Tom Abell – Somerset’s Eddystone Rock – Surrey v Somerset – County Championship 2022 – 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th April – The Oval – First Day

County Championship 2022. Division 1. Surrey v Somerset. 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th April 2022. The Oval.

Lewis Gregory and Sonny Baker were unavailable for selection by Somerset through injury.

Somerset. T.A. Lammonby, M.T. Renshaw, T.B. Abell (c), T. Banton, J.C. Hildreth, S.M. Davies (w), C. Overton, J.H. Davey, J. Leach, P.M. Siddle, J.A. Brooks.

Surrey. R.J. Burns (c), R.S. Patel, H.M. Amla, O.J.D. Pope, B.T. Foakes (w), S.M. Curran, W.G. Jacks, J. Overton, J. Clark, J.P.A. Taylor, R.J.W. Topley.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day 21st April – Tom Abell – Somerset’s Eddystone rock

There are better places to stay in London than Greenwich, or at least more convenient ones, if the purpose of your visit is to watch Somerset at The Oval. They are both in South London, but South London is a big place and there is quite a lot of it between the two. There is some consolation I suppose if the road that runs alongside your hotel is called Waller Way. I wonder what he did to impress himself upon the citizens on the meridian. Part of the expanse of South London that lies between Greenwich and The Oval, if you are dependent on public transport, is London Bridge station. Ten minutes by train from Greenwich and 15 minutes by bus from The Oval so it has its uses.

The first thing you discover, if you haven’t been to the newly transformed station, is that it is itself a big place within the big place that is South London. Its seemingly endless walkways are lined with retail outlets, food outlets, people outlets too if you count the exit barriers which, to the uninitiated, seem to be everywhere. Awash with people too, moving in every direction, at speed, forever on collision courses but never colliding. All knowing exactly where they are going, and all going in different directions. Bewildering for the uninitiated. Simplicity itself for the initiated. During the days of my eastern exile, I was one of the initiated. Not at London Bridge, but at another major London station. It is like riding a bicycle. You never lose the knack. Find a landmark, get your bearings, I told myself.  

‘Tooley Street’ said the sign. Tooley Street. Now I knew where I was. Instantly, I was walking at pace, on a collision course with endless others, but never colliding. Tooley Street takes you to London Bridge itself. It was a landmark from the days of travelling about London for work. People who have worked in London for any length of time never forget such landmarks. The 733 bus stops at the stop on the South London end of the bridge. I had found my old London commuter’s feet and they carried me straight there. The 733’s final destination, southbound, is Oval Station, about 100 yards from the entrance to the ground. I arrived at the entrance with dozens of other men of a certain age carrying back packs, none on collision courses for we all had the same destination. My world was back on its axis.

Perhaps by the end of the day, Tom Abell’s world felt like it was back on its axis. Before this match it had been wobbling in the face of six bewildering Championship defeats, and his own form had deserted him. Abell had been in similar circumstances in 2017 when he had dropped himself through lack of form. Here, on the first day of this match he turned his form around, scored an unbeaten century and gave the Somerset innings direction and substance. At the end of the day, Somerset were still behind in the game, for the pitch seems true if slow, and a par score might perhaps be 400. But, in comparison with the team performance with the bat in the first two games of the season, this was a quantum leap forward.

If you looked up, it was a day perfect for cricket. Blue sky with strands of wispy cloud and a few aircraft contrails. Summer beckoned. If you took your coat off in the shade, the wind brought with it a reminder that winter still had an interest in proceedings. As I walked along the concourse under the old Peter May Stand, now absorbed, with the Laker and Lock Stands, into the Galadari Stand as the world of cricket and its engagement with sponsorship moves on, I was met by a couple of familiar Somerset faces. The smiles of greeting soon became serious as the question on any cricket supporter’s mind before play on the first day was asked, “Who won the toss?” None of us were far enough into the ground to know the answer to that question and so, like hundreds of others on arrival, we scurried on in pursuit of the information. It was a scene which would have been repeated up and down the country at any first-class cricket ground on the first morning of a match.

