Eyeball-to-eyeball cricket – Somerset v Essex – County Championship 2022 – 14th, 15th and 16th April – Taunton – First Day

County Championship 2022. Division 1. Somerset v Essex. 14th, 15th and 16thApril 2022. Taunton.

The following were unavailable for selection by Somerset through injury. Tom Banton, George Bartlett, Josh Davey and Sonny Baker, the last of whom will be unavailable for the immediate future. Matthew Renshaw has joined the squad, Craig Overton and Jack Leach have been approved to play by the ECB and Lewis Gregory and Jack Brooks have recovered from illness.

Somerset. B.G.F. Green, T.A. Lammonby, M.T. Renshaw, J.C. Hildreth, T.B. Abell (c), L.P. Goldsworthy, S.M. Davies (w), L. Gregory, C. Overton, P.M. Siddle, J. Leach.

Essex. N.L.J. Browne, Sir A.N. Cook, T. Westley, D.W. Lawrence, A.M. Rossington, M.J.J.Critchley, A.J.A. Wheater, S.R. Harmer, S. Snater, M.T. Steketee, S.J. Cook.

Toss. Essex. Elected to field.

First day 14th April – Eyeball-to-eyeball cricket

“This is worse than last week,” said the person who had been at Southampton with me. Somerset’s fifth wicket had just fallen with the score on 49 and lunch was still some way off. At Southampton, Somerset’s fifth first innings wicket had fallen at 61 on the stroke of lunch. The comment was both descriptive and prescient. At Southampton, Somerset reached 180 and the end of the innings signalled the tea interval. Here they were out for 109 and the tea interval was still 18 overs away. Looking around, the ground seemed as unprepared for the start of the season as the Somerset top order, although the Quantocks, resplendent in their April oilseed yellow, were reassuringly in attendance for the start of play. The River Stand was in the process of having new seating put in, but one section of it still consisted of bare concrete. Gimblett’s Hill is in the process of being reconfigured to make it accessible. The images of the new design have clean lines, and look impressive, but for the start of the season it consists of a remodelled base and neatly stacked piles of bricks. The scoreboard at the end of the Hill remained steadfastly blank throughout the match, perhaps awaiting the reconfigured Hill before it springs to life.

Making Gimblett’s Hill accessible will reduce its capacity. Some of the benches have therefore been re-allocated to Taunton Vale to provide seating there. The remainder have been temporarily located to the opposite end of the ground. They sit in three rows just behind the boundary boards in front of the Priory Bridge Road car park and next to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. The ground there is virtually flat, so no raking. I imagine they give a similar view of the cricket to seating at an out ground. Through a coconut shy of heads if you are not in the front row. I cannot confirm that, because like seating at an out ground on the first day of a match the benches were popular enough for there to be no obvious seats available. Perhaps this temporary home for the benches should be named The Gimblett Levels, for there could be no more Somerset name than that.

From my seat in the top of the Trescothick Pavilion, the pitch looked very much like the outfield that surrounded it, green, and the sky was overcast. The faces around me were expectant, and the chatter animated as people ambled to their seats. Perhaps fewer than might have been expected for the first home match of the season despite the rather unwelcoming weather. 1,500 or so by my rough count, compared with perhaps 2,000 in pre-COVID times. The pandemic may still be casting a shadow of caution.

As to the cricket, Essex won the toss, opted to field and their three front-line seamers bowled all morning without relief. Some occasional scoring opportunities from Mark Steketee apart, they gave Somerset little leeway, at least after the first three or four overs. The pressure generated by such bowling in such conditions is intense. Sam Cook in particular was as remorseless as he has generally been whenever I have seen him bowl. Green, opening the innings for Somerset, took advantage of those early overs, leaning nicely into an on drive to the Ondaatje boundary off Cook, cutting Mark Steketee to the Caddick Pavilion and driving him through the on side to the River Stand. But a ball too wide for the stroke and swinging away drew an expansive drive. The resulting edge gave Adam Wheater behind the stumps the first catch of the match. “Shame. He was shaping up well,” someone said, but the Essex bowling was of such discipline that the Somerset batting could not afford to respond in anything but kind.

