Hard Grind – Warwickshire v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Edgbaston – 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th September – First Day

County Championship Division 1. Warwickshire v Somerset. 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th September 2021. Edgbaston.

Warwickshire. R.M. Yates, D.P. Sibley, W.M.H. Rhodes (c), S.R. Hain, M.J. Lamb, M.G.K. Burgess (w), C.R. Woakes, T.T. Bresnan, D.R. Briggs, C.N. Miles, L.C. Norwell.

Somerset. T.A. Lammonby, B.G.F. Green, Azhar Ali, T.B Abell (c), L.P. Goldsworthy, S.M. Davies (w), L. Gregory, C. Overton, J.H. Davey, M. J. Leach, J. A. Brooks.  

Somerset dropped James Hildreth for this match after a run of low scores. He was replaced by Lewis Gregory who was not fit to bowl.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

First day 21st September – Hard grind

The day did not start well. A battle with the hotel Wi-Fi, or the lack of it, and a phone call to their helpline, was not the most auspicious of starts, and more time-consuming than you would think necessary in the age of artificial intelligence. Then the automatic till at the shop where I went to buy some lunch for the cricket refused to weigh two bananas. What it had against bananas I don’t know. Fortunately, it had no problem with the vegetable samosas or the Bakewell tart I had opted for. Then there was the bus, or the lack of it, or them. Two were promised within ten minutes, but the promise miraculously disappeared from the digital indicator board just before the buses were due. Neither arrived, although another was promised. At least I now know where Godot was waiting while Estragon and Vladimir were waiting for him.

In the end I admitted defeat and resorted to a taxi. “Cash only – No cards” was the sign on the Perspex partition between me and the driver. Cash? At least I had escaped from the digital age, and cash, presumably now classified as analogue, actually worked. As it used to in the days when you used it to buy your ticket to get into the cricket. To use my card to buy a ticket today involved the staff member who sold me the ticket in composing a poem on her screen. At least, I assume that is what she was doing given the time it took her to persuade the digital wonder of the modern age which occupied her desk to produce a ticket. A ticket which I was required to show to a steward who had watched the entire procedure from ten feet away. No wonder progress has been ongoing since the days before the Greeks and Romans and still hasn’t got there.

As to the cricket, between the bananas, the buses and the poem I missed five overs and the score was 5 for 1 when I finally reached the Hollies Stand. “Warwickshire are batting,” someone said, which, given the score, at least provided some relief to a frazzled Somerset supporter. Rob Yates had been taken low down at third slip by Tom Abell off the bowling of Josh Davey. What a different spectacle the Hollies Stand presented in comparison with T20 Finals Day. Apparently, the capacity of the stand is nearly 6,000. It was full and swaying on Finals Day. Now, in its entire expanse there were ten people, including me, and none of us were swaying. It remained that way for the rest of the day. Social distancing extraordinaire. In fact, although it is difficult to judge the size of a Championship crowd in a large Test venue, I calculated there were perhaps a thousand people present, less than half the number which might have been expected at Taunton, more if Somerset had had as good a chance of winning the Championship as Warwickshire.

As I settled and some early cloud began to lift, the Somerset bowlers continued to test the Warwickshire batsmen while the Somerset fielders constantly chirped their encouragement. In one over, Overton beat both Rhodes and Sibley. Sibley, who had opened, did not score until he took a single from Overton in the tenth over, for which he was rewarded with ironic cheers. Rhodes meanwhile edged Overton, but the ball fell short of the slips. After an hour Warwickshire were 25 for 1 with four of the runs coming from overthrows caused by a ricochet off the stumps. The head said a wicket must come, but the feeling in the pit of the stomach said a wicket always seemed just out of reach. It was one of those mornings in which the bowlers seem do everything but take a wicket, and the batsmen seem to survive on fortune, at least in the eyes of the supporters of the bowling side.

And, as so often on those sort of mornings, the batsmen began to find their mark. The shift was marked by four boundaries coming in four balls. Sibley drove Overton to either end of the Pavilion and the left-handed Rhodes drove Brooks through backward point to the vertiginous West Stand and through midwicket to the unusually short Hollies Stand boundary. Somerset, full of length, still pressed, but a huge appeal for leg before wicket from Overton against Rhodes left the umpire unimpressed, and Overton staring down the pitch with hands on hips. Slowly, the morning settled into an exhibition of persistent bowling, a reversion to careful, accumulative batting and an occasional boundary. A drive through the covers from Sibley in Leach’s first over reached the West Stand boundary which brought up the fifty partnership, but not until the 23rd over at the end of which Warwickshire were 55 for 1.

Sibley attacked Leach again in his next over, driving him through the on side to the Hollies Stand boundary bringing cheers from the Pavilion as Warwickshire began to put Somerset under pressure. With Gregory playing but unable to bowl, Abell replaced Brooks, but his second over cost 11 runs. A thick edge from Rhodes was followed by a steer, both of which crossed the third man boundary in front of the Pavilion. “C’mon boys,” Abell demanded, and he and Davey immediately steadied Somerset’s ship. In four overs they conceded only a single boundary and bowled three successive maidens. And with that, the umpires lifted the bails. A frustrating morning for Somerset and a satisfactory one for Warwickshire had come to an end with the score on 80 for 1 from 30 overs, with Rhodes on 42 and Sibley on 30.

