A chill start – Hampshire v Somerset – County Championship 2022 – 7th – 9th April. AGEAS Bowl. First day.

County Championship 2022. Division 1. Hampshire v Somerset. 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th April 2022. Southampton.

The following were unavailable for selection by Somerset. Matthew Renshaw (with Australia), Lewis Gregory and Jack Brooks (ill), Craig Overton and Jack Leach (required to rest by England), Tom Banton, George Bartlett, Josh Davey and Sonny Baker (injured).  

Hampshire. J.J. Weatherley, I.G. Holland, J.M. Vince (c), N.R.T. Gubbins, L.A. Dawson, B.C. Brown (w), J.K. Fuller, F.S. Organ, K.H.D. Barker, K.J. Abbott, Mohammad Abbas.

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

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day 7th April – A chill start

Whoever designed the transport system did not envisage Somerset supporters travelling from Somerset to the AGEAS bowl. When I came here for the experimental round of pink ball Championship matches in 2017, I came by car. The journey was 100 miles. It took five hours. The A303, alternately dual carriageway and single carriageway, was trying to do the job of a motorway in West Country summer traffic. This year, for the first Championship match of the season, my railway journey seemed to have been designed around randomly laid stretches of track which, by chance, happened to meet each other here and there. I can report that Romsey and Eastleigh are not stations where you would want to spend an extended layover, although Westbury has friendly staff, a small buffet and toilets that are open. Fortunately, the trains ran rather better than the plan to which the track had been laid. Sixteen, 16 and eight minutes were the extent of my connection times, and all four trains ran perfectly to time.

Hedge End station is where you end up. Two platforms, a bridge which was less rickety than it looked, a ticket office (closed when I arrived there) and a telephone number to call for a taxi to rescue you. I have been making excursions to anywhere in the country where a county cricket ground has been pitched for some years, and so I do not set off without preparation. My trains were timed to get me to Hedge End in good time before the rush hour set in. “It’s a 35-minute wait for a cab, at least,” the response to my call, “It’s school run time,” the explanation. School run? It’s half term in Somerset. Not in Hampshire apparently. It would appear that Local Authority co-ordination has similarities to the railway layout between the two counties. And taxis? For the school run? When I was at school, for those of us on our estate, the school run consisted of us running home from school on our own legs, and the school buses that took those who could not make their own way, or lived too far, looked like they had last seen service on the Western Front. Now, it seems, it’s taxis. Things must have moved on since the 1950s.

I am not entirely without luck. “Hang on, we have someone just doing a drop-off near you. He can take you to your hotel on the way to his next pick-up.” A bit like some of those trains that had got me that far I suppose. Five minutes later, the cab swept into the pick-up area, and I was on the last leg of my first odyssey of the season. I swept into the hotel lobby, most hotels I stay in don’t run to a lobby, at least not one that it takes a route march to cross. I am not sure my three-hour wind-blown hair, resembling the random rail network I had just negotiated, my unruly case and backpack which had resented the journey from the start, my lop-sided Somerset scarf and rebellious anorak, both of which always come as they are, were quite the normal fare for the hotel, but my bank card worked at the first attempt, and I was in.

The hotel Wi-Fi worked a treat too, but all that did was take me to the team news. Hampshire at full strength, Kyle Abbott, Mohammad Abbas and Keith Barker to the fore. Somerset’s team sheet meanwhile looked like a map of the rail network I had just negotiated. Matthew Renshaw is still with Australia. Craig Overton and Jack Leach have been rested by England. Somerset did not win a Championship match in 2021 without Overton in the side. Tom Banton has fractured his finger just as his red ball form seemed to be improving, Lewis Gregory is ill, and Josh Davey, second only to Overton in impact with the ball in 2021, and Sonny Baker are injured. All, except Baker might have expected to play. In the corresponding fixture in 2020, Overton, Gregory and Davey took 18 of the 20 Hampshire wickets and Overton and Gregory scored over 100 of Somerset’s first innings runs in a ten-wicket win.

Then to the morning of the match. Bright sun, high white cloud and the wind that had demolished my hair the day before had been re-invigorated overnight. Somerset had lost two more players too. Jack Brooks had fallen ill, and George Bartlett had injured his shoulder. The team that took the field were the last eleven squad members standing. Had the entire squad been fit and available it is probable that only five of those who actually took the field would have done so. It was a daunting prospect against a Hampshire side that looked to be at full strength.

It became more daunting still when, after a calm enough start against Mohammad Abbas and Keith Barker, Ben Green played defensively to Abbas and edged the ball towards the feet of third slip where it was intercepted by Liam Dawson diving across from second. The Somerset supporter sitting behind me winced and put his head in his hands. It was precisely the start which might have been predicted for an inexperienced opening partnership facing one of the most experienced and skilled new ball attacks in the country on their own ground. When Tom Abell got behind a ball from Kyle Abbott and edged it straight to Joe Weatherley at third slip, the score was 19 for 2 and the enthusiasm that walks into a cricket ground alongside every supporter on the first day of the season was being sorely tested before the first hour was out.

