An Unexpected Turn of Events – Surrey v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – The Oval – 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th July – Final 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 239 for 8. Surrey trail by 190 runs with two first innings standing.

Final day 14th July – An unexpected turn of events

The unpredictability of cricket never ceases to surprise. At the start of the final morning, Surrey added one more run while Somerset took the final two Surrey wickets. Van der Merwe and Leach ended with four and six wickets respectively. Moriarty was trapped leg before wicket by van der Merwe and Virdi by Jack Leach. Nothing out of the ordinary thus far, although Somerset supporters would have been pleased, and Surrey ones disappointed, at the speed with which the final two wickets fell. The players left the field to applause from the small, well spread-out crowd. Expectant applause from Somerset supporters, more anxious from Surrey ones. The prospect of a tense Surrey rearguard was on everyone’s minds as they faced a deficit of 189 runs on a pitch now enabling the spinners to ask serious questions. 

And then, disbelief. “Somerset have not enforced the follow-on,” said an announcer in a voice which was bemusement personified. “Not enforced the follow on?” stuttered a Surrey supporter looking around him in bewilderment. “What is that all about?” asked a mystified Somerset supporter. All along the stand, people looked at each other, each looking as perplexed as the next. Equations by which Somerset could win the match by not enforcing the follow-on were suddenly being worked on and then rejected as being fanciful. By the time Davies and Conway appeared from the J.M. Finn Stand, the attempt to understand the decision had been given up and no-one seemed to know quite what to expect.

And no-one expected what followed, although a peek into Ravi Ashwin’s thoughts as he was thrown the new ball would have been worth a penny or two. Whatever Somerset’s intention, and captains and coaches do not make decisions without a rationale, it nearly blew up in their face. Surrey’s intention was clear from the start. To put the Somerset batsmen under pressure with their two off spinners now trying to exploit a sometimes sharply turning pitch. That Somerset’s first three batsmen were all left-handers can have done Surrey’s cause no harm. Ashwin, with 413 Test wickets in his fingers, began from the Pavilion End, Virdi from the Vauxhall End. After six overs, Somerset were 7 for 0. There was little positive intent in the batting until Davies attempted to drive Ashwin through the off side. The ball took the edge, Smith took the catch, Somerset were 9 for 1 and the rock at the top of the Somerset batting order had departed for seven.

Lammonby, having fought diligently for over an hour and a half in the first innings, immediately looked as frantic as Davies had looked calm in the second. In the six balls he faced, he paddle-swept Virdi for three, charged Ashwin, failed to connect spectacularly, and only avoided being stumped by the proverbial country mile when Smith dropped the ball as Lammonby’s flailing bat completed its desperate arc and thundered into the crease. Then, he reverse-swept Ashwin, the ball gently looped, and Clarke, running from slip towards silly point, caught it without fuss. Somerset were 13 for 2, Lammonby was making his way back to the Finn Stand and spectators were trying to make sense of it all.

Hildreth came to the wicket and began to instil some Somerset order into proceedings. He appeared to be playing with confidence and with purpose. He took two boundaries off Virdi, one guided wide of leg slip to the Bedser Stand, the other clipped off his legs through the same area. But, with Somerset nerves beginning to settle, and the Somerset team loudly cheering every run, he was pushed back into his crease by Ashwin and failed to defend a ball which turned in and trapped him firmly in front of his stumps. He had made 14, Somerset were 31 for 3 and the expectant Somerset glances with which their supporters had begun the day, having already turned to bemused ones when the follow-on was not enforced, now began to take on an anxious hue.

Before the next over was out the anxiety had deepened. Goldsworthy, at 20 years old, one of the Somerset successes of the season with his gritty batting, was immediately in trouble. He played back to the slow left arm of Moriarty, was struck on the pads but survived the leg before wicket appeal. Two balls later he played back again, this time to an in-drifting arm ball which again struck the pads. This time there was no reprieve as the umpire raised his finger. The confidence in the advances down the wicket and in the pads stretched firmly forward that had characterized the Somerset batting against the spinners in their first innings was no more. It had been replaced by uncertainty and defending on the back foot or from the crease. Somerset were 32 for 4, Goldsworthy one, and ever-louder Surrey cheers erupted as wicket followed wicket.

