Pummelled – Somerset v Nottinghamshire – County Championship 2021 – Second Phase First Division – 30th, 31st August and 1st September – Taunton – First Day

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Nottinghamshire. 30th, 31st August, and 1st September 2021. Taunton.

Somerset. S.M. Davies (w), T.A. Lammonby, T.B Abell (c), J.C. Hildreth, L.P. Goldsworthy, T. Banton, R.E. van der Merwe, J.H. Davey, M.J. Leach, M de Lange, J. A. Brooks.

Nottinghamshire. B.T. Slater, B.M. Duckett, S.A. Northeast, J.M. Clarke, L.W. James, S.J. Mullaney (c), T. J. Moores (w), L.A. Patterson-White, B.A Hutton, L.J. Fletcher, D. Paterson.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

First day 30th August – Pummelled

In the days of uncovered pitches batting first on winning the toss was virtually di rigueur. Captains ignored W.G. Grace’s dictum on the toss at their or their bowlers’ peril. The decision is not so clear-cut in these days of covered, well-prepared pitches, but inserting the opposition can still be a hazardous business. Imagine Tom Abell having to explain himself before W.G. after the disastrous insertions at Guildford in 2018 and Headingley in 2019. Interestingly, given the weight of history on the subject, in Somerset’s ten group stage Championship matches this season, the side winning the toss inserted the opposition eight times. When that news reaches the cemetery at Beckenham in which W.G now resides, the bearer may expect to be approached by a remonstrating apparition of the great man demanding an explanation. It might help pacify him if it is explained that on four of those eight occasions the side inserted lost the match, although in three cases leading on first innings. The other four matches were drawn, although two were so heavily impacted by the weather there was never a prospect of a result.

Prior to the toss for this match, it was difficult to pick out the pitch from beyond the boundary for it was a dark, if dull, shade of green. The sky was grey from Blackdowns to Quantocks, and as the cloud passed over the ground like a slow-motion conveyor belt running from the River Stand to the covers store there seemed to be no end to it. All that was lacking for a classic set of insertion conditions was humidity. Tom Abell clearly thought the green and the grey were enough, for as my friend from primary school days, and probably before, and I found our seat high in the Somerset Stand the announcement came that Somerset had elected to field. The group stage of this competition notwithstanding, I am a W.G man where the toss is concerned, for over time my anecdotal memory tells me that batting first carries the greater prospect of success, and my heart twinged accordingly.

Somerset begin the second phase of this year’s Championship in second place and a large crowd, even by Somerset first day standards, had come through the gates in support. There were somewhere comfortably in excess of three thousand by my eye, swelled by eight hundred club cricketers from over a hundred clubs from across the South West, all invited for the day by Somerset. The Somerset Stand was as well populated as I have ever seen it for a Championship match despite the deterrent effect of a wind that had arrived early for October. The ground, after the strictures at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, was bubbling, although a few rays of sunshine would not have gone amiss. The Gimblett’s Hill benches were full again, as if pre-pandemic times had never gone away. Every stand, apart from the section of the Ondaatje Stand closed as part of the cordon sanitaire for players, was populated as of old. The Championship was properly back at Somerset, and Somerset had turned out in force to greet it.

“That went straight through him,” someone said as Jack Brooks, bowling the second over of the day from the Trescothick Pavilion End, beat Ben Duckett. When in his next over Brooks bowled short and wide to Slater the batsman reached further than looked wise and cut the ball straight to Lammonby who caught it ankle-high at point. Nottinghamshire were 7 for 1, cheers erupted around the ground, and Somerset had a start. But from there, doubts about the insertion began to impinge as the bat fell in all too easily behind a ball lacking penetration or was kept safely away from it. Sam Northeast added to the doubts as he drove Davey confidently through the covers to the Temporary Stand boundary.

Only the left-handed Duckett, playing rather frenetically, as he looked to attack the bowling with some intent, seemed to give Somerset hope, although more from apparent over-confidence than from any apparent threat from the bowlers. He turned Brooks to the Somerset Stand boundary and, in successive overs, drove de Lange through long on to the Temporary Stand and cut Brooks square to the Caddick Pavilion. He was constantly on the lookout for scoring strokes, but never looked settled. A man in a hurry with all day ahead of him. It came as no surprise when he hooked Brooks, and the top edge looked destined for that conveyor belt of clouds. “That is going up a very long way,” someone said with more than a twinge of anxiety in their voice. I must confess to forgetting to breathe myself as I saw the cover fielder running in. I need not have worried, for the fielder was Roelof van der Merwe and there are few better in the game. He may sometimes give the impression of being a bolt of uninsulated electricity in the field, but at the business end his hands are as steady in waiting for a catch as a kestrel’s head is in tracking its prey. Duckett’s innings was essentially over the second van der Merwe’s eyes settled on the ball. Nottinghamshire 44 for 2. Duckett 24.

