Championship Cricket at its Best – Warwickshire v Somerset – County Championship 2021 – Edgbaston – September 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th – Third 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.  

Overnight. Warwickshire 367. Somerset 239 for 5. Somerset trail by 128 runs with five first inning wickets standing.

Third day 23rd September – Championship cricket at its best

By the start of the third day, developments at Aigburth over the first two days had clarified Warwickshire’s task. To be certain of the Championship, they would need to take all three bowling points, for which they needed to take four more wickets in the first 33 overs of the day, and beat Somerset. If they failed to take all three bowling points but still won, they would need Lancashire to win at Aigburth to be champions. If they failed to take all three bowling points and Hampshire beat Lancashire, Hampshire would be champions. A draw at Aigburth could effectively be discounted, for with Hampshire already nearing the end of their second innings in a low-scoring game, no batting points were recorded by either side, a positive result was as certain as anything is in cricket. Somerset had only the prospect of reversing the run of dispiriting defeats that had been their lot in this divisional stage of the Championship.

The first two days of this match had been fought out with unremitting determination by both sides, and neither had gained any advantage going into the third day. Warwickshire though, had the pressure of needing a positive result. On the second evening, the unbroken 52-run partnership between Somerset’s Steven Davies and Lewis Gregory had added to the pressure on Warwickshire, and on the third morning those two batsmen presented the main remaining threat to Warwickshire’s quest for bonus points.

The crowd was still sparse, in Taunton terms at least, in spite of Warwickshire offering free entry and a warm welcome at the entrance. A free seat in the Hollies Stand, I can report, is even better than a paid-for one. The low September sun shone too as the first ball was delivered through the shadow of one of the floodlights which had settled on the bowling crease at the Pavilion End, even though there was more cloud than blue in the sky. Before the first over was out, Davies had driven Bresnan through the covers to the short Hollies Stand boundary with all the grace associated with that most graceful of cricket strokes. When Gregory glanced Rhodes fine to the Pavilion with none of the heart-stopping effect on Somerset supporters of Abell playing the stroke, it felt like Somerset were on their way.

There is no relaxation in watching Somerset of course. Within an over Davies had played a straightforward defensive stroke to Bresnan and, with the new ball only two balls away, edged to Burgess behind the stumps. Cheers erupted and, “You bears,” sounded as Davies walked off for 52. Somerset were 247 for 6, 120 behind Warwickshire’s first innings total. It left Warwickshire 30 overs in which to take the three wickets they now needed for the third bonus point. Against them Somerset now ranged Gregory and Craig Overton. Neither batsman showed any inclination to force the pace. Warwickshire would have to do that if they wished to create the time to win the match. The partnership quickly developed a pattern. Overton, intent on keeping Warwickshire out, made no serious attempt to score, his front foot coming well down the pitch whenever possible. It is not a restful tactic if you are watching in the Somerset interest, for Overton has been vulnerable to leg before wicket dismissals when playing that way.

Opposite him, Gregory took his time too, although he attacked the ball if the opportunity arose. He drove Woakes, bowling from the City End, through the air past the cover fielder to the Hollies Stand boundary for four. Four overs then passed before he struck again, Woakes again the target. In successive balls, Gregory leaned into a drive through square leg and played the deftest of late cuts through third man, both for four. Then, another four overs of studied defence before he pulled Woakes square and into the gap between the West and Family Stands for six. With the Warwickshire bowling tight on the mark, in the nine overs which those four boundaries spanned, the only other scoring consisted of a single to Overton and a leg bye. Championship intensity at its best.

There might have been more runs had the Warwickshire fielding not been so sharp, one exceptional diving stop at cover bringing loud applause. The batsmen were beaten several times, and there was at least one loud leg before wicket appeal when the ground seemed to collectively hold its breath. The tension, laden with the weight of the prospect of a County Championship, was palpable. The scoreboard clock seemed to move even more slowly than the Somerset total, at least for a Somerset supporter. Somerset needed to bat time as much as runs if they were to squeeze the target Warwickshire would have to set them. For Warwickshire supporters, at the opposite end of that equation, the clock must have seemed as if it were racing away with time and overs. Interminable time or time vanishing, depending on your viewpoint.

