A Day of Two Halves – Somerset v Leicestershire – County Championship 2021 – 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th July – Taunton – First Day

County Championship Group 2. Somerset v Leicestershire. 4th, 5th,  6th and 7th July 2021. Taunton.

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

Leicestershire. R.K.Patel, L.J. Hill, M.S. Harris, C. Ackermann (c), J.P. Inglis, H.J. Swindells (w), B.W.M. Mike, C.F. Parkinson, G.T. Griffiths, E. Barnes, W.S. Davis.

Toss. Leicestershire. Elected to field.

First day 4th July – A day of two halves

It was a day of two halves. 134 for 0 before the afternoon rain. 108 for 7 after. It left Somerset on 242 for 7 at the close. Exceptional batting in conditions more challenging than the score suggested before the rain. Persistent line and length bowling with some movement and lift eventually producing results after it. In the afternoon sun it felt ten degrees warmer, and the humidity brought sweat to the brow. Whether that had a say in the proceedings or not, the volte face in the nature of the cricket left a tantalizing prospect for the second day, for which the ever-changing forecast hinted at a drier, if not entirely dry day.

The first-day crowd was short of the restricted coronavirus regulations capacity, a cloudburst on the previous day, heavy overnight rain and the bleak forecast doubtless having had its say in that. As it was, to the surprise of most, 74 overs were bowled, and the familiar Taunton buzz accompanied most of them. Spectators were allocated to alternate seats with forbidding red crosses on the intervening seats. Social distancing in action.

Somerset were missing both their County Championship and T20 captains due to injury, and so Craig Overton, after his impressive start in the role in the T20 match against Middlesex, held the reins. As in the T20, he is yet to master the toss for he may have lost an important one here. The conditions were overcast until the rain break and humid after it. The pitch had a healthy tinge of green and the outfield an even healthier one. Often, as the ball approached the boundary between Legends Square and the Lord Ian Botham Stand it slowed as if brakes were being applied. It perhaps cost Somerset 30 runs across the day, my notes often recording twos and some threes where boundaries might have resulted on another day. An uncomfortable thought hung in the mind that on the morrow, as the ground dried, conditions might be better for batting.

Devon Conway and Steven Davies, wicket keepers and left handers both, opened for Somerset. They played from the start with a confidence that has eluded Somerset’s opening partnerships thus far this season. After five overs the score was 12 for 0. The unruffled approach of the batsmen was beginning to settle anxieties in the crowd, and the Taunton buzz of old was coming to life as more spectators found their way to the seats between the crosses. The batting in the sixth over of the morning, bowled from the River End by Ed Barnes, set the scene. Conway drove firmly along the ground, straight back past the stumps, but the fast-braking ball was hauled in short of the rope limiting the batsmen to two. Another drive, straight and also along the ground for a single followed before Davies completed the over with two more ground-hugging drives towards the Lord Ian Botham Stand. Again, the outfield applied the brakes before the boundary was reached.

Such classical driving played with an apparent ease and lack of effort, particularly by Davies, was to be a feature of much of the opening partnership as the batsmen took advantage of the bowlers stretching their length in the search for movement. The first boundary came when Conway unleashed another straight drive against Barnes, this time with enough force to overcome the unforgiving outfield. In Barnes’ next over Davies matched Conway with the smoothest of drives. The ball advanced confidently through the covers, reached the Somerset Stand boards and took Somerset past 30, riches indeed after the depredations suffered by Somerset’s opening partnerships before this match. There were two insistent leg before wicket appeals against Conway and several speculative ones of the type which come with the rations when the ball is moving. “They want to get rid of Conway,” someone suggested, speculation not being limited to those appealing.

When Ben Mike replaced Barnes at the River End, he examined the batsmen with some short-pitched deliveries. Conway passed the examination by twice hooking to the Ondaatje boundary. When the ball was pitched full, Davies drove to the Somerset Stand for three while Conway, adjusting to the slow outfield, drove Gavin Griffiths through midwicket to the Somerset Stand and straight to the Trescothick Stand for ground-hugging fours. This was flowing classical batting of the old sort and an object lesson in keeping the ball on the ground, with allowances for the occasional hook.

With a sprinkling of ones and twos and another hook to the Somerset Stand from Conway, this time off Griffiths, Somerset reached 83 for 0 in the 23rd over before a short mid-over burst of rain, it had almost stopped by the time the players reached their respective Pavilions, persuaded the umpires to call an early lunch. The disappointment in the crowd at the suspension of play was audible, for this was the opening partnership Somerset supporters had been waiting for since the start of the season. Conway had 43, Davies 32, and the crowd had signalled their approval with repeated cries of, “Shot.”  