Matthew Renshaw had a spectacular start for Somerset in 2018, scoring an unforgettable century before lunch in the process. He is back this year and was warmly applauded as he walked to the wicket. Perhaps facing Cook at the top of his game two days after getting off a flight from Australia was asking a lot, but such is the whirligig of overseas signings in times of a burgeoning international calendar and multiplying domestic competitions that it tends to come as part of the deal. He came in at three and was gone within four overs for seven, misjudging a straight ball from Cook which he left onto his stumps to a collective sigh from an expectant crowd.

James Hildreth had begun the season with that magical innings at Southampton and was soon steering a ball from Shane Snater through point with such grace it was difficult to believe that such lightness of stroke could send a ball racing at such speed to the boundary. The stroke brought involuntary gasps from all around. “Touch,” said one spectator. It seemed as if Hildreth might once again have found that form which seems to give him power over Newton’s laws of motion when applying the face of a cricket bat to the cover of a ball. Not on this day. He reached to defend a ball from Steketee just outside off stump and gave the simplest of catches to Wheater. The miniscule stumble after the ball had touched the bat perhaps suggested his feet had not quite been far enough over. It was error enough in the face of bowling that was becoming increasingly unforgiving and the buzz in the crowd took on an anxious tone.

Tom Abell, so often the saviour of the Somerset batting in recent years and here coming in at five rather than the three of recent times, started by raising a cheer with a neatly played glance to the Lord Ian Botham Stand. It was perfectly placed. “Shot!” someone said and brought the hope that his misjudged glances into the keeper’s gloves of earlier seasons might be a thing of the past. But when he tried to turn Cook into the onside the ball deflected off the back of the bat and ballooned to Lawrence in the gully. Abell has had a poor run of form since the beginning of the second phase of the Championship in 2021 and playing across his pads early in an innings has featured in more than one dismissal. Worse for the Somerset heart, before the over was out an outswinger from Cook threatened Goldsworthy’s off stump and the defensive prod was edged to Alistair Cook at first slip. “Oh dear,” someone said.

With Somerset crumbling at one end, Lammonby, who had opened with Green, had stood firm at the other. He played with defence as intense as the Essex bowling but that carried with it an anxiety, for Lammonby rarely seems to go on when he starts in that mode. When Goldsworthy was out in the 22nd over, Lammonby had scored ten of Somerset’s 49 for 5. But, when Davies joined him, he began to raise the tempo, if not without risk. Seven runs came from an over from Steketee, although four came from a thick edge. Against Cook, a straight drive to the Lord Ian Botham Stand brought, “Your scoring shots have been absolutely magnificent,” from an Essex supporter. But attempt to turn a ball towards the Ondaatje boundary was not so assured as it flew off the edge towards Gimblett’s Hill. By lunch Lammonby had taken his score to 27 of Somerset’s 70 for 5. It felt as if his innings might be establishing itself. It was the only beacon of light in a morning of unrelenting Somerset gloom.

I was denied my traditional lunchtime perambulation by the appearance of someone I had not seen since the 2021 season. We don’t always agree about cricket, and he holds trenchant views which he is never reluctant to express. He does though have an innate feel for the game and a deep commitment to Somerset cricket. I was watching with the old work colleague who I had watched with at Southampton the previous week. There were therefore three opinions on any subject to weave into the conversation. With a winter’s worth of opinions to get through the conversation ate our lunch break. I imagine similar debates were being conducted all around the ground. Inevitably our conversation held sway until it was abruptly terminated by the players returning to the field.

Before a run had been added, Davies tried to cut a ball well wide of off stump and moving away. He connected only with the edge and Wheater took a good catch moving to his left. There was a collective groan, at the stroke, and at another Somerset innings subsiding towards an early close. Gregory announced himself by turning his first ball off his hip to fine leg where it crossed the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary. It was nearly half an hour after lunch though before Lammonby attempted his first aggressive stroke, a straight drive off Cook. He got slightly under the ball but drove it hard. Cook got both hands squarely on it just above his head but, to relieved gasps, it fell to earth.

Gregory’s boundary apart, Somerset were making little progress while constantly being under threat. It was another ten minutes before Lammonby attacked again. The stroke, a glance, was fine in both senses of the word, and the ball crossed the River End boundary to relieved applause. The relief had barely taken root when Gregory went forward in defence in Simon Harmer’s first over. He edged straight into Alistair Cook’s hands at slip, my ex-work colleague and I exchanging anxious looks. Somerset were 79 for 7 with Lammonby 31 not out after 38 overs at the wicket.

