Lancashire Rampant – Somerset v Lancashire – County Championship 2021 – Taunton – 12th, 13th and 14th September – First 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.

Craig Overton, Lewis Gregory and Josh Davey, Somerset’s three first-choice pace bowlers in 2021 were unavailable for this match. Ned Leonard made his first-class debut.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

First day 12th September – Lancashire rampant

No matter how far into September the cricket season stretches, the half-past ten start is always liable to catch me out, especially on a sun-filled morning like this one. It shouldn’t. The ten-thirty start happens every year. And yet, every year it comes as a surprise. And so, I and the cricketer watching the match with me, walked through the Brian Rose gates just in time to see Ned Leonard deliver a ball from the River End to Lancashire’s 20-year-old left-hander, George Balderson. The cricketer is only an occasional live-watcher and so has more of an excuse than I for not registering the half past ten start. Balderson is presumably more attuned to cricket at such an hour, for he had already found the boundary four times, once with a neat on drive which had flowed along the ground to the cricket afficionados who inhabit the benches on Gimblett’s Hill. Somerset’s debutant pace bowler, Leonard, the victim of Balderson’s early forays.

The ball which Leonard delivered to greet the arrival of the cricketer and I found Balderson less well prepared. It flew off a defensive edge to Lammonby’s right at gully. Lammonby fell smoothly across the path of the ball as if he were a felled tree, taking the catch as he went and Lancashire were 27 for 1 in the sixth over. Balderson walked off with 22 of the 27 and battle had been joined. No sooner had we found our seat, square of the wicket and high in the Somerset Stand, than Lancashire’s Alex Davies played forward to Brooks. He edged the ball to Somerset’s Steven Davies who took the catch as calmly as Lammonby had done, although in his case on the walk as if he were on a country stroll towards the slips. Lancashire were 27 for 2 in the seventh over and the September Somerset air felt good.

Lancashire were not deterred. Luke Wells has been around the county circuit with Sussex and Lancashire for a decade. He now set about crafting an innings as good as any he will have played in those ten years. A century scored at not far short of a run a ball in less than two and a half hours was soon raising questions among Somerset supporters about the decision to ask Lancashire to bat in brilliant sunshine, although the distinctly green-tinged pitch perhaps revealed at least part of the answer. There has too been a strong tendency in Somerset’s matches this year towards sides opting to field first. There have been nine insertions in Somerset’s twelve Championship matches to date.

There is no doubt that two opposition wickets early on the first morning, especially when one falls to a debutant about whom good things have been heard, do lift the spirits. Especially so after two crushing innings defeats have effectively ended any hope of a Somerset Championship this year. But three boundaries in succession from the left-handed Wells soon punctured Leonard’s bubble. One, an off drive, raced to the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary, leaving the mid-off fielder no more than a retrieval operation to conduct. A clip off the legs to the Ondaatje boundary followed, although some thought the long leg fielder might have stopped it as he ran around the boundary. “He gave up too soon,” someone said. It was a sight and a comment rarely, if ever, heard about Somerset fielding. Rather, among spectators the length and breadth of the country, Somerset fielding tends to be held up as an exemplar.

From there Wells did not relent, while at the other end the 24-year-old Josh Bohannon played an old-fashioned anchor role, defending his wicket hard whilst Wells sallied forth. For Somerset, de Lange held firm against Bohannon but Abell, again bowling first change, could not hold Wells. Four times in the three overs the ball crossed the boundary. On three of those occasions Wells drove the Somerset captain to the River End before Abell withdrew himself from the attack. Wells’ assault was a stunning response to those two early wickets and the buzz in the crowd that had followed them began to lose its fizz. Not so the Lancashire score which raced along to 73 for 2 at five runs an over. By the 20th over the Lancashire hundred had been left behind with Wells turning his attention to de Lange off whom he took 14 in an over. The Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary was breached via a fortuitous edge and the ball was twice driven through the covers to the Caddick Pavilion, the second drive flying viciously over cover’s head before crossing the rope on the first bounce. As it went, Wells celebrated fifty from 48 balls. Lancastrians who had travelled to Taunton broke into animated applause which was soon followed by a generous ration of clapping from the Somerset crowd.

In the last two matches Somerset had been swept away by Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, and now the Lancashire tide was threatening to run heavily against them. For the moment though, as a covering of cloud moved in accompanied by some humidity, the tide was stemmed by Green who is developing a reputation for tight if not penetrative bowling, and Lammonby. Between them they bowled most of the remaining eleven overs to lunch at little more than two an over. “Let’s go buddy!” Abell encouraged Green at one point as the early flood of Lancashire runs ebbed to a trickle. Even so, the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard showed Lancashire on 127 for 2 at lunch with Wells on 72 and Bohannon on 21. And the cloud, which had perhaps aided Green and Lammonby, had thinned and turned white, allowing a hazy sun to hover above the benches on the Hill. It had enough force to lay a reminder of summer across the heads of those who looked on and to raise the thought that it might be an afternoon for batting.

