Cold Reality – Somerset v Lancashire – County Championship 2021 – Taunton – 12th, 13th and 14th September – Final Day

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Lancashire. 12th, 13th and 14th September 2021. Taunton.

Somerset. T.A. Lammonby, B.G.F. Green, Azhar Ali, T.B Abell (c), J.C. Hildreth, L.P. Goldsworthy, S.M. Davies (w), R.E. van der Merwe, E.O. Leonard, M. de Lange, J. A. Brooks.  

Lancashire. G.P. Balderson, A.L. Davies (w), L.W.P. Wells, J.J. Bohannon, D.J. Vilas (c), R.P. Jones, S.J. Croft, D.J. Lamb, T.E. Bailey, J.M. Blatherwick, M.W. Parkinson.

Overnight. Lancashire 373. Somerset 90 and 226 for 4. Somerset trail by 57 runs with six second innings wickets standing.

Final day 14th September – Cold reality

It was a day which began with resignation written across faces, perhaps tinged with faint hope. Hope that the remaining Somerset batsmen might overcome the outstanding deficit of 57 and set Lancashire a target which would at least ask them a question or two. The resignation came not just from a huge first innings deficit, but also from the two innings defeats which preceded this match. The batting statistics of those two matches had been bleak indeed. Individually, Marchant de Lange had bludgeoned more runs than any other player in the Somerset team. His 36 against Nottinghamshire was the highest individual score. To add to the gloom, Somerset had been dismissed for 90 in the first innings of this match, a deficit of 283, with only Azhar Ali (39) and Lewis Goldsworthy (15) reaching double figures. It was a picture to deaden the beat of even the most optimistic Somerset heart. The faint hope came from Somerset’s second innings 246 for 4 and Tom Lammonby’s coruscating second day century, during which he had made the all-conquering Lancashire bowlers of the first innings look less than ordinary. His partnerships with Ben Green and Azhar Ali, which had brought 194 runs before the fall of the second wicket, had finally lifted the spirits, and roused the cheers, of the Somerset crowd.

Two-innings cricket is a game of possibilities like no other, certainly like no other form of cricket. The second innings always provides the possibility of changing the course of a game, even of reversing a first innings disaster and pulling off a memorable victory. It happens but rarely, but it is all the committed supporter needs for the seeds of hope to be sown. At least the seeds that can be sown by that small word ‘if’. The word that can suspend reality for the millisecond which lets the seed take root. If. If … the overnight batsmen could stay together until lunch and beyond. If … Davies and van der Merwe could put together a fighting partnership after that. Reality though never entirely deserts the scene. The mathematics of the scoreboard see to that. At least, they do when the scoreboard is working. The reality was too much for the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard on the third morning, for it could not summon the strength to show the score at all. The Colin Atkinson Pavilion scoreboard was made of sterner stuff. It confronted the crowd with reality all morning.

Life being about more than cricket, and football I imagine, whatever Bill Shankly might have said, I was unable to reach the ground until half an hour after the start. With the overnight reduction in Somerset’s mountainous first innings deficit, my heart clung to the fanciful dream of an unlikely victory as I drove to the ground. My head, remembering Wells’ three wickets at the end of the second day, took a more detached view of Somerset’s prospects. It concluded that only the size of defeat remained to be determined. The heart hopes, the head calculates.  

As I walked through the Brian Rose Gates it became apparent that the head had proved the better predictor, and the heart sank. I saw the disconsolate figure of Lewis Goldsworthy walking slowly towards the Caddick Pavilion. “That’s two gone,” said a grim-faced steward, bringing the heart down another beat or two. According to the cold reality served up by the Colin Atkinson Pavilion scoreboard, Somerset had reached 248 for 6, Goldsworthy 21. Somerset were still 35 runs behind and in terminal disarray according to the involuntary calculations taking place in my head. After 63 years of watching Somerset cricket, it knows what is required of it without being asked. “Goldsworthy got a good one,” someone told me in a post-match discussion. He had been leg before wicket to a ball from Bailey which a replay shows cutting back into him viciously. Hildreth had been the other departure. He had barely moved his feet when attempting to pull a ball from outside off stump. It was the sort of stroke he often turns into the epitome of batting genius, but this time the ball steepled to point where Blatherwick gathered the manna as it fell limply from heaven. Hildreth 26.

And so, to my seat in the Somerset Stand beneath a couple from the flats watching from their balcony. The view was from backward point to the right-hander with the bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End. Neither behind the arm nor square but I found it gave an excellent view of proceedings. Somehow, the angle seemed a natural one from which to watch cricket. I felt less need to concentrate hard but seemed to miss nothing. I was immediately assailed by the Somerset supporter from the second day. Oddly, we had first met on the outfield at Edgbaston, probably five or six years ago, perhaps more, for time flies. We have gently chided each other’s opinions on the game ever since, without ever losing respect for the other’s knowledge. At other times we simply agree. Today was one such day. Goldsworhy might be a ‘find’ we agreed, but we would be happier if, as he develops, he could put more pressure on the bowling and produce a big score. Hildreth we hoped might re-discover his old artistry, as he had earlier this year in his outstanding century at the Oval.

