In the balance – Warwickshire v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Edgbaston – September 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th – Second 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.

Overnight. Warwickshire 283 for 4.

Second day 22nd September – In the balance

The Somerset bowlers had toiled long and hard on the first day and might have met with more reward than the four wickets they eventually took. Warwickshire had batted with equal intent, and perhaps with some fortune, at least in the eyes of Somerset supporters. Their patience had resulted in a score from which they might hope to reach 350 in 110 overs and four batting points which, given the match situation at Aigburth between Lancashire and Hampshire, would keep the destination of the Championship in Warwickshire’s hands. They would though also have to win this match if, as seemed likely, either team won at Aigburth.

I timed my arrival perfectly. I managed to negotiate the purchase of my ticket in time to watch the first ball from one of the gangways to the Pavilion terrace just beyond the entrance. A battle royal was soon raging in the middle. Craig Overton began for Somerset from the City End and Michael Burgess drove his first ball back past him for four. The third ball Burgess tried to defend. There was no foot movement, the ball found a thin edge and Davies does not miss those. Woakes, the new batsman, drove Brooks through the covers to the Family Stand but was then beaten twice. The Somerset bowlers were giving nothing and Hain, giving nothing in return, played out a maiden to Overton. But when he attempted to drive a full ball from Brooks it upended his off stump. Bresnan’s first ball squeezed through his defences and passed menacingly close to his off stump. Woakes, on the attack, drove Overton through midwicket to the Family Stand, then attempted to drive through the covers but the ball flew straight into the hands of Lammonby at backward point where he has taken most of his seven catches this season. Such was the pell-mell start to the day, and it had gone Somerset’s way. It left a stunned mumble among the Pavilion crowd and put a spring into my step as I made my way to the Hollies Stand.

Warwickshire had begun on 283 for 4, needing 67 in 14 overs to gain that fourth batting point. They were now 297 for 7. When Bresnan drove a ball straight back to Overton it was 304 for 8. With five and a half overs of the 110 now remaining, Warwickshire needed another 46 runs. When Liam Norwell got under a drive off Overton the ball went straight, high and long, but not long enough. Azhar, in hot pursuit from mid-off, eye fixed on the ball, took a perfectly judged running catch just inside the boundary. In little over half an hour, Overton and Brooks had dismantled the advantage the Warwickshire batsmen had so painstakingly built on the first day. The score now stood at 322 for 9 with a ball short of four overs of the 110 remaining. Four-day Championship cricket is a game of moods and rhythms, and in that half hour both had swung in Somerset’s direction.

Breathing the air of relief from my seat in the centre of the Hollies Stand I cast my eye around the ground. There was one other person in the stand, and he sat right at the end, next to the Barnes Stand. In this time of the coronavirus, we must have been the safest people in the country. The crowd in its entirety was well down even on that of the first day, five or six hundred at most. It was a day for cricket watching too. The sun was out in all its glory and the shadows of the players were as hard-edged as the play.

Danny Briggs took guard at number nine. In 156 first-class innings he had scored one century and three fifties. Now, when Warwickshire needed it most, he scored his fourth. For three overs he and Warwickshire’s number eleven, Craig Miles, repeatedly pushed the ball into the wide-open spaces left by Somerset as Abell kept between six and nine fielders on the boundary. The tactic worked to the extent that, a two, two leg byes and two for a no ball apart, Warwickshire’s scoring was restricted to repeated singles. But each single built momentum, and each was enthusiastically applauded as Warwickshire inched closer to that 350. Large numbers of fielders on the boundary is a tactic often employed in an attempt to restrict runs or bring the weaker batsman on strike. To my cricket-watching mind though, as the close catchers retreat to the boundary, it relaxes the pressure on the batsmen more often than it increases it.