And then, something gave. Overton came forward, bat and pad stretched down the wicket. The ball from Bresnan struck the pad full in front of the stumps. Somerset, with 20 overs now remaining for Warwickshire to take two more wickets for that final bonus point, were 271 for 7, 96 behind. Overton had made two in three quarters of an hour of intense defence. At Aigburth the match was still suspended in, for Warwickshire supporters, excruciating balance. It was one of those end-of-season days when eyes, particularly Warwickshire eyes, were as much on a match 125 miles away as they were on the one a hundred yards away. The interminable day I spent at Chester-le-Street in 2010, as much watching the match at Old Trafford on the television in the Durham Members Lounge as the one at the Riverside, was never far from my mind. And, much as I felt my own purgatory, as Somerset fought their corner, I felt too for the taut-faced Warwickshire supporters. For the Lancashire and Hampshire ones too, who doubtless would have been equally taut-faced in Liverpool, for there is a camaraderie between county supporters, those who watch the Championship at least, which can be witnessed at any ground in the country.

As Overton left the scene, into that cauldron of cricket walked Jack Leach, and with the sun coming and going, and a chill on the air when it took refuge behind a cloud, he and Gregory fought on. The crowd, whilst growing, was still small. I counted 19 in the Hollies Stand and nine in the Barnes, with the main concentrations at the two ends of the ground in the Pavilion and the Wyatt Stand. There was though, no lack of atmosphere which was so palpable it felt it could almost be touched. Occasionally it would be punctured by an attacking stroke, Leach cutting Bresnan past backward point for four soon after he came in. But, for the most part, a slow-motion stalemate unfolded, and held people transfixed as the bowlers attacked, the batsmen defended, the score edged along, occasional single by occasional single, and the bonus point overs counted down. In four overs, six runs were scored, and the clock moved around another quarter of an hour. When Leach was beaten by Woakes, applause broke out around the ground and Gregory walked down the wicket to talk to Leach. It made no difference. Woakes beat him again, and then again, this time to rap the pads. Eyes could be seen fixed on the umpire in hope, for one outcome or the other, but the appeal fell on deaf ears and the clock continued its relentless counting down of Warwickshire’s time.

News from Aigburth, delivered by smartphone, revealed that Lancashire would need 196 to beat Hampshire, by three runs the highest score of an unconscionably tight match. Predictions were pointless, hope the only ally of the Warwickshire supporter, in front of whom, for Somerset, Gregory jabbed twice at that hope. Miles was turned neatly through fine leg to the Pavilion boundary, and driven, uppishly with more than a hint of edge past the point fielder, this time to the Hollies Stand boundary. That second boundary took Gregory to his fifty and generous applause from the Warwickshire crowd, although it must have been their fervent wish that one of their bowlers would remove him from the scene. Nine runs in the next over from Norwell, seven of them leg byes, took Somerset to 300, now just 67 behind Warwickshire with still three wickets in hand. Here your correspondent took some time to deliver some applause of his own, for Somerset were fighting hard in spite of the constant pressure from the bowlers. Somerset had now had six partnerships of over 30 in the innings with each batsman, as he came to the wicket, picking up the baton left by his predecessor.

As the sun made its presence felt again, Norwell bowled the 100th over of the Somerset innings, reaching which was in itself an achievement for Somerset in this end-of-season phase of the Championship. In the three previous division one games no Somerset first innings had exceeded 42 overs. It had been an overwhelmingly dispiriting time for Somerset supporters used to Championship challenges of their own. This innings at least provided some balm to the crushed soul. It placed Warwickshire under real pressure too. Thus far, in the 22 overs bowled since the start of play they had taken two of the four wickets they needed to keep control of their Championship destiny. If they were to retain that control, they would need to take two more in the next 11 overs. The vice of time was tightening.

The 100th over was a microcosm of what was still to come in this innings. Leach opened the face of the bat to Norwell’s first ball and guided it through third man to the Barnes Stand boundary, tightening the screw on Warwickshire a little more. Norwell then beat him to some intakes of breath with his second ball. The third, Leach cut hard to point where it was spectacularly stopped in its tracks by a sharp Warwickshire dive. The fourth, Leach turned into the on side for a single. The fifth and the sixth, spearing in, Gregory quietly got behind and kept them out. 308 for 7 at the end of the over, Somerset 59 behind.

As lunch approached, Somerset’s slow strengthening of their position continued. And yet the cricket was not all Somerset. For the six overs up until lunch, snatches of my notes give a flavour of the breath-catching moments for Warwickshire supporters. “Woakes to Gregory – hook – top edge over keeper – four. Gregory beaten. Norwell maiden to Leach. Woakes to Leach – beaten – applause. Drive – beaten. Lbw appeal. Woakes to Gregory – almost caught and bowled.” In amongst that, of course, are also to be found a beautifully swept four from Gregory off Briggs, and the little rows of dot balls and the singles played out without alarm which are the bread and butter of any innings.