It had been a hard morning’s cricket and the Somerset bowlers had stuck to their task, but so too had the Warwickshire batsmen. They had had some luck and called in aid the thick edge of the bat more than might have been comfortable, but as I contemplated my return to Edgbaston after the barren spectator season of 2020, it was clear that Warwickshire had come through the morning with the advantage. It had been a quiet morning too. The applause was there where merited, but the usual shouts from the crowd had been in short supply, one spasmodic cry of, “You bears,” from the Sidney Barnes Stand apart. The number of Somerset supporters, usually at Edgbaston in numbers, had been less evident too, although one had walked along the path at the bottom of the Hollies Stand and acknowledged me, or my wyvern hat, with a wave as he went by.

And then the lunchtime perambulations brought forth two more. One with whom the chat was all cricket, Somerset’s late season demise in particular. With the other the chat quickly moved on to other matters, he being the old friend I had known since we started primary school or before and who pops up at random Somerset matches when he escapes his still ongoing eastern exile. On this occasion he was in the ground with a group of old work friends. He and I had lost contact for about 30 years following a number of disparate house moves and lost paper address books in the pre-digital age. Then the funeral of the father of a mutual friend, the notice of which had been seen by chance in a print newspaper, had brought us back together again.

Since then, watching Championship cricket as of old and smartphones had kept us in contact. The analogue and digital ages working in tandem. Yes, it is time to admit I have finally succumbed to the lure of the smartphone, although it is one of those that stays mostly in my pocket as opposed to the ones that are attached permanently to the hand whilst being constantly pummelled by the fingers of the other hand. And I would like to record here that I have never taken a selfie, or used the selfie camera to comb my hair. ‘Selfie’. How the English language does move on.

And so does a cricket match. The afternoon session began with the Somerset bowlers again ruing their luck. Within four overs the ball had been edged into the slip cordon three times, and three times it had fallen short of the fielder. It was not always luck that ran against Somerset. Sibley had driven Brooks back, just to the off of his follow through. The ball arrived alongside him at waist height. Brooks stretched, got his hands to it, and dropped it. As he fell to his hands and knees, his feet pummelled the ground in frustration. In Brooks’ next over, Sibley added insult to injury when he got the timing right and drove the ball straight back along the ground to the Pavilion boundary. At such times the supporter of the bowling side sinks a little lower in the seat. From somewhere in the Wyatt Stand or nearby a single shout of, “You bears!” marked the moment.

With Somerset failing to break through, Warwickshire continued to consolidate. Rhodes drove Brooks straight to the Pavilion boundary as the batsmen took advantage of the mainly full length from the Somerset bowlers. In the process he passed fifty from 102 balls. When Overton, now bowling from the City end, bounced Rhodes, the ball cleared Davies’ head by enough to merit a call of no ball and four byes. The six runs took Warwickshire past a hundred in the 38th over, a measure of the attritional, hard-fought nature of some of the play. The next ball from Overton suggested a degree of frustration. It was quicker, better directed, hurried the batsman into evasive action and was caught head high by Davies. Abell’s encouragement meanwhile continued, “C’mon lads,” the cry when Rhodes drove Brooks through the off side to the Pavilion boundary.

When Lammonby and Davey took up the attack, Lammonby, from the City end, was steered through third man for four by Sibley, but held Rhodes scoreless for two successive overs. It was enough. Off the final ball of the second, Rhodes tried to steer what proved to be a widish, late outswinger through backward point and edged the ball behind to Davies. Rhodes had made 60 over nearly three hours, and Warwickshire, nearly halfway through the day’s allocation of overs, were 124 for 2. Somerset’s celebration looked more one of relief that the constant pressure had finally told than one of triumph. From the Hollies Stand it felt as if Somerset’s bowlers, persistently challenging though they had been, were in for a long haul.

To add to the tight, heavily contested cricket, a hazy sun and a light breeze made the conditions ideal for September cricket watching. Add to that the Hollies Stand, which to my mind, huge and sparse though it is, provides one of the more restful locations on the county circuit from where to watch the cricket. The weather too as it makes its way towards the ground from over the stands on the far side of the ground. Restful at least when the clouds are high and unthreatening as they were today. Less so when showers can be seen in the distance and making their way unerringly towards the ground. Sibley’s innings, intensely though he concentrated, matched the calm of the atmosphere, a single off Lammonby bringing up a fifty which had taken 132 balls with seven fours.