Now, with wickets running out, Somerset attacked, if riskily. A cover drive from Lammonby off a Snater no ball raced to the Somerset Stand boundary and brought a cry of, “Shot!” Overton hooked Stekette but connected only with the edge and the ball flew over the keeper’s head to gasps and ran down to the Lord Ian Botham Stand. Lammonby opted to take Harmer on, Overton jumping at the non-striker’s end to let a straight drive through on its way to the Lord Ian Botham Stand before, in the same over, clipping the ball off his toes to the dug outs in front of the Caddick Pavilion. Overton responded with successive cover drives off Stekette, although one went through the air and just evaded the fielder. When he attempted to drive Steketee the ball went between bat and pad and struck the stumps. Overton had scored eight, he and Lammonby had added 23 and Somerset were 102 for 8. When Lammonby attacked three Harmer balls in succession, a sweep ran to fine leg for two, a miscued looping drive fell to earth just beyond a chasing mid-off with Lammonby completing another two and a reverse paddle sweep popped up off the top edge, was parried upwards from just above his head by Alistair Cook at slip and caught as it fell.

Somerset were 106 for 9. Lammonby had made 48 in three hours. He was applauded off but, “He attacked too soon,” said my one-time work colleague, “Leach and Siddle can both bat. They might have stayed with him.” Nearly half of Lammonby’s runs had come in the last half hour of his innings and it was a moot point whether a more measured approach would have been better. “Lammonby has taken a step forward from those innings of intense defence which did not develop,” someone else said at the end of the day. “Now he can work on shot selection. The reverse sweep was not the stroke to use against Harmer in that situation.” All points for consideration no doubt, but Lammonby is still young, he had made nearly half Somerset’s runs and his potential is there for all to see. As to Somerset, Siddle provided Harmer with his third wicket and Alistair Cook with his fourth slip catch with the innings ending on a numbing 109.

Although the cloud gradually lifted as the afternoon wore on, the Essex innings was just as gruelling for the batters as the Somerset one had been. At the end of the day the Somerset bowlers had been as miserly as the Essex ones. The bat was beaten, the ball played at and missed, and appeals filled the air in the same degree for both innings. The Essex scoring rate at the end of the day was even slower, if marginally so, than Somerset’s. The number of runs scored in each innings was identical. For Somerset, 109 in 45.4 overs. For Essex, 109 in 48 overs. The difference was in the number of wickets. Somerset were all out while Essex lost only two. At times there was disbelief and exasperation in the eyes of the Somerset crowd as yet another leg before wicket appeal went unanswered. Gasps of bewilderment as yet another ball failed to find the edge of the bat. Alistair Cook was part of the reason for the lack of wickets. He stood like a rock against one incoming ball after another. Luck perhaps played a part. The paucity of loose shots another. Perhaps the Somerset bowlers’ length was a hairsbreadth shorter allowing the ball a smithereen of movement too much a theory offered by one. It was impossible to tell from the top of the Trescothick Pavilion. Whatever the reason, some of the leg before wicket decisions must have been devilishly close, although others looked to be drifting down the leg side.

For Somerset, Gregory began from the Trescothick Pavilion End, Siddle from the River End and some surprise was expressed by those around me that Overton had not opened the bowling. Essex pushed the occasional single and Cook, looking the more assured of the two openers, drove Siddle through the covers for four. Nick Browne found the boundary twice, but both were the result of thick edges, one bringing the comment, “We are bowling well. If we had 200 on the board, we would be competitive.” That from the more trenchant of the two people watching with me. His comments are often quite prescient and the behaviour of the ball in both innings suggested they might be again. Gregory was clearly moving the ball, if perhaps a little too much. Siddle constantly challenged the bat and several times received appreciative applause at the end of an over.

When conditions, as they were here, are in favour of seamers, sides with three front line pace bowlers are increasingly inclined to maximise their use of the new ball by having one bowl a short opening spell before being replaced by the third and then coming back to replace the second. Here, after Gregory had completed four overs, he was replaced by Overton. The announcement, “Replacing Lewis Gregory at the Trescothick Pavilion End, Craig Overton,” received immediate and extended applause. “Craig O,” someone shouted when the ball moved away from the left-handed Browne and beat him, the rest of the crowd breaking into applause. “C’mon Craig O,” chimed in Abell. For the final two overs before tea Gregory replaced Siddle, who had bowled with more pace than his 37 years suggested, at the River End. “He’s bowled well,” someone said, but despite it all Essex arrived at tea with their opening pair intact and 39 runs on the board from 16 overs. Essex were within 70 runs of Somerset’s total and the teatime discussion was driven by anxiety about just how great a first innings lead Essex might muster. “Hampshire again,” someone said, the gloom in the voice unmistakeable.