The answer to the question, I discovered from the electronic scoreboard on reaching my seat halfway up the stand, square of the wicket, was that Somerset had won the toss and would bat. W.G. Grace and I sat more easily in our seats, he in his sepulchral one, me in my fold-down plastic one ubiquitous in modern grounds, and somewhat more comfortable than the wooden benches which adorned grounds in W.G.’s day. I have yet to come to terms with the modern penchant for bowling on winning the toss. To the heat of the sun too. The Galadari Stand faces west. The wind was blowing from the east. Halfway up was a suntrap, protected from the wind. The thermal T shirt hidden under my ordinary shirt turned into a furnace as the day wore on and the sun beat down unmoderated by the wind.

Somerset began carefully with Tom Lammonby and Matt Renshaw, left handers both, Surrey with the right-arm Jordan Clark from the Pavilion End and the left-arm Sam Curran from the Vauxhall End. A pattern soon developed. Clark, the Somerset openers tended to leave alone, occasionally prodding the ball back. Curran was played, but defensively, and with care. It was three overs before a run was scored, Renshaw gently driving Clark to mid-off. Such runs as came were occasional singles carefully placed wide of the inner ring. The play held the attention, for with runs leaving the bat at such a leisurely rate the loss of wickets would be particularly costly. One Surrey supporter though was the epitome of unconcern as he quietly read a newspaper.

Occasionally the bat was beaten until Lammonby came forward in defence to Topley, who had replaced Curran, and edged the ball to Pope at second slip, Lammonby’s tenure as an opener continuing to raise questions. It was here that Abell came to the wicket and remained all day looking as permanent as the Eddystone rock against the tide. The Somerset score had reached 15 for 1 in 16th over with four of those coming from overthrows as Jamie Overton, who had replaced Clark, prepared to bowl his second. This was cricket of the old sort, of a type often played when the gasometer held gas and Peter May held sway beneath it.

The first boundary of the innings came on the stroke of noon when Abell leaned into a ball from Overton and drove it through wide midwicket to near where the re-named Peter May and Laker and Lock Stands met, now the centre of the Galadari Stand. The stroke marked the beginning of some acceleration for Somerset, 47 runs coming in the second hour of the morning. Abell followed up by turning Topley behind square to the boundary in front of the Archbishop Tenison School of Text Match Special fame, now partly obscured by the Bedser Stand as The Oval’s appetite for swallowing spectators has grown with the times. He and Renshaw, adjusting to the bowling, began to push for singles as the score climbed through the 30s. In response, “Oh, that’s quick mate,” an attempt to encourage from the slips after an Overton delivery drifted down the leg side, Foakes behind the stumps moving inside the line of the stumps to take the ball. Before the over was out, Renshaw had glanced through fine leg to the boundary in front of the Oval Conference Centre. “C’mon Surrey,” the urging from the crowd as Curran bowled a maiden to Abell who showed no intent to hurry unless the ball presented itself.

The chatter in the crowd had grown noticeably along with small outbreaks of applause if the bat was beaten, applause for Somerset too if the ball reached the boundary. “Shot!” sounded out when Abell drove Clark off the back foot with an angled bat and the ball raced through backward point to the far boundary. The stroke brought up Somerset’s fifty in the 27th over as Somerset’s scoring rate increased from one an over in the first hour to three in the second. Renshaw, steadily pushing singles, gave the scoreboard regular nudges and drove it forward as lunch approached with a clip off the toes which ran so quickly through square leg it struck the rope, jumped over the boundary board, crossed the walkway in front of the stand and clattered into the back of a seat in the second row. “Shot!” conceded a Surrey voice. When Abell drove Will Jack’s off spin to extra cover for a single the players walked off for lunch with Somerset on 62 for 1, their best start of the season by some way.