As the 107th over began, the final before lunch, Somerset trailed by just 45 runs and Warwickshire’s hope of the third bowling point, two wickets still needed, was slipping away. Leach drove Woakes’ first ball through wide mid-off and ran three as the ball was chased down just short of the boundary. Gregory tried to whip the next through the on side, missed and took it on the pad. There was a huge appeal, and this time the umpire’s finger was raised. Such is cricket. For Warwickshire, the prospect of that third bonus point had flickered back to life. For Somerset, Gregory had made 68 and had steered them into a position from which they had at least as much purchase on the outcome of the game as Warwickshire, perhaps, given the shrinking amount of time, more. Cheers for Woakes, applause for Gregory and, with the smartphones announcing that Lancashire were 19 for 0 at Aigburth, a lunch break of agonized contemplation followed, at least for Warwickshire supporters. Somerset ones could breathe a sigh of relief that Somerset were still in this match, and more importantly, fighting.

The afternoon session brought sunshine from above, a sense of foreboding below for Warwickshire supporters, and cheer for Somerset ones as their team continued their dogged fight, consuming overs, grinding out runs and further squeezing Warwickshire’s time. Leach and Davey resisted the Warwickshire attack for 27 overs in which just 56 runs were added. After the first three of those overs, the prospect of the final bonus point was snatched from Warwickshire, making them dependent on a Lancashire victory at Aigburth if their title hopes were to be kept alive. Periodically, as over followed over, Warwickshire supporters could be heard calculating possible targets that Somerset might be set on the final day. More purgatory for Warwickshire supporters. Briggs was now bowling most of the overs from the Pavilion End while the pace bowlers took turns from the City End. Eight overs more and ten runs passed before the ball crossed the boundary again, Leach suddenly driving Briggs over long off and over the boundary in front of the West Stand for six. In the next over, Davey hooked Miles, and another dagger in the hopes of Warwickshire supporters, the ball flew off the top edge, over the slips and ran across the Pavilion boundary for four.

And then, more dogged Somerset resistance. Occasionally, the ball would go past the edge of the bat, or an appeal would ring out, while in response the batsmen would periodically venture a single. At Aigburth, Lancashire suddenly lost two wickets but were past 60, nearly a third of the way to their target. That match was edging Warwickshire’s way, the match we were watching, from a Warwickshire perspective, was stuck in limbo. From a Somerset perspective, their renaissance continued.

A quiet had settled over the ground, perhaps a realisation that the prospect of the Championship was drifting away from Warwickshire. That is a sinking feeling known to every Somerset supporter who was at Chester-le-Street in 2010 as Durham put up similar resistance when Somerset were on the cusp of winning an, in the end, unrealised Championship. Then, a boundary from Leach, driven over wide mid-on to the gap between the Pavilion and the West Stand, and another cut to the same place off Rhodes produced ripples of applause, and all the while around those oases of aggression the gradual strengthening of Somerset’s position and the squeeze on Warwickshire’s Championship hopes continued. 

With Somerset approaching Warwickshire’s 367 there was an outbreak of, “You bears!” from several parts of the ground and one of, “Warwickshire La La La.” Warwickshire turned to the occasional bowling of Lamb and a no ball took Somerset into the lead. When he found the edge of Leach’s bat the ball flew through the slips at catchable height to the Pavilion boundary, the slip fielder who had dived for it staying down a long time, often an indicator that a catch has been missed. More agony for Warwickshire. But not for long. In the next over, Leach tried to steer Briggs towards backward point, edged the ball, and Rhodes caught it, reaching low to his right at slip. Leach had made 49 in four minutes short of three hours. Somerset were 381 for 9, 14 ahead. 389 all out when, after Brooks drove and cut Briggs for successive fours, Davey edged Woakes to first slip.

As the umpires called tea and took the players off, a nearby Warwickshire supporter said to his friend, “This isn’t going to plan.” Whatever the plan had been at the start of the day, with Somerset having a lead of just 22, the game had essentially been reduced to a one-innings, four-session match. To all I heard talking as I meandered the perimeter in the tea interval, it seemed a devilishly tight equation for Warwickshire. Most, had they been bookies, would have had the odds heavily in favour of Somerset, or perhaps the draw, for Warwickshire could not reasonably expect much over two sessions in which to bowl Somerset out, and would have to set Somerset an achievable victory target.