Devon Conway has made a real impression on Somerset supporters with some significant contributions with the bat in both white and red-ball cricket. This was his second and last County Championship appearance of the season. There are few Somerset supporters who would not welcome him and his fluent left-handed batting back. Here he had played an innings of a different nature to the ones that had already come and gone with such alacrity. Defensive, and continuing to use his feet against the spin, he had stood out and held firm as wickets were seemingly spirited away from the other end by the Surrey spinners. He had swept Ashwin once for four, but that stood out against the rest of his innings. A second sweep stroke had resulted in a huge leg before wicket appeal, but for the most part he had looked secure. A cover drive for four off Moriarty lifted Somerset spirits and brought forth more cheers from the Somerset redoubt in the Finn Stand. And then a Somerset jaws dropped and cheers erupted from Surrey mouths as Conway was bowled by Moriarty for 12. He had batted for just over an hour, but Somerset were now 39 for 5. A replay showed a perfectly directed ball. Conway had stretched well forward in defence, the ball had drifted late into him, was perfectly pitched and turned further. It took the inside edge and hit the leg stump.

The atmosphere, palpable in spite of the small last day crowd, had developed into an almost audible quiet. It was broken only by one never-ending conversation further along the Peter May Stand which served mainly to highlight the silence which surrounded it. At the heart of things, Ashwin and Moriarty continued to probe and torment the batsmen. Bartlett attempted a counterattack, fighting guile with fire. He reverse-swept Ashwin to the Finn Stand boundary, then survived an appeal for a stumping when he stretched forward to Moriarty, a big screen replay confirming his foot had been safely anchored. In response, he used his feet to drive Moriarty through the on side to the boundary and tried a sharp cut at a ball from Ashwin which thudded into the keeper’s gloves. Finally, he was pushed back by Ashwin and bowled. Somerset 55 for 6. Bartlett 12. Van der Merwe to the wicket.

Despite Somerset being 244 ahead on a now difficult pitch with time ticking away, calculations were being done about possible targets, at least in the Somerset mind. Every run brought a sliver of relief, but the tension still bit for the safety margin grew at barely two runs an over. That there was no van der Merwe rescue act on this occasion did not help. He was soon caught at short leg for 7 defending against Ashwin. Somerset 58 for 7. The Surrey spinners were rampant with four fielders hovering around the bat. And yet, Somerset were safely in the first division and a Surrey target of 250-plus on a turning pitch in under two sessions should not have presented a threat. But cricket is a game of possibilities, especially in the commited supporters’ mind, and the momentum, the mood and the possibilities were now running heavily Surrey’s way. The Somerset batsmen walked off for lunch at 60 for 7, with the applause for the Surrey spinners ringing in their ears.   

It was a reflective lunch for Somerset supporters. Surrey had signed Ashwin solely for this match. He would not play beyond it because of the upcoming India Test series against England. The pitch was demonstrably helpful to spinners, of which Surrey, in Ashwin, had perhaps the best in the world. Somerset had to a large degree negated that advantage by winning the toss and, despite having an inexperienced batting line up, posting in excess of 400 in their first innings. They had too outplayed Surrey until the final morning. Now, the considerable advantage they had built up had been severely undermined by a Surrey bowling onslaught. Within four overs of the post-lunch restart the final equation was known. Leach drove Moriarty’s first ball of the afternoon straight to short mid-off, Green, stretching forward, was bowled by Ashwin, de Lange was bowled attempting to slog sweep Moriarty into the next parish and Somerset had been dismissed for 69.

“Surrey need 259 runs to win,” was not an announcement I had expected to hear at the start of the day. The scoreboard indicated they would have a minimum of 57 overs. One of the tricks of my youth that I have retained, despite the ubiquitous presence of calculators, once in their own right and now on smartphones, is the ability to work out in my head a required run rate to one decimal point. The figure I came up with was 4.5 runs per over. Checked for certainty on this occasion on my phone. The head insisted a chase of that order was not possible in the conditions, but the heart, at least this Somerset heart, would not be convinced until the Surrey innings presented it with evidence of that impossibility. Surrey faces looked as tense as Somerset ones. Somerset, with arguably England’s best spinner in their side, to take ten wickets in 57 overs on a turning pitch was their nightmare.

Somerset opened with van der Merwe and Leach, and the Surrey opening batsmen, seemingly intent on continuing the momentum established by their bowlers, attacked them. Burns came down the pitch to van der Merwe and drove him through midwicket to the Archbishop Tenison boundary. Four byes from Leach brought a shout of, “Come on Surrey.” Again, Burns came down the pitch in attack but mishit the ball. “C’mon boys,” the response from the Somerset field. Burns and Stoneman now worked to rotate the strike and gave the scoreboard little rest. Stoneman continued with a reverse sweep for four. It took Surrey to 24 for 0 after five overs before Leach finally applied a brake with a maiden to Burns.

