A Battle of Attrition – Surrey v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th July – The Oval – Third 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 429. Surrey 24 for 0. Surrey trail by 405 runs with all first innings wickets standing.

Third day 13th July – A battle of attrition

This was a day for which Jack Leach must have yearned over the previous two months. At the start of the match he had not bowled a red ball in anger since 9th May. The interim consisted of time in the England coronavirus protective bubble without playing any cricket, a batch of Vitality Blast T20 matches of which he played one, and a period in precautionary isolation during which he was restricted to practicing with a tennis ball in his garden. Such was the preparation which brought him into this match. He ended the third day with figures of 33-19-42-5. It was an exceptional effort and put the icing on the cake of Somerset’s qualification for the first division of the second phase of the 2021 County Championship, an eight-point pitch regulations penalty from 2019 being swept away in the process. 

But, before you can watch the cricket, you have to get to the ground. A humid walk along the south bank of a more friendly looking Thames than the one that had accompanied me back to Westminster Bridge the night before gave no hint of what was to follow, apart from the barely medium pace progress which the humidity forced upon me. The morning cricket matched the pace of my walk. Surrey, apparently intent on survival, progressed to lunch at an overall rate of two and a quarter runs an over. Somerset, apart from allowing Surrey little opportunity to break out from their occupation of the crease, took one wicket.

Burns and Stoneman began the morning as if they were intent on compiling the Surrey score rather as a pair of diligent librarians might compile an index of books. With meticulous, risk-averse care. Only four runs disturbed the scoreboard in the first twenty minutes as Brooks and de Lange maintained a containing line. As the morning developed, the batsmen occasionally broke free from their routine. In successive balls, Stoneman drove de Lange through the covers for four and clipped him behind square for two. Brooks was peremptorily dismissed from the attack when Burns drove him through the covers for three and Stoneman twice drove him for four, once straight back to the Pavilion. That stroke took Surrey to 49 for 0 and the prospect of a long day in the field for Somerset, for of a breakthrough there was no hint. Nor was there any suggestion in the reactions of the batsmen, from my seat square of the wicket in the Peter May Stand at least, of any decisive help from the pitch. Such had been the security of Surrey’s early innings, Somerset’s near-five session 429 was beginning to look like a judiciously compiled insurance policy rather than a basis for victory.

It was now that Leach began his marathon contribution with a big, if unrequited, leg before wicket appeal against Burns. With de Lange’s initial spell soon spent, Leach bowled through the remainder of the morning, first with Green who bowled a persistently stringent fast medium line and then with van der Merwe. The two slow left armers, with whom Somerset finished the morning, were perhaps not the ideal wicket-taking combination against two left-handed batsmen. The batsmen’s response was, for the most part, circumspect and as risk-free as batting can be. As the two spinners probed, front pads repeatedly reached down the wicket to deny the bowlers as much of the business end of the pitch as possible. Occasionally the ball was worked between the inner ring of fielders, or to the deep fielder for easily gathered singles. Neither side dominated, neither side conceded an inch of ground, the two front lines in the battle for supremacy were fixed and the match stood still.

As the morning wore on, occasionally Surrey would occasionally attempt to break free or pounce on a loose ball. Stoneman drove Leach through the covers for four, and guided a ball from Green through wide third man to the gasometer end of the Vauxhall End boundary. The bowlers meanwhile, did not waver in their intent to deny the batsmen an advantage, and the batsmen, for the most part, retreated again into somnolent defence. Then, once more, the batsmen launched a brief assault on Leach as if trying to remove him from the attack. Stoneman swept him square to the Peter May Stand for four, and drove him through extra cover to the far boundary. Burns reverse swept him for six to the seats in front of Archbishop Tenison’s School and then fine to the adjoining Bedser Stand for four. Then, just as water quickly flattens the ripples made by an occasionally jumping fish, Leach kept his assurance, bowled five overs for two runs and regained control.

As lunch approached, Burns brought up his fifty from 109 balls with a single. And then, as if another fish had jumped, his bat flashed as he swept van der Merwe hard. He failed to keep the ball down and it flew straight into Leach’s hands at long leg. Lunch was taken an over later with Hashim Amla preparing to take up residence at the wicket. Surrey 99 for 1. They had added 75 runs for the loss of Burns in the 34 overs bowled during the morning. They were still 331 runs adrift, but with just one wicket down, they had had the best of the morning. From a Somerset perspective, their overriding objective had been achieved. Hampshire had failed to gain the bonus points they needed to stay in mathematical contention, and Somerset had qualified for the first division of the second phase of the Championship.  