The rain did not look inclined to resume, and spectators began to circulate around the communal areas with face masks dutifully in place. As has been the case since the return of crowds, any break in play brought a small group of people to inspect the portrait of Marcus Trescothick on the side of the Pavilion named after him. It is a huge portrait containing a legion of names, all of whom had donated their 2020 membership subscriptions to the Club. Elsewhere conversations were brief as people passed one another, with the quality of the opening partnership being the focus of many. It was not quite the old times returned, but it was enough for someone seeing his first post-interregnum cricket in the flesh to say to me, “Oh, how good it is to be back.” Indeed, and I doubt there was a soul in the ground who would have disagreed.

Lunch over, Griffiths completed his over and Conway continued as if he had never left the field. He drove straight to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary, and then with a neatly angled bat sent another ground hugging ball through third man to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion scoreboard. There was extended applause as the scoreboard recorded Conway’s fifty on his Somerset debut. Davies lifted the crowd further as he matched Conway’s two boundaries by hooking Barnes behind square to the Ondaatje boundary and pulling him in front of square to the re-instated Temporary Stand on the Priory Bridge Road boundary. In the ten balls after lunch 20 runs were added and Somerset reached 103 for 0 before the 25th over began. In the context of the Somrset opening partnerships that had gone before, this was the stuff of dreams.

If it were a dream, there was to be no immediate awakening from it. Davies, continued to use the full range of the stroke maker’s compass. He glanced Callum Parkinson’s leg spin to the Lord Ian Botham Stand, hooked Barnes to the Ondaatje boundary and drove Parkinson through the covers to the Caddick Pavilion. Conway meanwhile was similarly liberal with the spread of his strokes. Twos and threes were sent in the direction of Gimblett’s Hill, the River Stand and the Somerset Stand. As the runs flowed, the appeals faded away, the batsmen scored at nearly four an over, and the Taunton buzz filled the stands. Had Prospero been a Somerset supporter he might have adapted Shakespeare’s line and said, “This is such stuff as dreams are made on.” Then, into this Somerset idyll, the afternoon rain fell. It fell in quantities sufficient to cause all the covers to come on and the Somerset innings to be suspended, as if in aspic, for two hours. Somerset 134 for 0. Conway 63. Davies 61.

Where do cricket crowds go when it rains? I don’t know because I tend to stay in my seat with a huge umbrella defying the rain. It keeps me, my belongings and my seat dry. And my e-reader keeps my mind occupied. Writing match reports in the summer and converting them into books in the winter leaves less time for reading than I would like, and so I sometimes take advantage of rain breaks to read a little history of the non-cricketing type. Augustinian Rome for choice. Not that reading in cricketing rain is entirely restful. Rain chased hard by a sudden gust of wind will defeat even the largest umbrella.

But, if the rain eases, there is always someone who wanders by, eager to talk about the cricket, especially after the sort of cricket we had seen thus far. There was no doubting the impression Conway’s arrival had made, or that of Davies stepping into the opener’s role. There was too the sheer pleasure felt at a Somerset opening partnership that had been yearned for all season. 134 for 0 with two left-handed classical batsmen timing the ball as if with Prospero’s wand was the sort of cricket many would have dreamed of through the long coronavirus interregnum. And the pleasure at the chat too. Never forget the importance of the chat with old friends and people met for the first time across the expanse of a Championship match.

And then, if the sun comes out while the covers are being removed, people start emerging from their bolt holes and the talk begins in earnest. Here it was about Conway and Davies of course, but also about Somerset’s prospects in the Championship. Somerset came into this match ten points clear at the top of their group having disposed of their eight-point penalty along the way. Given the early loss to Gloucestershire and the persistent problem of finding an opening partnership, it has been an exceptional performance. With only this match and the final group match at the Oval remaining, progression to the first division, and an attempt on the Championship, seems ever more likely. With such anticipation pervading the atmosphere the players returned to the field and the spectators to their seats.

Once Conway had re-taken his guard it was as if a paused film had been set running again. He drove Will Davis’s first ball after the resumption through the onside to the Temporary Stand, and Davies clipped Parkinson fine to the Lord Ian Botham Stand. But when Davis, bowling around the wicket, brought a ball into Davies, it broke through his defence and struck his off stump. 143 for 1. Davies 65. Warm applause greeted Davies as he left the wicket and welcomed Lewis Goldsworthy as he left the Caddick Pavilion. In Davis’s next over, Goldsworthy was following Davies off, Ackermann catching him at second slip off a bat forced to react to a lifting ball. 151 for 2. Goldsworthy 3.