As we watched, a gentle end-of-season chatter floated along the stand. Gentle chatter is the normal background soundtrack of a County Championship match as people soak up the cricket, discuss its merits and demerits and anything else that takes their fancy. Sometimes tension grips the air, as on that final afternoon against Essex in 2019, as the last home match of a season draws towards its close. The chatter develops a warmth as people, many of whom will not see each other again before the first home match of the following season, look forward to the winter ahead. “Winter well,” is the phrase on the lips of some. But whatever the words, the sentiment is always the same. Keep well while the return of the cricket is awaited.

With Somerset still in deficit with only four wickets standing, the cricket had lost its tension and a clawing disappointment was gaining hold of the Somerset mind. Steven Davies was still at the wicket, and when he is in form he will always provide some buoyancy to the spirit. He was playing, mainly defensively, with that silky smooth movement of the bat that is his hallmark when he is at his best. It fitted the end-of-season part of the mood perfectly. And he looked as if he could have batted until the first morning of next season. With him, was Roelof van der Merwe, the polar opposite in batting style, and in most other things on a cricket field. He gave the impression of wanting to win the game by lunchtime and his mercurial efforts brought forth occasional cheers from the background chatter.

I had barely sat down when successive balls from Balderson summed up van der Merwe’s innings. A cover drive of great power sped over the grass to the gap between the Caddick Pavilion and the Priory Bridge Road car park. The next ball van der Merwe attempted to cut and edged it, bullet-like above and to the right of Wells at second slip. Wells jumped on the diagonal but the serendipity which sometimes blesses van der Merwe’s batting took the ball beyond Wells’ reach and it was soon crossing the Trescothick Pavilion rope. Although there was another cover drive to the Caddick Pavilion and a drive through the covers towards Legends Square for two, it was not an innings which suggested permanence. When he next faced Balderson, the edge from a fearsome-looking drive did not evade Wells and he departed for 23 from 24 balls, the third batsman, after Hildreth and Goldsworthy, to depart the innings in the 20s. Van der Merwe walked off to a barely token ripple of applause. In its way it was more deafening than the cheering of a full ground. The disappointment of what was clearly about to become a third crushing Championship defeat was biting hard.

Somerset were still four runs short of making Lancashire bat again. Within a run the eighth wicket fell to silence. Marchant de Lange, who most would have hoped to see clear the boundary and maybe a stand or two before the end, was out second ball, caught at slip trying an uncharacteristically limp steer. “Oh dear, oh dear,” I heard someone say. When Jack Brooks bisected first and second slip with an edged off Balderson, it fell short of them both, ran down to the Trescothick Pavilion and Somerset moved two runs into the lead. In response there were loud cheers, some of irony, some of relief. As the game moved towards its close Davies batted serenely on. He showed his economy of stroke with the smoothest of pulls through wide midwicket to the Legends Square boundary to the sort of applause which accompanies a stroke of quality whenever it is played.

When Brooks cut Balderson to the Ondaatje boundary and drove through the covers for two Somerset passed 300 which brought more applause. But the inevitable end of the innings was not long delayed. Brooks attempted a steer to third man and had his off stump rattled. Leonard found the Trescothick Pavilion boundary with an edge off Balderson, but when he tried to glance Blatherwick to the Lord Ian Botham Stand he was caught by the keeper. Somerset had ended on 314, a lead of 31. With the aid of the umpires delaying the lunch interval by fifteen minutes, Balderson and Lancashire’s Davies scored the requisite 32 runs in six overs with six boundaries and barely five minutes of the fifteen-minute extension used.

It was a sad end to Somerset’s home Championship matches, for everyone knew there was now little prospect of finishing anywhere but bottom of the first division. Meanwhile the top four of the six teams in the division each ended the round with a realistic prospect of winning the Championship. One of those was Warwickshire who Somerset play at Edgbaston in the final round of matches. It was a far cry from the end of the previous three red-ball seasons. In all three of which Somerset had finished second and had challenged for the title to the end in two of them.

The crowd was well above average for a day in which an early finish was probably anticipated by most. Perhaps the end of the last home match of the season had drawn some. Perhaps the faint hope of an unlikely victory had drawn others. Large though it was, the exit of the crowd from the ground at the close was undertaken with the speed of an audience leaving a cinema after an unmemorable film. Far more quickly than the usual end of season reluctance to leave a scene and friends that people will not see again for six months. As they left, a sombre silence settled across the ground. Within minutes all that remained were a few eating their unconsumed lunch and a group who had come together from different parts of the country for an end-of-season get together at the cricket. There would have been many more still happily sitting in their seats long after the players had left the field had this been the last home match of a more successful Somerset campaign. A fighting performance at Edgbaston next week to match Lammonby’s on the second afternoon of this match will help lift the mood. The mood will lighten too as the winter passes, but for the moment there was a very different story in people’s faces than the one of hope with which they had ended recent seasons. “This is the point at which someone usually says, perhaps next year,” one of those remaining said, “but I am not so sure this time.”

Result. Lancashire 373 (L.W.P. Wells 103, S.J. Croft 71, T.E. Bailey 63, J.A. Brooks 4-77, T.B. Abell 3-63) and 32 for 0. Somerset 90 (J.M. Blatherwick 4-28, T.E. Bailey 3-9) and 314 (T.A. Lammonby 100, Azhar Ali 50, L.W.P. Wells 3-8). Lancashire won by ten wickets. Lancashire 23 points. Somerset 3 points.