Lunch on the first day. A time for supporters to perambulate around the boundary. Before the pandemic it was always, in my case, a complete circumnavigation of the ground, anti-clockwise without exception. Anti-clockwise because even the thought of circumnavigating in a clockwise direction brought forth foreboding of cricketing mishap being visited upon Somerset. The cause of the forboding is lost in the mists of more than six decades of watching Somerset play cricket, but it determined the direction of my walk nonetheless. I am not, of course, superstitious and never have been. As those who read these reports on a regular basis know, I am well aware of the irrationality of superstition. It has no power over events. Rationally, the direction in which I circle a cricket ground can make no difference to Somerset’s fortunes one way or the other. But, since in those pre-pandemic days I could walk around the entire ground in either direction, why, I had concluded, take the risk of going the wrong way? So, anti-clockwise my circumnavigation was. Always.

Now, in the coronavirus world, things have changed. With the area between the entrances to the Caddick and Ondaatje Pavilions cordoned off to provide a ‘COVID-secure’ area for the players, full circumnavigations of the ground are impossible. And so, I walked anti-clockwise as far as the Ondaatje Pavilion and then, with no alternative, turned and walked, encased in guilt, in a clockwise direction back towards my seat in the Somerset Stand. When I emerged from behind the Trescothick Pavilion I came across one of the perennial inhabitants of Gimblett’s Hill just setting off on his own perambulation. “What do you think?” the inevitable question asked simultaneously by both of us. The acknowledgement that Somerset’s morning had, “not gone to plan,” was soon agreed. The debate on the wisdom of asking the opposition to bat took longer, but eventually meandered into a discussion on all things cricket which, without our realising it, ate the remainder of the lunch interval. We were interrupted by the players re-emerging from their respective Pavilions, and I spent the first two overs of the afternoon session making my way back to my seat, which period is represented by a gap in my notes. During that time the sum total of progress in the game was another run added by Lancashire.

As I resumed my seat, Lancashire resumed their assault. For Somerset, the pace of de Lange and Brooks made little impact. “The bowling is not looking threatening is it?” the cricketer with me mused. The twin shadows of the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire matches were looming large. When de Lange ran in hard from the River End, Bohannon added to the Somerset mood by driving him through the covers to the Priory Bridge Road boundary. “C’mon boys,” the exhortation from Abell. As if in response, Green at midwicket dived hard when Bohannon pulled the next ball towards the Somerset Stand, restricting the scoring to a single. But the renewed Lancashire charge was not to be denied as Bohannon took eight runs from de Lange’s next over, a neat steer to the fore as it ran backward of point to the boundary.

Now, Wells pulled de Lange in front of square to the Priory Bridge Road boundary before raising Somerset hopes by finding a thick top edge off another pull. The hopes plummeted with the ball as it fell safely and crossed the rope at long leg. When Leonard replaced de Lange, Wells drove him mercilessly through the on side to the Colin Atkinson boundary while Abell was driven straight back to the Trescothick Pavilion and then spectacularly through the covers to the Caddick Pavilion. With that, Wells looked to the heavens and raised his arms as if in grateful thanks as much as in celebration as the scoreboard registered a century worth the watching. It brought forth cheers and a standing ovation from the Lancashire supporters who had made the long trip south and extended applause from the home crowd. If statistics can speak, 103 runs from 112 balls with 20 fours portray the spectacle of the innings.

Cricket is the most unpredictable of all games, and now, with Lancashire racing away on 182 for 2, I said to no-one in particular, and barely realising what I had said, “We need a wicket here.” Abell, who can sometimes surprise with unexpected pace, ran in to bowl the next ball. It seemed to surprise Wells, for it forced a hurried and misjudged defensive stroke, the edge of which guided the ball straight to Hildreth’s midriff at first slip. “You should have said that before,” someone said as the cheers from Somerset supporters turned into appreciative applause for Wells. Applause which accompanied him all the way to the boundary. It had been an innings worth every clap of that applause, and it had given Lancashire a clear advantage. The statistics speak again. Wells’ 103 had come from just 155 runs scored while he was at the wicket.

Wells’ departure brought some relief to the Somerset soul, but Lancashire were again undeterred. They continued to assault the Somerset bowling, although not without cost as, for the second time in the day, the air developed a degree of humidity. For Somerset, Abell was bowling one of those spells of his which can suddenly slice through the opposition, if at the expense of runs. Nineteen came from the next three overs, but two more wickets fell in the process. Bohannon, after a two-and-a-half-hour fifty, was the first casualty. He attempted to cut Abell but edged a fast-moving catch to Leonard at short third man. No sooner that than Rob Jones edged Abell straight to Hildreth at first slip. “That’s the length son,” someone in the crowd said. “That moved off the seam,” the instant text from the online watcher added. Length and movement. A deadly combination, and with it Abell had reduced Lancashire from 182 for 2 to 201 for 5. Enough to generate a buzz in the stands.