Here, the 17 balls from the fall of Norwell to the end of the 109th over took Warwickshire 17 runs closer to their objective. At the start of the 110th over, 11 runs separated them from that fourth batting point. Now Briggs demonstrated his steadiness of nerve. Facing the first ball, bowled by Brooks, he drove though the covers and the ball raced to the West Stand boundary. 343 for 9. It was not the most elegant of cover drives, but it was firmly struck, and the applause left no doubt as to what the Warwickshire crowd, small though it was, thought of it. The next ball was an escapee from the T20 manual. A yorker, well wide of off stump. There was no flailing bat hoping for the best. Briggs calmly went down on one knee, held his bat low and parallel to the ground and steered the ball past backward point for four. 347 for 9. Four balls left. Any pressure the batsmen had felt was now firmly transferred to the bowler. Brooks bowled full, but on Briggs’ legs. Briggs, swinging across the line, middled the ball perfectly. It flew over midwicket and cleared the short Hollies Stand boundary, looming larger as it came towards me. 353 for 9.

Now the cheers and the extended applause rang out. This was a side not just trying to win a game of cricket, but a side intent on lifting the Championship. For good measure, the batsmen added a pair of singles, and then, when Brooks bounced Briggs with the final ball of the over, Briggs hooked and failed to make a full connection, but the edge ran down to the fine leg boundary. Twenty runs from the over. From 322 for 9, after they had lost five wickets for 34 runs in ten overs, Warwickshire had added 37 in four with the final pair at the wicket. Cricket is indeed a game of changing moods and rhythms, and the mood, and the rhythm, was back again with Warwickshire. A final score of 367, with Briggs unbeaten on 53 from 31 balls, gave them a real opportunity to push their advantage home in spite of Overton having converted his overnight 22-6-57-0 into 30.5-8-88-5.

Woakes opened for Warwickshire from the City End. His second ball was quick, short and straight. It forced a startled Lammonby into desperate evasive action. The ball hit him full in the midriff, flew over his shoulder and ran to the Pavilion boundary. My friend, who had joined me in the warm September sun for the start of the Somerset innings said, “I don’t think he saw it.” Woakes’ next ball slammed into Lammonby’s pad, the umpire was unmoved, but the intent from Warwickshire was clear.

The cricket now had the crowd’s full attention, for Somerset’s batsmen responded to fire with fire. When Norwell bounced Green, Green leaned back, unfurled the smoothest of pulls and the ball cleared the short Hollies Stand boundary. Applause from your correspondent. When Woakes re-engaged Lammonby he was pulled in front of square and driven through point, both for four. Another vociferous appeal was declined and after three overs Somerset were 19 for 0. 34 for 0 after six with Green edging Norwell to the Wyatt Stand, Lammonby driving Woakes wide of mid-on and then, neatly up on his toes, cutting Norwell square to the Hollies Stand. Then, the spirited attack on Warwickshire’s opening bowlers had no sooner lifted Somerset spirits after those three demoralizing defeats than an innocuous-looking ball from Woakes went straight through Green’s defence, uprooted his off stump, and sent Somerset to lunch on 36 for 1.

A combination of the dismissal of Green and the intervention of lunch seemed to reset Somerset’s sights, and the size of Somerset’s task was emphasised when Azhar, who had replaced Green, edged the ever-threatening Woakes short of slip in the second over of the afternoon. Persistent Somerset bowling against determined Warwickshire batting had been a feature of much of the first day. Now the roles were reversed. In the first ten overs after lunch, just 16 runs came as these two sides face each other down. Norwell, Woakes, Bresnan and Miles all pressed with the ball, but Lammonby and Azhar resisted hard. A clip off his legs from Lammonby to the Family Stand off Miles was the only boundary, but when he drove Miles straight for two my friend said, “Lammonby is very attractive to watch when he gets going.”

As if to underline the point, Lammonby opened the face of the bat and drove Miles through point with the controlled smoothness of an artist applying a critical brush stroke. The ball ran effortlessly to, and over the Hollies Stand boundary. In Miles’ next over, Lammonby clipped him through midwicket to the West Stand for four more. That stroke was played with as much artistry as the drive. There was no suddenness of movement, other than from the ball, no apparent effort or power in the stroke, just a lightness of touch. Timing was all, and Lammonby, already on 40, was showing the form which had been such a feature of his century against Lancashire.

