened his postprandial account with a straight drive off Virdi to the Pavilion boundary, but from there Somerset matched the Surrey mood, seemingly content to ease along at two runs an over. Leach played Green gave a display of determined, forward defensive play to the spinners, the ball running lazily along the ground off his bat. Ever watchful, he once found the space to cut Ashwin square for a fast, well run two. Two more followed off Virdi. That took him to 43. Then he switched mode, advanced down the wicket, drove hard and edged Virdi to Clarke at slip. It was the fifth Somerset innings to reach its term in the 40s and Somerset were 370 for 8. Marchant De Lange joined Leach and the Somerset faces in the crowd looked expectant of another change of rhythm, this time one driven by cricketing pyrotechnics, or at least an attempt at them, for de Lange’s reputation precedes him.

It was Leach though who first changed the mood. He launched a ball straight back over Virdi’s head. After leaving Leach’s bat, the next solid thing it made contact with was the Pavilion End sightscreen. When de Lange played forward the text read, “Did I just see de Lange playing a forward defensive stroke?” Indeed, the text author had, some initial strike rotation with Leach too, but following a single off an inside edge, valour became the better part of discretion and a ball from Ashwin was deposited straight into the vast tarpaulin sightscreen at the Vauxhall End.

This was not though a classic ‘attack everything’ de Lange innings. The six was followed by more strike rotation and a neat guide for two to fine leg off Virdi. A four off Moriarty was paddle-swept to the Bedser Stand and a single brought up Somerset’s 400 in the 141st over with still eight wickets down. He ended in traditional Marchant de Lange style with a four turned to the Bedser Stand at fine leg, and a six slog-swept into the stand beyond the Archbishop Tenison boundary. When he was caught by Clarke at slip driving, he had made 29 at just over a run a ball and Somerset were 415 for 9. 429 all out after a more sedate passage of play between Leach and Brooks. Leach ended undefeated with 28 after just over an hour and a half at the wicket. The Somerset innings had taken a ball under 149 overs, 102.5 of which had been bowled by the three spin bowlers who shared six of the wickets. The persevering Clark took three of the other four.

Surrey began their reply under darkening cloud supported by a weather forecast which threatened torrential rain. Burns began as if he intended to tackle Surrey’s huge deficit before the rains came. He stuck Brooks to the boundary twice in the first over. Mark Stoneman drove de Lange, if uppishly, through the off side for four more. It was only then that it struck me that Surrey had been virtually silent in the field, certainly on the second day. In marked contrast the Somerset fielders were constantly chivvying and encouraging one another along. It was not the mechanical repetitive shouting you sometimes hear from teams in the field. This was encouragement with genuine feeling, clearly intended to connect with and help carry others along. The Somerset team has shown tremendous spirit in several matches this season where they have turned virtually impossible match situations around. Here, most had made contributions to the first innings score, with several of the young batsmen making crucial contributions. Perhaps the verbal encouragement constantly sweeping around the outfield was one embodiment of the spirit that had helped produce those runs. “Come on lads, press hard here,” a typical shout.

No sooner had that exhortation been uttered than the ground staff moved urgently towards the covers. Another boundary to Burns, cut between third slip and gully to the gasometer, and just two more overs passed before the lights came on and huge raindrops began to leave their marks on the concrete of the stand. There was a sudden, desperate rustling in the crowd as coats were manically scrambled onto backs, belongings hustled into bags, umbrellas whipped open, and decisions made as to whether to sit tight under the umbrella or rush for the nearest cover.

The umpires and players led the charge as the ground staff battled with the covers, but they were hopelessly outgunned by the rain which within minutes was torrential. It lasted, at its worst, for about three quarters of an hour, accompanied by virtually continuous rolling thunder but only spasmodic flashes of lightning. That suggested the worst of the storm was elsewhere in London, a fact confirmed by the evening news, torrential flooding being the lead item. Even so, the part that fell on the Oval was enough to bring an early announcement ending play for the day. The rain had virtually stopped by the time of the announcement, but it was a decision with which no-one argued.

I ended the day making my way back to my hotel with an hour long walk, mostly along the bank of the Thames. The tide was fairly high, and the water brooded under a dense, slate-grey sky. The Thames is one of my favourite places, and until I returned to London for this match, I had not seen it for 18 pandemic-constrained months. The almost Dickensian bleakness which it and that sky portrayed as I walked opposite the Palace of Westminster was a reminder that although there is but one Thames, it is a river of many moods.

On the other side of the path, on the wall that separates it from St Thomas’s hospital as the path approaches Westminster Bridge, is the more than quarter-of-a-mile-long National COVID Memorial Wall. It contains 150,000 individually painted red hearts, created by volunteers in memory of those who have died of the coronavirus in this country during the pandemic. Huge numbers of the hearts, often whole swathes of them covering whole sections of the wall, contain names, often with dates. All the dates, unless birth dates, are within the last 18 months. They are the names of those who have died in the pandemic, inscribed there by relatives, friends and work colleagues. Here the cold numbers quoted ad infinitum on news bulletins and in newspapers become real people in front of your eyes. One was particularly resonant because the name was being inscribed as I walked by. Sitting quietly on top of the wall, taking a break from their duties, were small numbers of staff from the hospital, most of whom must have been engaged in dealing with the victims of the pandemic at its height. It was a truly sobering experience, with weather and the mood and changing rhythms of the river to match. There is, it is well to remember sometimes, more to the world than cricket.

Close. Somerset 429 (J.C. Hildreth107, L.P. Goldsworthy 48, B.G.F. Green 43, J. Clark 3-75, G.S. Virdi 3-86). Surrey 24 for 0. Surrey trail by 405 runs with all first innings wickets standing.