But still Lancashire attacked, and they attacked Abell. Steven Croft and Dane Vilas stepped into the gap left by the departure of Wells and Bohannon. They had some luck. Fortune often favours the batsman who takes on the bowlers, at least that is how it seems to the bowling side’s supporters. There was an edge for four from Vilas which went through third slip when Somerset had only two. The winces which that inflicted on the faces around me were almost audible. The drive, as the bowlers pitched up in the search for movement, was the batsmen’s favoured stroke. With it, and in short order, Croft found the boundary three times off Abell. “What do you do when your wicket-taker is going for runs like this?” asked the cricketer. At the other end, Vilas drove Leonard straight to the Lord Ian Botham Stand and through point to the Caddick Pavilion. “Come on boys,” implored Abell. “It’s run after run at the moment,” the comment from a seat a row or two further up the stand. De Lange replaced Abell but made no impact. He was driven through extra cover to Legend’s Square for four and pulled to the Ondaatje boundary for two. “That’s the 250,” the increasingly despondent commentator behind me said, for with just 52 overs gone, the day was not far past its halfway point.   

Now, with Lancashire rampant, Brooks, from the Trescothick Pavilion End, took a hand. His appearances have been restricted this year and he has been short of wickets in the matches he has played. But, as Lancashire tried to forge further ahead, he struck twice in two overs and in almost identical fashion. Vilas had ridden the crest of the Lancashire surge with some panache when he was struck on the pad. He had scored at precisely a run a ball for his 36 runs. The appeal was instantaneous and vociferous, and the umpire’s finger was raised with all the terminal authority of a police officer stopping a speeding motorist. It was raised again when Brooks struck the pad of Lamb, the new batsman, before he had scored. “Is he cutting it in?” someone asked. “He must be,” the reply. “Brooks is moving it off the seam,” the confirming text from the online watcher. It was progress at least for Somerset, but the nature of the wickets suggested 268 for 7 was a significant score.

The announcement ahead of the over between Brooks’ two wickets, “Change of bowling at the River End. Roelof van der Merwe,” had brought a huge cheer. It was a cheer of relief spiced with irony. There was little doubt that the relief and the irony were directed at the delay in bringing van der Merwe into the attack. Van der Merwe is capable of applying a brake and taking the wickets of those who try to attack him whilst he is applying it. He is also a hugely popular cricketer among the ranks of Somerset supporters for his wholehearted and idiosyncratic approach to the game. Here, the idiosyncrasy was suspended in favour of a steady, constraining line and length which restricted the Lancashire batsmen to three runs from the four overs he bowled before the tea interval. With Brooks, assisted by some sharp fielding in the covers, bowling his three overs to tea for five runs Somerset regained some control, but Lancashire’s efforts across most of the first two sessions meant Croft and the new batsman, Tom Bailey, went to tea on 276 for 7.  

A perambulation in the tea interval ended with the players re-emerging and me back at the gap between Gimblett’s Hill and the Trescothick Pavilion talking to another Somerset supporter I had not seen since before coronavirus upended the world. There was much to talk about, some cricket and some not cricket, and there is no better ambience than a County Championship match to chat and catch up on things done and things not done. And all the while as the talk progresses so, in the background, does the cricket. The scoreboard provides a reference point for the eye to keep track of the match position while the actual play is watched on autopilot, although an imploring appeal, a gasp in the crowd or a ball driven hard to the boundary will always demand the attention.

For 11 overs we stood there as the 18 months of the pandemic flew by in our conversation, Lancashire scored 35 runs and, worryingly for Somerset, no wicket fell. The impression left of the cricket was of Croft and Bailey playing with circumspection punctuated with some punishing drives as Lancashire consolidated their position. They had reached 311 for 7 when I resumed my seat with still 20 overs left in the day. And then stalemate. My notes reveal that from the moment I sat down, van der Merwe and Lammonby bowled five consecutive maidens. Lammonby beat the bat three times in two overs and the cricketer with me said, “He is bowling much better in this spell,” but the wicket Somerset so desperately needed refused to come.

Van der Merwe, with final figures of 13-5-14-0, was replaced by Brooks after four consecutive but largely unthreatening maidens. In the final hour of the day Somerset’s new-found grip relaxed and Bailey again began to find the boundary, driving Brooks and de Lange through the off side, and clipping Green neatly off his legs. As Lancashire moved forward, Croft cut Lammonby through point to the Somerset Stand and pulled Brooks to the Caddick Pavilion boundary. Abell tried all five members of his pace attack, the last of whom, Marchant de Lange, did produce one more wicket. Croft, caught by Davies pushing forward in the penultimate over of the day. He had made 71 in three hours. When he was out, Lancashire, although slowing considerably after tea, had reached 363 for 8, adding only one more run before the close, a position from which they might look forward to the morrow with some confidence.

Close. Lancashire 364 for 8.