The morning was bitterly cold, and the day became colder still as it progressed. It did not stop the usual first match of the season chatter as supporters who had not seen each other since the last match of the previous season or before began to exchange winter stories and news. They were soon into their stride as the chatter became a buzz and eyes and minds turned to the cricket. Somerset minds hoping, hoping for a partnership and some impetus to an innings already disabled by the loss of those two wickets and that was creeping along at just short of two an over. Hampshire minds waiting, waiting for another wicket as Abbas, Barker and Abbott kept up the pressure, finding the spot, giving the batsmen no respite. The wind may have been arctic, but the summer game was in full swing.

Tom Lammonby had driven Abbas straight for four to the Hotel boundary in the third over. It was an exquisite stroke of unruffled power which had swept away the winter sleep from the eyes, but after 18 overs Somerset were still only 35 for 2. Such progress, or lack of it, against such bowling leaves the batting side’s supporters with that uneasy feeling that a wicket is coming. In the 19th over, with Lammonby on 11 after 61 balls of intense defence it came. Another defensive push against the lesser pace of Ian Holland saw the ball find the edge of Lammonby’s bat and the gloves of Ben Brown. It may be anecdotal, but the evidence from my memory has Lammonby failing to move on when he embarks on a defensive start of virtual immobility. When Lewis Goldsworthy, the coming batting hope of 2021, was late in defence to Abbas, he was struck on the pad and Somerset were 46 for 4, still scoring at less than two an over. The weight of Hampshire’s pace attack was telling against Somerset’s still inexperienced young batsmen and on the minds of its experienced travelling supporters. Changes in the structure of first-class cricket are being mooted and county’s performances in the 2022 Championship may be even more important than in most seasons.

The experience of Steven Davies perhaps showed as he began to work the ball around, once neatly dropping the bat on a ball to guide it past the slips for two. Davies has played many determined innings for Somerset, often guiding the innings through difficult phases. His start raised the hope that he might be preparing another such rescue. If so, the hope was spectacularly undone on the stroke of lunch by Barker. Davies shaped to leave a full ball. A replay shows it pitching perhaps a foot or more outside off stump and cutting in so sharply it hit the stumps full on. Balls are rarely truly unplayable. This one was. Somerset were 61 for 5 in the 31st over and Davies walked off without waiting for anyone else. “Oh dear,” said the Somerset voice behind me, head too numbed to fall into hands.

At lunch spectators were invited onto the outfield to gather in front of the big screen to watch and join in a tribute to Shane Warne, one-time Hampshire captain, and to pay tribute to him with one-minute of applause. The applause, shared by those who had remained to stand at their seats, was warm, wholesome and undiminished for the entire minute. It was as effective as the silences usually held on the deaths of cricketers. Perhaps it was more suited to Warne’s live-life-to-the-full personality. In any event, Hampshire supporters paid a worthy tribute.

And then a reminder of the two years just past. A chance meeting with an old work colleague as I circumnavigated the ground. He had recently recovered from COVID. “Not a nice experience. Pretty unpleasant. Not something you want to have,” his verdict. But the conversation soon turned to the cricket and Somerset’ poor run at the end of last season, now seemingly continuing into this, although no easy solutions were forthcoming.

Somerset’s prospects looked brighter after lunch, at least for a while. We were treated to an innings from James Hildreth in which the 37-year-old, as cricket writers used to say, rolled back the years. It was a true classic of timing, grace and placement. He had begun during the morning, at the fall of Abell’s wicket, with a neat push past midwicket for two. As the batsmen at the other end fought to protect their wickets from some hostile Hampshire bowling, Hildreth played as if the bowlers were there to serve his purpose. My notes record drives of smooth perfection through the covers, midwicket and square, and a cut of crisp power square of the wicket, all to applause from a Hampshire crowd otherwise cheering and applauding their bowlers on. By lunch, as three wickets fell at the other end for 42 runs, Hildreth’s bat had added 30. As so often when Hildreth is at the top of his form he seemed to be playing on a different pitch.

After lunch, with Roelof van der Merwe playing positively at the other end, Hildreth began by driving Abbott square through the off side to the boundary. “Shot!” a Hampshire supporter shouted. For the next hour Hildreth’s artistry, in consort with van der Merwe’s pugnacity, dominated the scene. Smoothly struck, perfectly placed singles and twos kept the score moving, studied defence kept Hampshire out, and boundaries, particularly square of he wicket, lifted the Somerset spirit. Ian Holland was cut crisply through backward point for four to bring up Hildreth’s fifty from 88 balls. James Fuller was driven square, again to the boundary. A clip off his toes for three off Holland, slowed by the outfield, was a joy to watch as it, along with the others slid across the grass like a putt across the smoothest of greens.