“Spectators are welcome to come onto the outfield. Please do not walk onto the square and please stay at the Pavilion End of the ground,” was a welcome and increasingly less common announcement at a first-class cricket match these days. Large numbers took it up, many having their photos taken in front of the pitch, most just enjoying the experience. I made my way out there from the far side of the ground having conducted half my usual anti-clockwise circumnavigation. Childhood days at Taunton in the early 1960s came flooding back as I found myself negotiating mini games of cricket among a veritable multitude of milling spectators. I fielded three balls which had escaped from the necessarily narrow confines of their own games. Two I threw back, one overarm, one underarm along the ground, and one I kicked back with my instep. I can report that my kicking was as well-directed as a Marcus Trescothick cover drive, my under-arm roll would probably have resulted in overthrows and my overarm throw was a public embarrassment. Being invited onto the outfield is one of the timeless joys of attending a County Championship match, although it is becoming less common as the years tick by. I was so lost in my thoughts during this one it took a couple of Somerset supporters seated just inside the exit gate I was walking towards some considerable time to attract my attention. 

Back in my seat, Matt Renshaw had my attention firmly back on the cricket with a drive through extra cover off Taylor which crossed the boundary below the Laker and Lock balconies in the Galadari Stand, above where their old stands stood. An over later he pulled Topley towards the Peter May part of the Galadari Stand. This time the ball rose from the rope with such force it landed ten rows back. It was a fearsome hit. From there Taylor and Topley gained some traction and reined Somerset in with the scoring being mainly limited to singles. With Somerset painstakingly building on 78 for 1 after 38 overs and Renshaw on 48 on what looked to be a slow, if true, pitch, Surrey turned to Overton. He delivered an over which suddenly produced punch and counterpunch. His first ball was quick, lifted, rushed Renshaw and flew off the edge to Pope at second slip. His second found the inside edge of the newly arrived Banton’s bat, Banton taking a single. The third was driven through the on side for four by Abell, the fifth through the covers to the boundary in front of the Archbishop Tenison scoreboard and the sixth was short and found Abell taking evasive action. It was an over which had the ground buzzing.

But, with Curran bowling opposite Overton, Somerset began to advance. Banton drove Curran through extra cover for four to generous applause, the Surrey crowd giving due credit to opposition good play. Abell, continuing to steer the Somerset innings, guided Overton through backward point for two and clipped him to fine leg for four. An over later the ball was flying through backward square leg, bisecting the converging deep midwicket and long leg fielders as it went. When Jacks replaced Curran, Banton was down the pitch driving him straight back to the Vauxhall End boundary beneath the gargantuan Oval Conference Centre. Banton, settling nicely to the task, came forward in defence to Clark. As the ball flew through to the keeper, Banton walked towards square leg as a huge appeal went up and seemed startled when the umpire raised his finger. Whatever the reality of the proximity of bat edge and ball, Banton was out for 16, Somerset were 120 for 3 and the match was in the balance.

James Hildreth joined Abell and, as is so often the case with Hildreth, immediately found the boundary, this time with a perfectly executed steer to third man. In Clarke’s next over he clipped him to fine leg at the Vauxhall End. When Overton replaced Clark at the Pavilion End he cut him behind square for three and, an over later, drove him through the on side to the boundary beneath the Laker and Lock balconies. Next, it was a lofted pull off Overton in front of square to the old Peter May section of the Galadari Stand. It was vintage Hildreth and Somerset joy. Abell meanwhile was assiduously gathering singles where they presented themselves. Among the singles, he swept Jacks for two causing the short leg fielder to take urgent evasive action and reached his fifty with a single driven to long on. It had taken him nearly three and a half hours of intense concentration. He had though shepherded Somerset out of the doldrums of their first two matches of the season and to tea at 163 for 3. He had 58, Hildreth 28 and their partnership had grown to 43.

There was now not a cloud in the sky, and with the stand protecting me from the wind and my thermal T shirt I stillfelt the full heat of the sun. My arms and face were encased in Factor 50 and I was very thankful for my wide brimmed wyvern hat. Thankful too that at last Somerset were making progress with the bat. Slowly, at barely two and a half runs an over, but with everything pointing to a slow pitch with both wickets and runs difficult to gather, 163 for 3 brought some comfort after the tribulations of the last six games.

