Somerset lose ground – Leicestershire v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th July – Third 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)/K.L. Aldridge*, R.E. van der Merwe, J.H. Davey, M de Lange, J.A. Brooks.  *C. Overton was called into the England ODI squad before the start of day 3. J.C. Hildreth replaced him as captain and K.L. Aldridge replaced him as a player.

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.

Overnight. Somerset 461 for 9 dec. Leicestershire 95 for 3. Leicestershire trail by 366 runs.

Third day 6th July – Somerset lose ground

Somerset began the third day of this match in the ascendancy, although some would have wanted an early wicket to confirm that assessment. The players took the field in the face of a chill, almost autumnal breeze and enough grey cloud to give the bowlers some encouragement. Leicestershire began with concentrated defence while the Somerset bowlers were quickly on the mark. The bat was beaten several times and a running mix-up brought hands to foreheads and the comment, “If the throw had hit, he was gone.” It was tight cricket,12 runs the meagre proceeds of the first nine overs.

The announcement, “To bowl from the Marcus Trescothick Pavilion End, Kasey Aldridge,” brought a warm and lengthy round of applause. This was the 20-year-old Aldridge’s Somerset debut. He had been brought into the side for the final two days to replace Craig Overton who had been called into the England squad. Aldridge made full use of his height. His second ball lifted and comprehensively beat Ackermann to further, enthusiastic, applause. Then three to Ackermann through backward point and four to Inglis driven through the covers brought some perspective. Then that confirmation of Somerset’s ascendancy. Inglis left a ball from Brooks which cut in and struck the pads. The appeal rang out, the umpire raised his finger, a cheer erupted, and Leicestershire were 117 for 4. 344 behind. Inglis 27.

The importance, if Somerset were to win, of continuing to take wickets was the focus of conversation, for with more rain in the forecast, a substantial first innings lead would be important. Leicestershire retreated again into defence while the Somerset bowlers searched for another opening. When Brooks went past Swindell’s defensive stroke the applause had that quickness of rhythm designed to encourage more of the same. But slowly, Ackermann, and then Swindells, picked the gaps and the Leicestershire score began to mount. “Shot,” someone said when Ackermann drove Aldridge through the on side to the covers store. De Lange immediately responded by walking over to Aldridge to deliver some words, perhaps of support or advice.  

De Lange replaced Brooks at the River End as Somerset continued to apply pressure. He was met with applause when he forced Ackermann to take evasive action with a fast short delivery. When Hildreth, standing in as captain for Overton, switched him to the Trescothick Pavilion End, Ackermann drove him towards Gimblett’s Hill for three to bring up his fifty. The fifty had arrived as if by stealth, so steady and understated had Leicestershire’s progress been in the face of some still testing bowling from Somerset. As a captain, Hildreth is almost invisible, the polar opposite of Overton whose management of the team is there for all to see. Invisible Hildreth’s captaincy may be, but the frequency with which his bowlers were rotated suggested he was quietly doing his job.

However, despite the best efforts of Hildreth’s rotating bowlers, an occasional defeat of an attempt to cut van der Merwe apart, the ball seemed reluctant to go past the bat. The batsmen settled into a rhythm and maintained a measured, almost serene, progress. Occasionally they would puncture the calm with a boundary to gentle applause. Swindells played de Lange through third man, Ackermann swept van der Merwe square to the Somerset Stand, de Lange was turned behind square, and Lammonby, the latest in Hildreth’s hand of bowlers, was glanced to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. But the occasional boundary apart, the steadiness of Leicestershire’s progress became mesmeric, and I completely failed to spot the thickening of the cloud until, with the score on 175 for 4, with Somerset’s lead reduced to 286, rain began to fall.

The umpires decreed an early lunch, and I sent an anxious text, “Looks very straight up and down. Nothing happening.” “Not for anyone except some swing for Brooks,” the reply from the online watcher. A lead of 286 was still substantial, but, for all the efforts of the Somerset bowlers, the calm, unruffled progress of the Leicestershire batsmen was beginning to develop an aura of permanence. It was an uneasy lunch for the Somerset supporter, for there was the feel of a match in which Somerset had held a substantial advantage beginning to come into balance.