Van der Merwe meanwhile, playing less aggressively than is the norm for him, was not entirely without the idiosyncrasies which can epitomise his play. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” was an early call which cajoled Hildreth into a single. One of his four boundaries came from an inside edge which teased the keeper as it flew past his diving glove. A late cut for two was fashioned by the bat dabbing sharply down on the ball as if it had just irked him. An uppercut cleared the slips and ran down to the Hotel boundary. “Only Roelof could try to stop a collapse with an uppercut over the slips,” said the message from the online watcher in South America. There was too, solid defence and a cut for four backward of square which brought applause from around the ground. In the end he was defeated by a ball from Fuller which cut in sharply from outside off and bowled him for 28 made in a partnership of 73 with Hildreth. Uplifting it may have been, but the loss of most of Somerset’s top order in the morning still cast its shadow over a score of 134 for 6 and the cheers of the Hampshire crowd reflected the dominance of their side.

Hildreth, still playing on a different plane, continued as if he had not noticed the happening’s around him. Two balls in succession from Abbott, when they came into contact with Hildreth’s bat, flowed apparently unhurriedly to the boundary, one cut through backward point, the other driven through the covers. Against Fuller he came forward, body in perfect balance as his initial movement transformed itself seamlessly into a stroke from which the ball flowed off the bat bisecting deep midwicket and long on as it went. It was a stroke which Hildreth plays to perfection, his equivalent of Trescothick’s cover drive. A glance off Fuller for four brought forth praise from a Hampshire supporter.

It was as if Hildreth was playing with powers conferred on him by the cricketing gods. And then, as if the gods had tired of their creation, he was bowled by a stunning yorker from Dawson. Dawson’s first ball of the season. It was so startling it demanded to be viewed again. Match highlights revealed Hildreth being deceived by significant curving drift into him. It was a piece of bowling artistry to match Hildreth’s batting. That amount and shape of drift on a first ball rendered it the second truly unplayable ball of the innings.

Somerset were 158 for 7 and from there, there was little respite. Peter Siddle in his first match for Somerset resisted for a while, finding 16 runs along the way in a 21-run partnership with Kasey Aldridge but then, suddenly, the final three Somerset wickets fell for one run, two to Barker and one to Dawson. A final score of 180 left an uncomfortable, swirling reservoir of anxiety in the pit of the Somerset stomach as the players ended the innings by walking off for tea.

By the close of play, that reservoir had deepened considerably as Joe Weatherley and Ian Holland took Hampshire to 109 for 0. Worse, they had seemed virtually untroubled. The few Somerset faces I saw as I left the ground were looking grimly into the distance. The Somerset bowling had appeared to have no threat in it, unlike the Hampshire bowlers who had kept the Somerset batsmen constantly under pressure. The 21-year-old Aldridge and the 19-year-old Leonard had a tendency to drop short, using the bouncer when there was little evidence that it unsettled or tested the Hampshire batsmen.

By the close, Weatherley, benefitting from the greater proportion of the strike, had 65 to Holland’s 41. He had had some luck, beginning his innings with two thick edges, one running to the boundary for four off Siddle, by some way the pick of the Somerset bowlers. He had too edged Abell just wide of third slip for four before responding by steering the next ball safely through the same area for three. From there, his innings was an exhibition of controlled defence and decisive attack. The nagging accuracy of Siddle was met with a straight bat. When de Lange gave him some width, he cut, once square and once through backward point, both for four, persuading backward point to retreat to deep backward point. Leonard was driven to the onside boundary to appreciative applause and pushed with perfect timing through midwicket for four more.

Holland meanwhile seemed focused on rotating the strike which he did with some regularity, but where the ball presented itself, he took full measure, driving Aldridge through the covers and pulling Leonard through midwicket, each time for four. Siddle apart, the Somerset bowling lacked sufficient accuracy to make the batsmen play often enough to build pressure and gave too many opportunities for boundaries.

It was a dispiriting display for Somerset supporters, and for those watching from the stands rather than online it was an unpleasantly cold experience. The crowd began to depart after tea despite Hampshire’s dominance and the fact that they were batting. There is a tendency for Championship crowds to start thinning after tea but compared to the norm this was an accelerated departure. The weather, I suspect, was the main driver for this. Hunched shoulders and hands in pockets were the order of the day in the Warne Stand. My teatime circumnavigation, anti-clockwise for those who do not know me, revealed the frozen Warne Stand, with its back to the wind, was an oasis of summer in comparison with the temperatures on the far side of the ground. The seats there faced the full force of the northerly wind which had blown across the ground all day. It blew at such a speed it would have been impossible for a fielder to keep pace with the shadows of the clouds on the outfield as they raced across it. For the morrow, Somerset could look forward to chasing a match racing away from them at a pace to match those clouds. For Somerset supporters, it was a chill start to the season indeed.

Close. Somerset 180 (J.C. Hildreth 87, K.H.D. Barker 3-33). Hampshire 109 for 0. Hampshire trail by 71 runs with ten first innings wickets standing.