With Somerset having qualified, and apparently under no great threat in this match, lunch was a leisurely affair. I ambled my way through my first circumnavigation of a cricket ground for two years. COVID-secure areas for players currently make it impossible at smaller grounds like Taunton. The Oval has wide concourses behind the stands and Pavilion. Spectators can wander the whole perimeter and I took full advantage. Twice. In an anti-clockwise direction of course. There was no point in risking a break with that tradition, even if the outcome of the match could now make no difference to Somerset’s place in the second phase of the competition. Masks were worn by pretty well everyone as they meandered and queued for food or drink. That apart, it felt very much like old times.

Back in my seat, with nothing now hanging on the match, I settled down with less tension in my bones than is usually possible for a Somerset supporter. At least until play resumed. There is something about being a Somerset supporter which means relaxation rarely survives first contact between leather and willow. If the hills and rivers of Somerset, especially the glory of the Quantocks and the perpetual flow of the Tone, run through your veins, then so does Somerset cricket. Thirty years of continuous exile did not dilute the Somerset soil in my blood one iota. And when the cricket starts you are engaged. There is no escape, nor any wish for any. And so, when Stoneman’s bat came down the wicket to push van der Merwe’s first ball back down the pitch the cricket, if not racked with the tension of pending qualification, was all.

De Lange replaced Leach and was cut through backward point to the Archbishop Tenison boundary by Stoneman who reached his fifty with the stroke, but otherwise the toe-to-toe attrition of the morning continued. “Come on boys,” shouted Lammonby. It was indicative of Somerset in the field, for the encouragement shouted to the bowlers was virtually continuous despite the stubborn resistance of the batsmen. “Catch it!” van der Merwe shouted with random optimism as Stoneman defended a ball which barely left the ground. Amla drove van der Merwe through the covers for four, and Stoneman guided him wide of slip for four and reverse swept him for another. But those boundaries were like swallows of a type which do not a summer make, and the cricket quickly reverted to its slow, rhythmic two-runs an over progress. An hour into the afternoon session and 55 overs into the innings Surrey were 135 for 1, with placid singles the main run-scoring fare for the spectator. Surrey were still 294 runs behind, but as the overs and minutes slipped by, the prospect of wickets falling quickly enough for Somerset to take advantage seemed remote.

Then, as is often the way with Championship cricket, the mood and the rhythm changed as the ball began to show signs of life for the persevering spinners. Surrey continued to wring their iron ration of runs out of the bowling, but for Somerset, the constant pressure and the now periodically threatening ball finally began to bear fruit. There had been but the single wicket of Burns in the first three hours of play. Now, Stoneman, with little foot movement, tried to defend a ball from Leach, was beaten, and edged it into the gloves of Davies. Surrey were 136 for 2, Stoneman’s three and a half hour vigil had ended for 67, and the Somerset supporters dotted around the widely spread crowd applauded their appreciation.

Hildreth immediately replaced van der Merwe with Goldsworthy at the Pavilion End, slow left arm for slow left arm, but something for the batsmen to think about perhaps. “C’mon, keep building,” someone in the inner ring shouted, the word ‘pressure’ the silent conclusion of the sentence. Just seven runs followed in five overs as the bowlers heeded the call and Surrey continued to rely on metronomic defence. Four of those runs broke with the mood when Patel swept Goldsworthy to the Archbishop Tenison boundary. Then Amla, who had defied Hampshire for an entire day for 37 runs in Surrey’s previous match, raised the beat of Somerset hearts when he gently looped a ball back to Leach off a leading edge. Surrey 145 for 3. 284 runs behind. Amla 16 in nearly an hour and a half.

The ball was now responding more and more to the demands of the spinners. Some deliveries popped up off defensive bats or pads, whereas for the most part on the first two days they had run dutifully back down the pitch. As Hildreth rang the slow left arm changes, van der Merwe replaced Leach at the Vauxhall End. The left-handed Ryan Patel, who had replaced Amla, turned his first ball sharply into Bartlett’s hands at short leg. The Somerset heart leapt, but the ball and Bartlett fell to earth where Bartlett remained motionless in disappointment for what seemed an eternity. When Brooks replaced Goldsworthy, Smith, who had replaced Stoneman, drove him firmly through the off side to the Bedser Stand for four and through the covers to the Archbishop Tenison boundary for four more.

With the miserly Leach resting, another boundary off van der Merwe suggested some acceleration from Surrey. But, on the cusp of tea, with Leach having returned for Brooks and looking more threatening by the over, Smith went forward in defence and edged the ball to Davies. Surrey walked off to tea on 178 for 4 in the 78th over of their innings. Somerset still led by 251 runs, but with just four sessions remaining in the match time was running desperately short. “We need to be able to enforce the follow on,” said one supporter I bumped into during the interval, more by way of a statement of fact than of opinion.