It is accepted practice among hardened cricket supporters that you do not make positive predictions about the prospects of your own side. Statements like, “He looks set,” or, “Four hundred looks on the cards,” are anathema for it is ‘known’ that they are liable to result in the immediate dismissal of the batsman who looks set, or a calamitous collapse instead of the promised 400. It is irrational superstition of course, but I defy you to persuade a hardened supporter of that. I can perfectly well see the illogicality of such superstition, but you will never catch me making such a bald prediction or circumnavigating a cricket ground in a clockwise direction for that matter. Nor will the man who told me he always wears his socks inside out at the cricket ever do otherwise. There may be nothing in such superstition, but when your team’s prospects are on the line, why take the risk?

Such superstition is not known to work the other way. You cannot hex the opposition by predicting great success for them. That said, I had sent the “nothing happening” text when Leicestershire were making progress. Perhaps therefore, I can take some of the credit for the demise of Ackermann. In the first over after lunch, de Lange, with one of his thunderbolts, sent Ackermann’s off stump cartwheeling. That brought a huge cheer, not least from me. It is as well that coronavirus regulations allocate seats on the diagonal and not one in front of the other. Otherwise, leaving aside any coronavirus risk, my cheer must have destroyed the eardrums of anyone allocated the seat in front of me. Ackermann had, it seemed to me, presented the main threat to Somerset. He had looked untroubled in defence and capable of accelerating if the opportunity presented itself. He had made 67, but Leicestershire were now 177 for 5 and still 134 short of the follow-on figure. Now opportunity presented itself for Somerset, and I found myself leaning a little further forward in my seat.

Ben Mike joined Swindells and the measured, defensive batting that had filled the first half of the morning returned. Leicestershire may have been a second division side, but they were batting with the sort of determination which was one of the hallmarks of first division cricket. Somerset would have to work for the remaining five wickets. Somerset’s fielding has been an exemplar in first division cricket for some years and now its sharpness played its part in holding Leicestersbire’s score in check when wickets were not coming. Both Goldsworthy and Aldridge received applause for sharp run-saving stops. The bowling too retained its focus. An over from van der Merwe to an intensely focused Mike with a slip, short leg and short extra cover in place was the embodiment of stalemate as batsman and bowler fought out a maiden.

“Leicestershire can save this if they dig in,” said the text from the online watcher. Then hope shone, but only for an instant. De Lange forced an edge from Swindells. It flew towards Hildreth’s ankles at first slip. The heart raced, for Hildreth does not miss those and it was becoming clear that the premium on wickets was increasing with each passing hour. But, and it seemed an age before the mind believed what the eye had seen, the ball went to ground. My heart sank into the cavern which had opened up in the pit of my stomach for this was not a pitch which would be forgiving of dropped catches by offering up frequent opportunities.

It took another maiden from van der Merwe, by the end of which a solitary run had come in five overs, before I had fully re-focused. Leicestershire were certainly digging in, but as the new ball approached they began to pick up the pace. The reprieved Swindells cut van der Merwe square to the Caddick Pavilion and Mike drove Hildreth’s latest bowling change, Lammonby, through the covers to the Somerset Stand. After 80 overs Leicestershire had battled their way to 207 for 5 at little more than two and a half runs an over. Swindells 44. Mike 9. They were now 254 runs behind with a new ball to face and the follow-on figure still 105 runs away. It felt, with half of the third day already gone, that Somerset needed to make the new ball count.

The new ball was taken by Aldridge and Brooks and both bowlers beat the bat several times. Brooks persuading a ball to lift sharply at Mike who could only fend it to fine leg for a single. To another shortish ball, Mike attempted to cut and missed. “Come on boys!” rang out from around the field. An edge from Mike off Brooks flew to van der Merwe in the slips. Van der Merwe does not drop catches any more than Hildreth does, but the ball went to ground again. Another sinking feeling, but whether the ball had carried was a point of discussion. No-one was sure. “Difficult, if a catch at all,” someone said. Then, Aldridge beat Swindells, again to encouragement from the field, but to no material effect.

Soon the floodlights were on as the cloud closed in along the Quantocks, and then around the ground. It seemed to provide some aid to the bowlers, but again to no material effect. For the watching Somerset supporter it was one of those passages of play where the bowling repeatedly fuels hope, but the lack of result deflates the hope. As time and overs passed while wickets remained intact, each leap of the heart was less pronounced than the one before and, as the Leicestershire score gradually mounted, the spirit gradually sagged.