“Hooray,” was the response to the announcement, “The incoming batsman. James Hildreth.” Hildreth’s poor Championship form has been put in the shade by some stunning innings opening the batting in the T20 Vitality Blast. He does not wait upon ceremony. If the ball presents itself, he dispatches it. He dispatched his second ball effortlessly over the square leg fielder to the Somerset Stand boundary. Conway meanwhile continued his assault on the bowling unabated, his driving particularly effective and easy on the eye. Parkinson was twice driven through the covers and once cut through backward point, all to the boundary between the Ondaatje Pavilion and the Temporary Stand. At 171 for 2, Somerset stood astride the match, dominant and on the charge.

The sun was now beating down and we were about to witness intensity in the cricket to match. My allocated seat at the Gimblett’s Hill end of the lower deck of the Trescothick Pavilion had no shade. My back felt like it was exposed to a small furnace. Sun cream was applied liberally to the back of my neck, my broad-rimmed white wyvern hat sat firmly on my head. The humidity had risen by more than a notch too. Perfect cricket weather many will say, but I must confess to preferring less heat or more shade. At least one or two others seemed to share that view and, allocated seats deserted, retreated to the fairly thinly populated shaded part of the seating.

Now, Leicestershire struck hard. First against Conway, who had looked untouchable. “Bowled him,” was the somewhat incredulous cry. Conway had played what appeared to be a perfectly good forward defensive stroke to Parkinson. The ball had turned and hit the stumps. Conway walked off to an ovation which belied the relatively small size of the crowd. It followed him all the way to the boundary. 171 for 3. Conway 88. Bartlett’s innings was bright, breezy and short. A thick edge to the covers store brought four, an on drive for two brought a cry of, “Shot,” and a hook reached the Somerset Stand boundary. Then Ben Mike pitched full and straight. Bartlett looked bamboozled. It is the word I instinctively wrote in my notes at the time and sent in a text, and so I write it here. He was back on his stumps, in direct line between them and the onrushing ball. Late, he pulled his bat away from the ball with the inevitable result. “What happened there?” someone asked. Bartlett had made ten in less than a quarter of an hour, Somerset were 182 for 4 and the match was swinging into balance.

Tom Lammonby, now batting at six, joined Hildreth. They worked to re-establish Somerset’s momentum, but not without risk as the bowlers continued to probe. Lammonby paddle-swept Parkinson to the Lord Ian Botham Stand for three, the outfield still unforgiving, miscued a hook off Mike for a fortuitous single, but drove Parkinson through wide mid-off to the Ondaatje Stand for a classic four. Hildreth survived a difficult chance at short leg off the ever-questioning Parkinson, cut Mike through point to the Caddick Pavilion to a shout of, “Come on Hildy,” and hooked him to the Somerset Stand rope to cheers as Somerset passed 200. That was my cue to walk behind the Pavilion to the Stragglers, for the heat of the afternoon had drained my supply of water. As is the way at cricket matches, a chance meeting with someone on a similar errand delayed my return to my seat.

Chat over and water supplies replenished, I rushed back towards the cricket fearful of the age-old cricketing superstition that wanderers behind stands cause wickets to fall if their side is batting. I reached the top of the steps behind my seat just as Lammonby was essaying a tentative drive at a ball from Griffiths. He edged it towards first slip. Ackermann, at second, moved neatly across and plucked the ball from the air as he went. As I had seen the wicket, I told myself, not very convincingly, that I had escaped responsibility for it. Two overs later, Hildreth drove with clear intent at Griffiths and was caught low by Swindells behind the stumps. Somerset had fallen from 206 for 4 to 213 for 6. Lammonby 11. Hildreth 23. 224 for 7 when Overton followed, caught behind trying to defend against a lifting ball, again from Griffiths. In an exceptional piece of bowling, which had brought Leicestershire right back into contention, Griffiths had found the outside edge three times in four overs. Perhaps the humidity was having its say. Or perhaps it was that bottle of water. From there, van der Merwe and Davey saw out the final ten overs, four of them maidens, although van der Merwe, perhaps unsurprisingly, found or made opportunity to slog-sweep Parkinson over square leg to the Caddick Pavilion for six.

At 171 for 2 Somerset had threatened dominance. At 242 for 7, Leicestershire, by dint of the perseverance of their bowlers, perhaps assisted by increasing humidity, were threatening, if they could bat well on the morrow, to swing the match their way. It had been an excellent day’s cricket. A wonderful opening partnership from Somerset, a determined fightback from Leicestershire, the weather overcome more than had seemed possible at the outset, and a match left hanging in the balance. Nervous anticipation permeated thoughts of what was to come, the perfect emotion with which to leave a cricket ground.

Close. Somerset 242 for 7.