Meanwhile, in ten overs, Azhar had scored six runs. Then, when Woakes bounced him, he responded with a hook and the ball cleared the Family Stand boundary, but a hurried defensive stroke soon reminded of the threat of the Warwickshire bowlers as it brought two runs from a fortuitous thick edge. It took Somerset to 72 for 1 but Warwickshire were still a distant 295 runs away. A glance at the few Warwickshire faces close enough to see showed them to be taut with tension, for the news from Aigburth was that if Hampshire were to win, Warwickshire would need maximum bowling points as well as victory to win the Championship. Good quality cricket is a spectacle, but it is context that makes it bite. The wait of Warwickshire supporters for a second Somerset wicket must have seemed interminable.

Clouds were now making their way across the Birmingham sky. If one covered the sun, the warmth suddenly departed in the face of the chill of an autumn breeze. On the field, Warwickshire turned to the slow left arm spin of Briggs. Azhar responded with a skip down the pitch and swept him for four. Lammonby, taking Briggs on too, lofted him, first over mid-off and then back over his head. Both times the ball crossed the Pavilion boundary. A single driven into the covers took Lammonby to 50 from 77 balls against which Azhar had 24 from 65.

With the pace of the Somerset innings picking up and an anxious mumble in the Warwickshire crowd, Lammonby late cut Briggs to third man for two, drove a full toss unceremoniously through wide mid-off for four and, as the sun returned from behind a cloud, attempted to drive straight back to the Pavilion. For once his timing was awry, the ball did not have quite the pace off the bat of his earlier strokes and Briggs took a sharp, ankle-high return catch. The wicket was so unexpected, the Somerset jaw dropped, and cheers erupted from every corner of the steadily growing home crowd, reflected by the numbers in the Hollies Stand edging up to around three dozen. Lammonby departed for 59, Somerset were 104 for 2, and a deficit of 263 still stared Somerset in the face.

Tom Abell was the backbone of the Somerset batting in the first phase of this year’s Championship. In the second phase he has struggled as much as the rest of the batsmen. Now he joined Azhar. Twice in an over he pulled Norwell to the Hollies Stand boundary and the tension returned to the Warwickshire faces nearby. The weight of hope the County Championship loads onto every county supporter could be seen etched into each one of those faces. A perfectly played glance off Miles must have caused watching Somerset supporters to momentarily catch their breath, for Abell has a propensity to feather that stroke to the keeper, but this time the ball safely crossed the fine leg boundary. Azhar might have been caught too as he tried to steer Woakes through backward point only to edge the ball for four through the empty third slip position. But now he safely guided Miles down and through the slips and the Somerset score advanced again, 132 for 2, still 235 behind, but a base was being established. Then Abell played defensively to Norwell without moving his feet and edged to Burgess behind the stumps. The Warwickshire applause, as Abell departed for 14, was now more expectant, for with two wickets falling in under an hour, the game, if still finely balanced, was threatening to tilt Warwickshire’s way.

As Lewis Goldsworthy joined Azhar the gathering clouds were threatening to merge into a blanket and the chill breeze was becoming persistent. The ball may have been moving more too, for a third slip appeared for Azhar as well as for the new batsman. Then, as the low September sun shone through a break in the cloud, Norwell ran in from the Pavilion End. With the shadow of one of the floodlights reaching the bowling crease, Goldsworthy punched a truncated drive through the off side to the West Stand boundary before he and Azhar steered Somerset quietly to tea on 139 for 3. Azhar 37. Goldsworthy 5. Deficit 230. Despite the two wickets, given the results of recent matches, it was a better position than most Somerset supporters might have expected, and from the opposite perspective, one good enough for Warwickshire supporters to hope. And, for both, a very long way to go. Oh, four-day cricket what joyous purgatory you do inflict on your followers.