The Leicestershire batsmen added to Somerset frustration with some well-struck boundaries, against Aldridge in particular. Mike pulled him behind square to the Temporary Stand, drove him twice through the on side to the Ondaatje boundary, once straight to the Trescothick Pavilion, and once through the off side to Gimblett’s Hill where Davey attempted to field the ball right on the rope. It was not clear to anyone if he had succeeded. When he signalled four to the umpire, a Leicestershire supporter shouted, “Well done mate, you are very honest.” Swindells added to the Somerset discomfort as he cut Brooks square to the Caddick Pavilion and drove him through the covers to the Temporary Stand.

The 12 overs of the Brooks-Aldridge new ball spell made for a curious, if for Somerset supporters, fruitless period of play. Seven boundaries had been matched by as many balls which might on another day have taken a wicket. In total, 48 runs were added in the 12 overs, but wickets refused to come. At 255 for 5 Leicestershire were still 206 runs behind, but with two batsmen well set, tea on the third day not far away, the light closing in, and the weather forecast for the final day at best indeterminate, prospects of Somerset forcing a victory were beginning to fade like the Quantocks in the face of an oncoming storm.

And then, like a lightning strike brightening the sky amidst that Quantocks storm, two wickets from de Lange re-lit the flame of Somerset hope. In his first over with the still new ball, he induced Mike into edging the ball wide of Hildreth at first slip. Hildreth took off, dived well to his right and took the catch. No mistake this time. Mike 40. In de Lange’s third over, Callum Parkinson left a ball which brought gasps, so close did it passed to the top of the stumps. The disappointment was short-lived, for before the over was out, de Lange had forced Parkinson to fend off a well-directed, lifting ball. It landed in the hands of Conway at third slip. Hope was rekindled, but those two wickets had not come without cost. Since the fall of Mike, Parkinson had taken three boundaries off de Lange and Swindells one off Lammonby. They had taken Leicestershire to 272 for 7, 40 runs short of saving the follow-on. Somerset meanwhile were within three wickets of enforcing it. The response of the batsmen was to give no ground and to continue the pursuit of runs. Swindells drove Lammonby through the covers for three and wide of mid-off for four while De Lange was driven through backward point for another four. At tea Leicestershire had reached 290 for 7, 171 behind, but within 22 runs of the effective safety of saving the follow-on.

Although hope always lingers, and predictions in cricket are notoriously fickle, the bulk of opinion expressed in the tea interval was that Leicestershire had effectively achieved a draw. The pitch was offering little, time for a result was short, the forecast for the final day threatened to shorten it further and the light on the third day had been dependent on the floodlights for some time. Somerset supporters sought some solace in the knowledge that a draw, whatever the outcome of the games involving Hampshire and Gloucestershire, would leave Somerset top their group going into the final round of matches.

After tea, reality set in. In the 22 overs which were bowled before bad light ended play for the day, Leicestershire added precisely 100 runs without losing a wicket. Within five overs of the players returning, with the first of two boundaries in an over, Ed Barnes uppercut Brooks to the Ondaatje boundary and the 22 runs required to save the follow-on were on the scoreboard. From there, with most of the pressure now off, the Leicestershire score raced along with Barnes playing an innings of assured aggression. De Lange replaced Brooks, and Swindells drove him twice to the Temporary Stand, bringing up his century along the way. There was generous applause, not least from the two Leicestershire supporters sitting behind me. In the next two overs, from Aldridge and de Lange, five boundaries and another 22 runs came. Barnes hooked Aldridge to the Temporary Stand and Swindells, looking like he was swatting a fly, sent the ball to the Somerset Stand. In the next over Barnes, with considerable assurance, square drove, uppercut and then clipped de Lange off his legs, all for four.

Suddenly, the scoreboard was registering 350 for 7 and Somerset’s 461 no longer seemed quite so daunting as it had when it was posted. When van der Merwe and Lammonby replaced Aldridge and de Lange, the Leicestershire onslaught continued, if at a more measured rate, but with little sign of threat from the Somerset bowling. With van der Merwe bowling from the River End, Barnes cut him square to the Caddick Pavilion dug outs, drove through the covers to the Temporary Stand, and swept him to long leg. The sweep brought up Barnes fifty from 65 balls. It was as much a relief as a disappointment for Somerset supporters when the umpires decreed that the light, even with the lights on, was too dark to continue and play was abandoned with ten overs remaining.  

Close. Somerset 461 for 8 dec. Leicestershire 390 for 7. Leicestershire trail by 71 runs with three first innings wickets standing.