After the departure of Rhodes, Somerset held Sibley and Sam Hain to less than two runs an over as Davey and Lammonby gave way to Leach and Brooks. The loss of Rhodes seemed to stiffen the Somerset fielding too, with Abell looking particularly sharp. Hain clipped Brooks to the Family Stand boundary for four and drove Leach through the on side towards the Pavilion boundary for three, but otherwise ten overs realised just six singles. After 54 overs Warwickshire were 139 for 2 and Sibley had been at the crease for over three and a half hours for 56. The mumble which had drifted across the ground after lunch had subsided to a tense virtual silence as Somerset’s bowlers gave the batsmen nothing. “Something has to give,” someone might have said had there been anyone closer than a pitch-length away to say it. And give it did. Brooks bowled to Sibley. The ball looked no different to any other good length ball from square, Sibley defended as he had been doing all day, but this time he edged the ball neatly into Davies’ gloves. 139 for 3. Sibley still on 56. There was long applause as he walked off, for if he had done no more, he had helped establish a firm base for the Warwickshire innings.

Hain was joined by Matt Lamb. Between them, they provided a certain symmetry in proceedings in the period up to tea. In each of the four overs after Sibley was out a single four was scored, three by Hain and one by Lamb. In the four overs after that, not a single run was scored. And then, in the final over before tea, Hain twice drove Leach through the covers, once for four and once for a single. Just 21 runs in nine overs, and Warwickshire had taken 64 overs to grind their way to 161 for 3. Crucially though, they held seven wickets for the charge for bonus points. A charge which must surely come with the possibility of the Championship dangling before them in a close race with Lancashire and Hampshire who were playing each other on a difficult pitch at Aigburth.

Still Warwickshire waited as play resumed after tea. Overton, opening from the City End, began with a maiden, although Lammonby was driven through the covers to the West Stand boundary. “C’mon buddy,” was Abell’s immediate response. Lammonby responded with three overs for one run. Overton conceded barely a run either. Just 31 runs came from his first 17 overs in the day. After tea he bowled with some pace, and in the final over of his spell he made Lamb jump more than once, although the final ball had veered to leg and run down to the Pavilion for four byes. A change of bowling brought Leach and Abell into the fray and the attrition continued. The fifty partnership between Hain and Lamb was reached from 120 balls, although each batsman found the boundary once to provide some boost to the Warwickshire score. For Somerset supporters anxiety was never far away, for although the Warwickshire total was climbing only slowly, it was climbing, and the wickets would not come. The prospect of a large Warwickshire first innings total in a phase of the competition in which Somerset were yet to exceed 200 in their first innings loomed large.

The new ball, with Warwickshire on 206 for 3 at the end of the 80th over, brought a mixture of hope and trepidation. An online watcher who often texts me at the cricket sometimes asks, “Will we get one of those new balls which takes wickets or one of those which flies to the boundary?” It is something a new ball is sometimes inclined to do in my experience. With the umpire holding the new ball aloft, my friend returned to watch a few overs with me. Conversations with old friends take on a life of their own, hold the attention and the cricket slips into the background. Not so far into the background though that the answer to the new ball question soon penetrated our conversation.

It is difficult not to notice a ball flying to the boundary even when engrossed in nostalgic chat. In the first over, Hain twice drove Overton through the off side for four, once through the covers and once square. When Lamb drove Davey through the off side to the City End boundary the applause which had been muted for most of the day began to pick up some force, and, “You bears,” became more than spasmodic. The Warwickshire crowd came to life too, and the polite applause of earlier in the day became animated and prolonged.

When Hain clipped Overton square to the Family Stand boundary he reached 52.  It had taken him 113 balls in spite of his recent acceleration, but now he was taking Warwickshire forward at pace. Davey was driven effortlessly through midwicket to the Hollies Stand, and when Abell replaced him his first three balls were driven by Hain through the covers, point and straight, all to the boundary. If ever there was a statement of Warwickshire’s intent as they began to make the most of their hard-won base those three strokes, effortless all, were it. The Somerset heart sank and the shadow of those three defeats loomed large despite the now glorious sunshine bathing the ground. Warwickshire supporters, concentrated at each end of the ground in the Pavilion and the Wyatt Stand, were now applauding every run and cheering every boundary. And the scoreboard carried, from the Somerset viewpoint, an ominous looking Warwickshire total of 260 for 3.

With the close approaching, Brooks replaced Davey. In his first over he cut a ball into Lamb. Lamb tried to drive him sharply through the on side and was struck on the pad. The umpire gave the decision to Brooks, and Lamb departed for 44 made in two and a quarter hours. Warwickshire were 261 for 4 with seven overs left in the day. Brooks bowled through to the close and brought some order back to proceedings for Somerset. His figures for his closing spell were 4-1-7-1 with four of those runs coming from an inside edge. As the players left the field, the incoming text said, “Brooks has been our best bowler,” and, more worryingly in the context of Abell having conceded an average of five runs an over, “Since his injury, Abell has not been swinging it as much.” Hain meanwhile ended the day on 83 with Burgess now holding the other end. It had been a hard-fought day’s cricket with Warwickshire gaining a distinct edge in the last hour. Hain in particular had attacked the new ball with considerable intent. For the morning, they had left themselves 14 overs in which to attempt to gather 67 more runs and two more batting points. For Somerset, more hard grind beckoned. For me, as I left the ground, a resumption my battle with the digital world.

Close. Warwickshire 283 for 4.