Duckett’s wicket served to temper Somerset anxiety about Nottinghamshire’s progress which had raced along at nearly four runs an over. But only for the moment, for Northeast was joined by Clarke and between them they began to build a foundation for Nottinghamshire’s innings. Slowly at first, although Clarke had announced his arrival by running three after late cutting his first ball from Brooks to the River Stand. Abell rotated his bowlers at a rate which must have, at times, had the batsmen wondering if they were entering through a revolving door. From the fall of the second wicket to lunch seventeen overs passed. They were bowled by five different bowlers.

As the bowlers rotated, Northeast and Clarke held steady, working to establish the Nottinghamshire innings. Occasionally they were beaten, but as the morning wore on any threat in the bowling began to fade. For a dozen overs the bowlers pressurized the batsmen. There was, according to the online watcher, enough movement to hold the batsmens’ attention, and only three boundaries and 22 runs came. Northeast produced a scintillating back foot drive to the Somerset Stand off Davey and, with Davey trying the other end, a searing clip, again to the Somerset Stand. Crucially though, no wicket fell.

As lunch approached and Abell worked down his list of bowlers, he could be heard imploring them with, “Come on boys, come on lads, come on.” But Nottinghamshire were now beginning to push and the bowling was beginning to lose some of its control. Clarke drove De Lange through the on side to the cover store boundary and Northeast twice deflected him behind square to the Colin Atkinson corner of the ground. There was lengthy applause for Jack Leach on his return from an extended period in the England COVID protective bubble during which time he had not been selected to play. Clarke’s welcome was abrupt, consisting of a sharp pull to the Somerset Stand boundary. When the Nottinghamshire batsmen walked off to lunch with the score on 88 for 2, they were somewhat happier I imagine than the Somerset fielders. “Their morning,” someone summed up.

Then, with lunch over, Somerset struck. Northeast was taken on the pad trying to turn Davey to leg. The appeal went up, followed by the umpire’s finger, followed by relieved cheers, followed by my friend saying, “Phew!” And “Phew!” is how it felt for, given the conditions, Nottinghamshire on 97 for 2 gave them a clear advantage. At 97 for 3, with Northeast gone for 34, Somerset were back within range. From there, as the afternoon unfolded, runs were at a premium, and it felt like wickets would have to be drawn like reluctant teeth. And all the while, Nottinghamshire slowly built on the advantage they had held at the end of the morning.

Lyndon James joined Clarke and both batsmen drew on their supply of batsman’s luck. Clarke hooked another short ball from Brooks and a top edge flew directly over the keeper’s head to the Trescothick Stand boundary. In an over, Davey twice beat James to gasps and then forced an edge which ran to the River Stand boundary. Davey, not quite at his best across the innings but the pick of the Somerset bowlers, was met with thankful applause when he returned to field in front of Gimblett’s Hill. Then, an over from de Lange moved Nottinghamshire forward again. Clarke drove him straight back past the stumps and James cut him directly over the point fielder to the Somerset Stand boundary, the ball travelling as if on a string directly towards me, curving slightly through the air as it approached. Between the two boundaries Clarke had taken a single to bring up his fifty. At the end of the over some Nottinghamshire supporters nearby looked to be breathing a little more easily with the score on 127 for 3. It had been a passage of play which epitomised the day thus far. Nottinghamshire steadily building a total, enjoying the occasional slice of luck, Somerset holding the batsmen in check and then periodically loosening their grip to be punished with a flurry of runs. They had taken wickets, but not enough it felt in the conditions.

Then, as so often happens with this Somerset team when it matters, Somerset again held Nottinghamshire in check, and then struck. Clarke, on 59, attempted to hook Abell and was well caught low down by Davies off the bottom edge. The score was 140 for 4 and it had taken Nottinghamshire seven overs to advance there from the fall of the third wicket at 127. Now, Steven Mullaney joined James and, having taken some time to survey the scene, attacked Leach, cutting him through backward point to the Ondaatje Stand, lofting him straight to the Lord Ian Botham Stand for six and turning him fine to the Trescothick Pavilion for another four. It took Nottinghamshire to 161 for 4 before Brooks, Leach and de Lange again applied something of a brake. In the nine overs until tea, ten runs were scored, and the ball never approached the boundary. Nottinghamshire reached tea on 171 for 4, their advantage re-imposing itself.