Then, in a session, the Edgbaston cricketing world was turned on its head. The impression left in the mind by Somerset’s long, grinding advance towards and beyond Warwickshire’s first innings total was transformed by the Warwickshire batsmen. Suddenly, balls were flying through the air, skimming the grass and crossing the boundary. At least, in comparison with what had gone before that is how it felt. Sibley began by lofting Overton over Azhar at wide mid-off to the Barnes Stand for four. Four leg byes brought a chant of, “Warwickshire La La La.” An off drive from the left-handed Yates raced to the gap between the Hollies Stand and the Pavilion. “Shot!” someone shouted in response. Now, Yates pulled Overton through square leg for four, the ball crossing the boundary in front of me to growing applause. Warwickshire went into the lead to cheers with a six off Davey lifted dismissively over backward square leg, to be followed by four more to the same boundary. The taut Warwickshire faces of the last two days were now beginning to sport smiles and the eyes had hope in them.

By the tenth over, Leach was on at the Pavilion End. In his second over he was driven twice through the off side for four. Warwickshire reached 50 for 0 in the 13th over when Yates cut Brooks, through the air but wide of the slips, to the third man boundary. In an over, Sibley reverse swept Leach for four, “Shot!” someone said, two leg side wides were called, and a single followed before Yates drove through the off side for four more. “Warwickshire La La La,” and, “You bears!” the responses amidst the applause. Hurrying Warwickshire along, singles were being run hard to encouraging applause and Sibley added to the momentum when he drove Leach over long on to the Pavilion for six.

With Leach having figures of 5-0-34-0 Lammonby replaced him with his left arm seamers. With Brooks, who in the face of the onslaught bowled a tight spell of six overs for 17 runs, and then Overton bowling opposite him, the boundaries dried up, but Warwickshire still pushed hard for singles, increasingly encouraged by applause, and the score kept moving at four an over. There were now often four fielders on the boundary, the inner ring was set deep, and there was only one slip, sometimes none. Run saving the object no doubt, but at one point I climbed to the top of the Hollies Stand from where wide-open spaces were visible in the far-flung Somerset field. It seemed to leave the batsmen under no pressure and the singles, ambled or fast run, flowed. There is, of course, risk in attacking as Warwickshire were, and eventually Sibley, in attempting to loft Davey, looped the ball to deep cover where Green, running from deep point, took a good catch. Sibley 50 from 64 balls. Warwickshire 119 for 1, had a lead of 97 with still seven overs left in the day. It was a spirited effort by Warwickshire and they were pushing Somerset back.

Meanwhile, as Lancashire approached victory at Aigburth, they began losing wickets and my smartphone found itself permanently in my hand. Their ninth wicket fell two runs short of victory which must have sent a shiver around Edgbaston for anyone following the score, but eventually Lancashire’s last pair took them home. Warwickshire’s task now had no ifs or buts. The equation was simple. If they could beat Somerset, they would win the title.

Whether that affected the batsmen’s approach I have no way of knowing, but with the left-handed Rhodes replacing Sibley, Warwickshire’s already forceful batting became electric. And so did the crowd. After an over or two to find his feet, Rhodes launched into the Somerset bowling while Yates rotated the strike. An off drive from Rhodes off Davey was overhauled just short of the Wyatt Stand. The batsmen ran three with Yates returning the strike to Rhodes with a single off the next ball. Now Rhodes confirmed his intent when he scooped Davey to fine leg for four. “You bears!” punctuated the repeated applause as the Warwickshire total rose.

Abell was now bowling from the Pavilion End and Rhodes drove him through mid-off to the Pavilion for four before pulling the next ball over midwicket to the West Stand for six. Yates had already driven the first ball of the over for four and Abell conceded 16 runs. By the end of the over there were nine fielders on the boundary for Rhodes, Somerset were in full retreat and the noise from the crowd was almost incessant as spirits rose with the score. Against Lammonby, Rhodes cleared the deep backward square leg boundary, and the boundary fielder too. In the final over of the day, from Abell, with nine still on the boundary, he cleared the rope for the third time, ending with 42 not out from 29 balls with 45 runs having come from the last four overs. Warwickshire now led by 157 runs. The Championship-winning equation was still fraught with difficulty, not least having to bowl Somerset out on a pitch on which only 21 wickets had fallen in three days. But, if momentum means anything in cricket, Warwickshire will enter the final day with it full in their sails. And Somerset will have to reverse it if they are to stand against a Warwickshire onslaught driven by the prospect of a beckoning Championship.

Close. Warwickshire 367 and 179 for 1. Somerset 389 (L. Gregory 68, Azhar Ali 60, T. Lammonby 59, T.T. Bresnan 3-35, D.R. Briggs 3-77, C.R. Woakes 3-100). Warwickshire lead by 157 runs with nine second innings wickets standing.