In the next over Burns was out in curious fashion. He jabbed down defensively at a ball from van der Merwe and was bowled. A startled Surrey supporter could not quite believe what he had seen. “He hit it,” he said. “You could hear it hit the bat. It just span straight back off the pitch and into the stumps. Phew!” Burns’ reaction looked as bemused as that of the supporter. In a more orthodox dismissal, Stoneman came forward to the first ball of Leach’s next over and edged it into his pad. From there it rose vertically to be caught by Green running in from short leg. Surrey were 25 for 2. 40 for 3 when Patel was caught and bowled by van der Merwe who threw the ball high towards the heavens in a typically van der Merwian celebration.  

Whatever the initial intent behind the onslaught from Burns and Stoneman, the match was now a fight over Surrey’s survival. Amla, who had come in at the fall of the first wicket, had already shown his intent with some unruffled, almost serene defence and a beautifully smooth on drive for four off Leach. “Amla is playing like a dream,” said the text. The occasional single which flowed from his bat was perfectly placed, and travelled smoothly across the grass with no fielder close enough to interrupt its progress until the batsmen were safe and sound back in their creases. Once, when the ball moved a little more in the direction of a fielder, Amla shouted, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” exhorting Smith to join him in a single, and once he swept Leach to fine leg for four.

At the other end, Smith played his part in holding Surrey’s line, although he punctuated his defence with an occasional flurry of aggression. Twice, he drove van der Merwe into the Bedser Stand for six. When Goldsworthy replaced van der Merwe he was driven through the on side for four as the wickets refused to come. The occasional attacking stroke notwithstanding, batting was not easy and both batsmen were often pushed back in defence, particularly by Leach. As the afternoon wore on and Amla and Smith stood firm, the tension began to seep away. At tea Surrey were 79 for 3 from 26 overs. Amla 23. Smith 25. A minimum of 31 overs remained, and although Somerset supporters might still hope, the mood assumed draw.

After tea, there was a four from Smith driven through extra cover off van der Merwe to the almost inevitable cry of, “Catch it,” from the bowler, and a third six, again from Smith, again off van der Merwe, this time over long on to the Finn Stand. Otherwise, the match had become a stalemate of quietly run singles, an occasional two played calmly into the Oval’s open spaces and a multitude of studiously defended balls. With the clock creeping inexorably towards five o’clock, it came as a surprise when Amla was pushed right back on his stumps by van der Merwe and was leg before wicket. He had made 28 in over two hours. A thought flickered that Somerset might have one final push, but the life had gone from the game and the teams touched fists in the coronavirus era way as soon as the clock allowed.

There was a curious parallel with the 1926 Oval Championship match between these two sides. The first innings of each match was graced by a great performance by a Somerset slow left arm bowler. In 1926 Jack White had figures of 36.3-16-42-7. In 2021 Jack Leach had figures of 35.1-20-43-6. The 1926 match had a batting curiosity too. After two low-scoring first innings, Surrey performed better with the bat in their second and set Somerset a victory target of 401. Somerset subsided to 185 for 9, still 215 runs adrift. The match, it seemed was effectively over. Then Peter Randall Johnson, with his last first-class century at the age of 45, added 139 for Somerset’s last wicket with R.C. Robertson-Glasgow. Surrey won in the end by 77 runs, but the last wicket partnership must have caused a sweaty palm or too along the way. Then, as now, cricket never ceased to surprise.

Result (2021). Somerset 429 (J.C. Hildreth 107, L.P. Goldsworthy 48, B.G.F. Green 43, J. Clark 3-75, G.S. Virdi 3-86) and 69 (R. Ashwin 6-27, D.T. Moriarty 4-20). Surrey 240 (M.D. Stoneman 67, R.J. Burns 50, M.J. Leach 6-43, R.E. van der Merwe 4-54) and 106 for 4 (J.L. Smith 46*, R.E. van der Merwe 3-60). Match drawn. Somerset 14 points. Surrey 11 points.

Result (1926). Surrey 136 (J.B. Hobbs 70, J.C. White 7-42, J. Bridges 3-67) and 346 for 8 dec (H.A. Peach 73*, A. Sandham 54, T.F. Shepherd 54, G.F. Earle 3-60). Somerset 81 (H.A. Peach 6-30, S. Fenley 3-36) and 324 (P.R. Johnson 117*, J.C.W. MacBryan 51, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow 49, S. Fenley 3-48, A.C.T. Geary 3-78). Surrey won by 77 runs. Surrey 5 points. Somerset 0 points.