Immediately after tea, Nottinghamshire again attacked the bowling, 22 runs being added in three overs. Again, the assault was short-lived. Davey was driven fiercely off the outside edge by James, the ball flying through the air a yard beyond the horizontal reach of the point fielder and reached the Somerset Stand boundary just below me. A chip from Mullaney off Abell cleared the point fielder at the other end and ran down to the Ondaatje boundary. Three balls later, Mullaney drove square to the Caddick Pavilion. And then at 194 for 4, just as the score was looking daunting in the conditions, Abell broke through. James, having just taken a fresh guard, tried to defend against a ball which a replay shows swung away quite late and was edged to Davies. “Well bowled,” someone said as Somerset again closed the gap on Nottinghamshire before another passage of tight bowling from Abell and de Lange countered by solid defence and occasional scoring from Mullaney and Moores edged Nottinghamshire forward again.

When Mullaney pulled de Lange through the air towards the Caddick Pavilion, Banton, on the boundary, seemed to be positioning himself for a catch before stopping in mid movement only for the ball to bounce over the rope. “What happened there?” someone asked. “I think he might have lost it in our stand or the flats,” suggested my friend. Four tight overs and four runs later, Mullaney tried to clip de Lange to leg. The ball struck the pad with the batsman firmly on the crease and the umpire’s finger pointing to that still slowly rolling conveyor belt of cloud. Nottinghamshire 208 for 6, Mullaney 42. With those two wickets it felt Somerset had given themselves a chance of keeping the eventual Nottinghamshire score within bounds.

As if to mark the moment, the floodlights came on as the endless stream of cloud darkened the advancing day. Almost immediately, Nottinghamshire’s careful defence and periodic attacking flurries were replaced by a sustained assault on the Somerset bowling led by the new batsman, the left-handed Liam Patterson-White. It was a jaw-dropping assault for Somerset supporters to watch, for in an hour the balance of the day, always leaning slightly towards Nottinghamshire, shifted decidedly in their favour. A cut off Abell through backward point to Gimblett’s Hill set the tone, but it Patterson-White’s attack on de Lange which set the Nottinghamshire innings on a different course. The over began with a misdirected bouncer which sent four byes sailing over the keeper’s head. They were followed by drives, all for four, through midwicket to the Somerset Stand, straight to the Trescothick Pavilion and, to complete a wide ‘V’, through the off side to the Ondaatje boundary. A single and a no ball for the byes that cleared the keeper resulted in a 19-run over and Nottinghamshire finding themselves on 240 for 6 just four overs after the sixth wicket had fallen at 208.

There were worried faces along the rows of seats in the Somerset Stand as the Nottinghamshire score rattled along when most dismissals had suggested a ball moving in the air or off the pitch. I sent a text to someone watching online. “Is the ball doing anything?” “There is some movement, not excessive and not always, but some,” the reply. I often wonder if spasmodic or erratic movement is the worst sort if you are a batsman. Occasionally the bowlers got it right. Three times in one over Moores was beaten by de Lange. The first beat the bat altogether. The second was edged straight to Abell at second slip but bounced a couple of feet short of him, the third flew wide of the slips and, Nottinghamshire insult added to Somerset injury, ran to the Colin Atkinson boundary, but for the most part the batsmen held sway.

The new ball can be a duplicitous ally to bowlers. Often, it will take the wicket of a batsman who has become set or begin a collapse. But sometimes, if the bowlers do not get their line or length right, it flies to the boundary. The one Somerset took as soon as it was due produced the latter result. In the eight and a half overs possible after it was taken, bowled by Brooks and Davey, 42 runs were scored, and no wicket fell. Patterson-White continued his assault uninterrupted. Brooks was cut square to the Somerset Stand in the first over. From his third, Patterson-White took ten runs, the ball being pulled through midwicket to the Temporary Stand, turned to the Ondaatje, where it was only kept to two by a last-ditch boundary dive, and steered to Legend’s Square for four more. When he pulled Davey furiously over midwicket to the Somerset Stand boundary my old schoolfriend uttered a resigned, “Hmmm.”

Moores meanwhile applied himself to rotating the strike but did pull Brooks over midwicket to the Temporary Stand. “Come on Somerset,” someone shouted, more in hope than anticipation. Then, “Shot!” one Somerset supporter cried, acknowledging an off drive from Patterson-White. The cascade of runs took Nottinghamshire to 282 for 6 and left the crowd feeling somewhat pummelled. The bowlers and the crowd were saved from further punishment by the umpires decreeing the light had sunk so low that not even Somerset’s state of the art led lights could keep the players on the field. And all the while that slow conveyor belt of cloud continued its endless march across the sky. Within minutes the umpires were seen pulling up the stumps, thereby signalling an end to a day that had started with Somerset struggling to impose their will after asking Nottinghamshire to bat, gradually losing ground, and finally seeing Nottinghamshire beginning to sprint unhindered away from them.  

Close. Nottinghamshire 282 for 6.