There is always something in the sky over the Oval. Usually, aircraft going to or from Heathrow. This time it was two Chinook helicopters labouring heavily in circles just beyond the Vauxhall End. Chinooks, with their double rotors and high tail end have a certain presence about them. So does Ravichandran Ashwin. Tall and imposing, he has the presence of an outstanding Test match player. He emerged from the Bedser Stand in place of Smith and took guard at the Vauxhall End. He came forward in defence to his first ball, edged it to Conway at second slip and Leach, now getting testing bite, was on a hat-trick. A third slip and a silly point joined the close field. The ball turned, beat Jordan Clark’s half forward defensive push but failed to find the edge. The spell cast by the prospect of a hat-trick was broken and the next ball was cut hard to the boundary. Surrey were 182 for 5, still 247 runs behind and the attritional battle of the first two sessions resumed as Leach, van der Merwe and the batsmen fought each other to the virtual standstill of nine runs in seven overs.

The pads and bats were still coming down the wicket, the ball still popped off the pads, and leg before wicket appeals and balls going past the edge were multiplying. On one occasion, Clark was clearly beaten by Leach twice in two balls. “They are turning it now,” said the incoming text. As if to illustrate the point, Patel swept Leach, the ball arched skyward and Conway, running backwards from square leg, caught it above his head before falling onto his back as he completed the catch. It was Leach’s fifth wicket of the day. Patel had batted over an hour and a half for his 22 runs, but with Surrey on 191 for 6, still 238 runs behind, the Somerset spinners, and Leach in particular, were bringing the possibility of a win into Somerset’s sights. The match, which had marked time for so long, was now moving ever more quickly forward in the face of equally fast-disappearing time.  

Rikki Clarke, now 39 years old and a thorn in the Somerset side for two decades, joined Jordan Clark. Between them, for another precious hour and a quarter, they formed an impenetrable defensive wall. For four overs they scored not a single run. After 80 overs of the Surrey innings Somerset immediately took the new ball, but, curiously, only posted only one slip and a gully to de Lange. When de Lange pitched wide, Clarke cut him for four. Brooks was driven through extra cover to the Archbishop Tenison boundary by Clark to cries of, “Shot!” But, for the most part, the attritional leitmotif of the day was resumed. Eleven overs passed and only 18 runs were scored before the ball next crossed the rope. The pace bowlers could not penetrate Surrey’s defence and before those 11 overs were out, Leach and Green had replaced them.

Eventually, Clark drove Green through extra cover and a ground-filling voice from the back of the Peter May Stand responded with, “Oppose The Hundred,” a cry which rang out from time to time through the rest of the day. Now, van der Merwe replaced Leach as Hildreth kept his hand of spinners circulating. Clark turned him behind square for four, and then played defensively without foot movement. The increasingly demanding ball found the edge and the hands of Hildreth, the first of the two slips now awaiting it. Clark had batted 14 minutes short of two hours for 33 runs. Surrey 233 for 7. They were still 196 behind but more precious time had seeped away.

With four overs to go to the close, Jamie Overton, late of Somerset and injured in the first Somerset innings, emerged from the Bedser Stand to bat with a runner. He swept van der Merwe fine to the Bedser Stand for four, but on trying to repeat the stroke in the final over of the day, he swept another ball from van der Merwe straight onto his stumps. Somerset eyes could not believe what they had seen, nor believe their luck. Overton remained on one knee with his head bowed for what seemed an aeon. “I am not sure what the two Clark(e)s will think of that,” said the incoming text from the online watcher. And with that, Surrey ended the day on 239 for 8, 190 behind.

It had been a day on which 103.3 overs were bowled by Somerset, while 215 runs were scored by Surrey for the loss of eight wickets. ‘Attritional’ was the word which sprang to mind. It is a word normally applied to cricket of an earlier age. In the 1926 match, on the first day, 205 runs were scored in perhaps 120 overs, the record I have does not reveal the precise number, although 18 wickets fell. In 2021, although only one day remained, to those watching, the match seemed tantalisingly poised. Surrey were still 41 runs short of saving the follow on. Only two wickets still stood. The pitch was taking enough turn to trouble batsmen, although batsmen could, with determination and application, defend for appreciable periods of time. If Somerset could take the final two wickets reasonably quickly in the morning there was the potential for an intense day of cricket. The application of Somerset’s bowlers had created the prospect of Somerset turning a developing draw into an unlikely victory. At least that was the view of the Somerset supporters I spoke to as I made my way along the perimeter concourse to the exit and another walk along the Thames, a twice-daily joy to add to the cricket 18 months after I had last been in London.

Close. Somerset 429. Surrey 239 for 8. Surrey trail by 190 runs with two first innings wickets standing.