“The first loose shot,” the comment as Gregory bowled the second over after tea from the River End. Browne had attempted to drive a ball too wide for the stroke and missed. The comment, if not entirely true was indicative of the way in which Essex had batted and fuelled the concern about how far they might get. Then Cook, having already been beaten and pushed back by the first two balls of an Overton over drove at the third, and edged it. It flew high and directly between second and third slip. Both Renshaw at second and Abell at third jumped for it. As their hands crossed, Abell’s in front of Renshaw’s, the ball ran to the Colin Atkinson boundary. Abell bending sharply double in frustration suggesting he might just have got the tip of his hand to it. Those three balls were Somerset’s session in microcosm. “C’mon Craig O!” shouted Abell for the umpteenth time.

Meanwhile, Cook and Browne returned to intense accumulation, single by single. “Out! Come on!” implored my one-time work colleague in frustration as yet another Overton appeal was turned down. “That MUST have been close,” he continued. When Browne came forward in defence to Gregory and edged the ball across the face of the slip cordon it ran down to the last stack of bricks at the Trescothick Pavilion end of Gimblett’s Hill. “We are just not getting any luck at all. Another edge. And four more,” the comment. Essex were 62 for 0, just 47 behind but the intensity of the bowling and the propensity of edges was generating real tension, the sort you can feel in the air and see from the position of spectators leaning forward in their seats, faces taut as bowlers run in.

Overton ran in again leaving the Trescothick Pavilion behind him as he went. Browne was beaten again to gasps from all around. “Oh gosh!” someone said, “That did move away.” It was the 24th over before Green replaced one of the three main pace bowlers but he sustained the pressure with a maiden to Browne. Still Overton ran in. Browne defended again, another edge, this time low between second and third slips. Abell dived, reached, got his hands under the ball but couldn’t hold it. It flew up and forward as Abell continued stretching in the dive. His hands held their position and caught the ball as it came down. If there were 1,500 people in the ground, there were 1,500 held their breaths, all expelled in unison as the ball was held. “Imagine if that had gone down,” said my old work colleague, breathing a sigh of relief. Imagine. At last. 62 for 1. Browne 25. Essex still 47 behind. Westley joined Cook and almost immediately edged Overton through the air but wide of the slips. “They are lucky aren’t they?” the rhetorical question from along the stand as the ball crossed the River Stand boundary.

After Cook twice cut Green to the Somerset Stand Essex were 76 for 1 from 28 overs. In the 20 overs from there to the close they added just 33 runs such was the control and intensity of the bowling. After that 28th over, Siddle and Green did not concede a single run in the next six. Somerset were trailing badly in the game, but they did not relent in the pressure they applied, and Essex did not relent in absorbing it. Westley finally moved the scoreboard with an on drive off Siddle to the Ondaatje boundary and Siddle beat him so comprehensively with the next ball that a huge appeal erupted for a catch behind the wicket axxompanied by as huge a cheer from the crowd which subsided when it was clear the umpire would not raise his finger. “Oh, come on!” the despairing cry.

There were but two more boundaries in those final 20 overs of eyeball-to-eyeball cricket, a straight drive from Westley and a square one from Cook. Cook went to his fifty with a cut for two off Abell and received extended applause from the Somerset crowd. Finally, eventually, the pressure told. Westley attempted to glance Overton, recalled at the end of the day, and was caught by Davies. The relief was palpable. Sam Cook joined his namesake, and although beaten by Overton, survived until the close with the scores level and with Essex still having eight wickets, not least the unmoveable Alistair Cook. It had been an astonishing day of cricket with exceptional bowling performances on both sides, particularly from Cook, Overton and Siddle. “We seemed to get no luck at all,” someone said as I left the ground. “When that happens,” I replied, “something usually gives.”

Close. Somerset 109 (S.R. Harmer 3-14, S.J. Cook 3-17, M.T. Steketee 3-47). Essex 109 for 2. The scores are level with Essex having eight first innings wicket standing.