As tea settled into the background Somerset continued their pre-tea acceleration. Hildreth, typically positive, tended to favour the off side, although not always without finding the edge, the first of which flew low, wide of first slip to the Vauxhall End boundary, the second went well over third slip to the same end, both off Taylor. His singles came off the middle of the bat and were struck all around the wicket before a cover drive raised the heartbeat as it raced to and across the Archbishop Tenison boundary. That brought up Hildreth’s fifty to extended applause in less than an hour and a half. Along the way he passed 18,000 first-class runs. Abell too was making progress. His innings had grown in stature as the day progressed. In the process he passed 5,000 first-class runs. With Hildreth he kept the scoreboard rotating with singles, repeatedly found the boundary, driving Jacks through extra cover, an off drive off Taylor to the Bedser Stand drawing appreciative applause, while an on drive outpaced the chasing mid-on fielder to the boundary and brought up the century partnership.

Somerset reached 222 for 3 in the 80th over, with Abell on 89, Hildreth on 54 with Somerset now progressing at four runs an over. It was the apogee of Somerset’s day. Then, before the hope of a truly commanding total could be realised, Hildreth cut a wide ball from Jacks, the final delivery with the old ball, and connected with the top edge. The ball barely carried to Amla at backward point, but he dived well forward and infiltrated his fingers beneath it. Two balls later, Davies reached to drive a suspiciously wide ball from Clark and edged it to Foakes. The Surrey players were cock-a-hoop, their celebration having all the hallmarks of a plan hatched to perfection. It was Foakes’ 300th dismissal as wicketkeeper and outfielder combined, the third player milestone in the course of an hour. Within three overs Craig Overton had tried to cut a rising ball from Topley but pushed it limply into Curran’s hands at cover. Somerset had fallen from 223 for 3 to 237 for 6. From apogee to perigee in the space of three overs. It could have been worse. Josh Davey was the subject of two leg before wicket appeals before the over in which Overton had been dismissed was out. Both were declined, but the message from the online watcher in South America said, “The second Davey appeal looked pretty plumb from here.”

There were more appeals as Surrey tried to press home their sudden advantage, one for caught behind from Topley when Abell attempted his trademark, if heart stopping, glance. But Somerset regained their footing, as for the most part Abell went steadfastly on, at least to the distant eye. Davey too looked his normal imperturbable self, once quietly clipping Overton off his legs to the Bedser Stand boundary and steering him through third man to the boundary below the Lock and Laker balconies before driving him for all the world like a top order fixture off the back foot through the covers to the Peter May part of the Galadari Stand. It was exhilarating stuff from a number eight who by common consensus among Somerset supporters I spoke to was batting at least one place too high. It was also worrying, given what Davey’s success signified the Surrey top order might be capable of when their turn came.

Abell meanwhile continued to build despite the brief period of mayhem which had engulfed the other end before Davey’s arrival. He placed a cut off a delivery from Clark just wide enough of a diving backward point to find the boundary. A ball turned to fine leg was cut off feet short of the boundary and Abell ran two. A single, again turned behind square, this time off Topley, brought up his century from 214 balls in a minute short of five hours. It brought Somerset supporters to their feet, extended applause from Surrey ones and it gave those standing Somerset supporters hope. “C’mon Surrey,” shouted one of their supporters, for the crowd had not stopped shouting encouragement to their team all day.

As the close approached and the April chill began to overpower the heat of the sun, Abell pushed on. In the course of an over against Clark he drove hard along the ground to the Galadari Stand boundary and attempted to hook. He connected only with the top edge, but the ball cleared Foakes and raced back to the Vauxhall End for another four. A pull behind square off Overton, who had switched ends, to the Archbishop Tenison boundary followed and Somerset closed on 283 for 6, riches in comparison with their first four innings in this competition in 2022. There was though a tinge of disappointment when the mind compared that with what might have been after Somerset had reached the heights of 223 for 3. The story of whether that stumble of three wickets in three overs would affect the outcome of the match would begin to unfold on the morrow with, on The Oval pitch, Somerset still having much to do.

Close. Somerset 283 for 6.