As the players returned to the field a tense quiet held the ground in its grip, at least it held most. One man in the Barnes Stand was fast asleep. “We’ve got to beat them,” someone more attuned to proceedings, at Edgbaston and Aigburth, said into his phone as Azhar drove Bresnan to the West Stand and Pavilion boundaries in successive balls. He took 14 runs in an over from Woakes too, once driving him straight back to the Wyatt Stand boundary. Goldsworthy took four more off a thick defensive edge which flew backward of point. It would be interesting to know what proportion of runs come from thick edges. Enough for the third man fielding position to have been invented as the cricketer who occasionally attends matches with me is fond of saying. Goldsworthy’s edge took Somerset to 167 for 3, exactly 200 behind Warwickshire. Close enough for home faces to tauten a notch and for Somerset ones to relax a little. And then Azhar, playing a straightforward defensive stroke, edged Bresnan into Rhodes’ midriff at first slip. 167 for 4, Azhar 60, and the balance of the match shifted a degree or two again.

Steven Davies soon looked like he could bat for the rest of the day. He looked confident in defence and began to steer the ball as smoothly as ever in the arc behind the stumps between long leg and backward point. He scores a lot of his runs there and three boundaries came as he established himself, one the neatest of back foot drives as he opened the face to send the ball racing to the third man boundary off Rhodes. When he is in form, it matters not where the fielders are placed, he seems able to find gaps anywhere in that segment of the field. He was just beginning to move Somerset forward again when Goldsworthy, on 13, miscued a lofted drive off Briggs and looped it straight to Woakes at mid-on. Somerset hearts must have sunk, for every time Somerset had threatened to move forward, Warwickshire had struck, and at 187 for 5, Warwickshire’s 367 suddenly seemed a long way off again. And for Warwickshire, the nine Somerset wickets needed for maximum bowling point looked ever more possible.

Lewis Gregory was now walking to the wicket. He has a reputation for outright attack and his driving when in the mood can be a spectacular sight to behold. But he can play in a different rhythm, and defiantly hold the line. Here, in partnership with Davies who is a master at holding the tension in a tight match, he did precisely that. There was some playing and missing, particularly on the pull, and an edged cut off his third ball, from Briggs, hit Bresnan full in the chest at slip and fell to earth as he tried to take evasive action. I caught my breath, and the sound of gasps around the ground suggested Warwickshire supporters had caught several, for the loss of Gregory then would have put Somerset under real pressure.

That early alarum over, he and Davies settled to their task. Defence where necessary, runs where possible. Davies outscored Gregory by two to one in the remaining hour to the close. He scored largely between third man and cover, now driving more than steering, once opening the face and driving Briggs, bowling from the City End, through backward point to the West Stand. He drove him too through the covers to the Family Stand. Miles, from the Pavilion End, was driven beautifully through the covers to the Hollies Stand, while Woakes was guided through third man to the Pavilion, every stroke a joy to watch. Gregory favoured the leg side, pulling Miles and driving Norwell through midwicket to the Hollies Stand and sweeping Briggs again through midwicket, this time to the Family Stand. And, all the while, the scoring strokes were interspersed with solid defence.

In 17 overs they added 52 runs. They took Somerset to 239 for 5 at the close, 128 runs behind. In terms of the balance of the match it was a crucial partnership, for the Warwickshire first innings score was now within reach, and you could begin to feel Warwickshire’s victory equation tightening. If, on the morrow, Somerset are still batting at lunch, that time and runs equation for the victory Warwickshire need will be becoming uncomfortably tight, and the wickets and overs equation for bonus points perhaps excruciatingly so, if it has not already been resolved. This evening, the mood of the match became more intense the longer the Davies-Gregory partnership went on, its rhythm picked up pace, and the tension grew with each passing over. That may just have been a harbinger of what is to come for Warwickshire supporters in this match. As for Somerset ones, they would dearly like to end the season with a victory.

Close. Warwickshire 367 (S.R. Hain 83, W.M.H. Rhodes 60, D.P. Sibley 56, C. Overton 5-88, J.A. Brooks 3-83). Somerset 239 for 5. Somerset trail by 128 runs with five first innings wickets standing.