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 de rigueur. Captains ignored W.G. Grace’s dictum on the toss at their peril. The decision is not always 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 the rest of the square, at least from beyond the boundary, for it was a dark, if dull, shade of green. The sky above was grey from Blackdowns to Quantocks, and as the cloud passed, conveyor belt like, over the ground 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 modern 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 was no requirement for allocated seating, and somewhere comfortably in excess of 3,000 by my eye, swelled by 800 club cricketers from over 100 clubs from across the South West, all invited for the day by Somerset, had come into the ground. 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 County Championship was properly back in 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 Ben 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 from 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 deliveries which lacked penetration, or was kept safely away from them. Sam Northeast, replacing Slater, added to the doubts by driving Davey confidently through the covers to the Temporary Stand.

The left-handed Duckett, playing rather frenetically as he looked to attack the bowling, did at least give Somerset hope, although more from apparent over-confidence than from any noticeable threat from the bowlers. He turned Brooks to the Somerset Stand boundary, then 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 balls to attack, 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 moving band of clouds. “That is going up a very long way,” someone said with more than a twinge of anxiety in their voice. It was drifting towards cover too, and I must confess to forgetting to breathe 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. His cricketing technique is often unorthodox, and as he approached the ball his feet looked like those of a cartoon character juddering to a halt. At the business end though, his hands were as steady in waiting for the catch as a kestrel’s head is in tracking its prey. Duckett’s innings was essentially over the second van der Merwe’s eyes locked onto 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. 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 attack at a rate which must have had the batsmen wondering if Somerset’s bowlers were entering through a revolving door. From the fall of the second wicket to lunch, 17 overs passed. They were bowled by five different bowlers.

As the bowlers rotated, Northeast and Clarke held steady. Occasionally they were beaten, and for a dozen overs the bowlers held the batsmen in check. There was, according to the online watcher, some testing movement. Only three boundaries and a total of 22 runs came, Northeast producing a scintillating back foot drive to the Somerset Stand off Davey, and with Davey trying the other end, a searing clip, also 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, welcoming applause for Jack Leach on his return from an extended period in the England COVID protective bubble, during which time he had not bowled a ball. Clarke’s welcome to him was abrupt, consisting of a sharp pull to the Somerset Stand boundary. When the Nottinghamshire batsmen walked off for lunch with the score on 88 for 2 they would have been somewhat happier than the Somerset fielders according to the general opinion around me. “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. At the same time, it looked like wickets would have to be drawn like reluctant teeth.

Lyndon James joined Clarke, and both batsmen drew on their allocation of luck. Clarke hooked another short ball from Brooks, and the resulting top edge flew directly over the keeper’s head to the Trescothick Stand boundary for four. In an over, Davey twice beat James to wincing gasps, and then forced an edge which ran to the River Stand. Davey, not quite at his best, 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, replacing Davey at the Trescothick Pavilion End, 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 were smiling broadly with the scoreboard registering 127 for 3. It had been a passage of play which epitomised the day thus far. Nottinghamshire steadily building a total and enjoying the occasional slice of luck. Somerset holding the batsmen in check, and then periodically loosening their grip to be punished with a brief flurry of runs. They had taken wickets, but given the conditions, not enough, or so it felt to the battle-hardened supporter.

Then Abell struck. Clarke, on 59, attempted to hook 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. Steven Mullaney joined James. Having taken some time to survey the scene, and in line with the stop-start pattern of the batting so far, he briefly attacked Leach. He cut him through backward point to the Ondaatje Stand for four, lofted him straight to the Lord Ian Botham Stand for six and turned him fine to the Trescothick Pavilion for four more. It took Nottinghamshire to 161 for 4 before Brooks, Leach and de Lange again applied the brake. In the nine overs until tea, ten runs were scored, and the ball never approached the boundary. Nottinghamshire reached tea with the advantage on 171 for 4.

Immediately after tea, the batsmen 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. Then, at 194 for 4, with Nottinghamshire threatening to pull away, Abell broke through. James, having just taken a fresh guard, tried to defend against a ball, which a replay shows swung away late, and was edged to Davies. “Well bowled,” someone said before another passage of tight bowling from Abell and de Lange was countered by solid defence and occasional scoring from Mullaney and Moores.

Then, Mullaney pulled de Lange, bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End, through the air towards the Caddick Pavilion. Banton, on the boundary, and more or less directly opposite us, seemed to be positioning himself nicely for the catch. In mid movement he stopped, 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. There is nothing quite like the sinking feeling associated with what looks like as straightforward a catch as there is likely to be in first-class cricket going to ground. Opportunity lost. 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 pointed to that still rolling conveyor belt of cloud. Nottinghamshire 208 for 6 in the 76th over, Mullaney 42, and Somerset were pegging Nottinghamshire back.

As if to mark the moment, the floodlights came on as the endless stream of cloud darkened the advancing day. Almost immediately, Nottinghamshire’s mainly 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 towards Nottinghamshire, shifted decidedly in their favour. A cut off Abell through backward point to Gimblett’s Hill set the tone, but it was 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 now 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 the 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. When he pulled Davey furiously in our direction, 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 Somerset spectators feeling somewhat pummelled. The crowd, and the bowlers, 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. There being no apparent end to it, within minutes, the umpires were seen pulling up the stumps. It signalled an end to a day that had started with Somerset struggling to impose their will after asking Nottinghamshire to bat, then inch by inch losing ground, and finally, watching Nottinghamshire sprint unhindered away from them.  

Close. Nottinghamshire 282 for 6.