Descent Into Oblivion – Somerset v Hampshire – County Championship 2022 – 19th, 20th and 21st May – Taunton – Final Day

County Championship 2022. Division 1. Somerset v Hampshire. 19th, 20th and 21st May. Taunton.

Sonny Baker was unavailable for selection by Somerset due to his continuing back injury.

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

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

Overnight. Somerset 211. Hampshire 144 for 5. Hampshire trail by 67 runs with five second innings wickets standing.

Final day 21st May – Descent into oblivion

Early on the third morning Hampshire were 59 runs behind Somerset’s first innings total with six wickets down. There was even talk of a small Somerset first innings lead among some home supporters. Peter Siddle had just removed Ben Brown with a vociferous leg before wicket appeal, a replay showing there could have been little doubt in the umpire’s mind and, from the nature of his appeal, there was none in Siddle’s. By tea, the match was over, Somerset having staved off an innings defeat by just one run. It had been a devastating day for Somerset supporters. Disbelief, the look ingrained in every face. “Embarrassing,” the only comment I heard in my part of the River Stand, for most had been rendered speechless. The afternoon had, for Somerset, been a headlong descent into oblivion and the end came as the clock registered four minutes past four.

It had felt very different at ten minutes past eleven with Hampshire’s Brown walking back to the Caddick Pavilion, the Somerset players in a triumphant huddle and the crowd coming down from a huge roar triggered by the umpire’s carefully considered raised finger. But, when Keith Barker joined Nye Donald, Hampshire quickly resumed the initiative and were soon taking a finely balanced match away from Somerset. Craig Overton, a hook to the Somerset Stand boundary from Barker apart, was as economical as ever. Siddle too, but once they were removed from the attack, Hampshire began to score freely, taking risks in the process, but in consequence forcing the pace in a match truncated by the loss of half of the previous day. It was a bold tactic on a difficult pitch against a strong attack.

There were well-placed singles, pushed for and positively run. Somerset, caught between the need to save runs and take wickets, tended towards the positive approach too, playing with three slips, but no third man. The tension between the opportunity and the risk of such an approach was vividly demonstrated in Lewis Gregory’s first over. The left-handed Barker edged fine of Overton at a wide third, effectively fourth, slip. Overton dived hard to his right, arm outstretched but failed to reach a ball which bounced marginally short and wide of his hand. There were sighs of disappointment around the ground, for it was so nearly a catch. Had it been, Hampshire would have been 177 for 7, still 34 behind and the game all but back in balance. As it was, with the extra slip instead of a third man, Barker profited to the tune of four runs, the ball running to Gimblett’s Hill, and Hampshire were 181 for 6. On such fine margins can the balance of a match depend.

Three overs later, Abell moved Overton wider, to a fine gully, for the right-handed Donald. Donald edged directly to Overton. The ball travelled in a perfect, shallow loop, along my line of sight, straight towards and into Overton’s hands. It was one of those sights in cricket which is pure art, the ball describing a perfect arc from bat edge to fielder’s hands. A cheer was ignited, but before it could erupt, it expired into a groan as the ball fell to earth. The Hampshire score, 195 for 6, was now only 16 behind Somerset’s first innings. “It’s Overton,” someone said, not by way of a statement of the obvious, but as an expression of disbelief. From memory, it was the only catch I had seen Overton drop since the first match of the 2021 season in the now seemingly far-off days of closed doors and live stream watching. “I suppose he was bound to drop one eventually,” the person next to me said, “Everyone does.” It took a while to sink in, for where catches are concerned, Overton is not everyone.

In a match that had been played at not much over two and a half runs an over, Donald and Barker were now taking Hampshire forward at five an over. It was a painful watch for Somerset supporters as, with a combination of skill and luck, the pair shifted the balance of the match. Overton was hooked to the Somerset Stand boundary by Barker while Gregory was edged through the empty third man area to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion, the ball again dropping short and wide of Overton at fine gully. In successive overs from Gregory, Donald drove through the covers to the Somerset Stand and edged through an empty fourth slip, Somerset having reduced the cordon to two. Adding insult to injury the ball evaded Siddle at third man and crossed the River Stand boundary. “It looks like being one of those days,” someone said.

With Hampshire now past 200, still only six down, Abell turned to Leach. Barker left no doubt about Hampshire’s continued intentions when he lofted Leach’s first ball over long off to clear the Garner Gates boundary. Leach’s second ball he reverse-swept to Gimblett’s Hill. A glance at the scoreboard confirmed that those two strokes had taken Hampshire to 220 for 6, nine runs into the lead. Applause for the Hampshire strokes and the consistently excellent Somerset fielding apart, the crowd was now quiet as Somerset’s grip on the match loosened. “On this pitch, a 50-run lead could be decisive,” someone said. No-one argued. And then Barker pulled Leach’s next ball into the hands of Lammonby running from mid-on towards midwicket. The person with me said, “Chasing the turn. There was enough turn there for the bat to follow the ball and lift it to Lammonby.” Barker 36. But Hampshire were now 40 ahead with still two wickets standing and there were no signs of any easing in the pitch.

With 80 overs bowled the umpire held up the new ball, but Hampshire did not relax their assault. In the 81st over, Overton, bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End, was twice driven through the on side for two by Donald and turned behind square for two more. There was more relief than excitement when Siddle, bowling from the River End, bowled Donald through a straight drive, the ball upending his off stump. He had made 57, perhaps tellingly, the only fifty of the match. The Somerset players gathered in celebration, but you could sense the crowd felt the damage had been done as they applauded Donald off. Abbott soon fell to Overton, leg before wicket to a ball which came in. More celebrations from the players and cheers from the crowd, but at 256 for 9, and a Hampshire lead of 45, the pit of the stomach declared that Hampshire still held a clear advantage on a pitch which would suit their bowlers.

That feeling grew as James Fuller, nine not out at the departure of Donald, took Hampshire beyond that 50-run lead. He protected Mohammad Abbas from the strike, successfully negotiating Abell’s tactic of placing eight or nine fielders on the boundary, and scored at pace. One ball from Siddle was deposited into the back of the highest section of the River Stand. “That would have been six on any ground,” said the person with me. A miscued hook sent another ball to the straight boundary between the Lord Ian Botham and River Stands. Overton was pulled for six to the longer square boundary in front of the Caddick Pavilion and Siddle behind square to the Somerset Stand boundary. When, in the end, Fuller was bowled trying to clear the River Stand boundary, an end befitting his innings, he had 38 and Hampshire had a lead of 69 on which to enjoy their waiting lunch.

There was an anxious mumble rather than a buzz about the ground as I took my lunchtime perambulation. There was a good crowd for a Saturday and enough sun to enjoy the lunch break, but anxiety about the size of the Hampshire lead was never far away. It was the first day of the season to date which had really felt like summer. The chill breeze which had so often counteracted the sun was no more. Skin protection was the order of the day. It would have been a wonderful afternoon for a carnival of Somerset batting to set the match up for the Somerset bowlers on the final day. The weather was right, but the demanding pitch and the quality of the Hampshire bowling nagged at the mind. And 69 runs was a large gap when neither first innings had reached 300.

The anxious mumble was prescient. There was to be no carnival of batting, just a crushing cascade of Somerset wickets interrupted by a brief display of retaliatory strokes from Overton and Davies. Nine of the ten wickets were bowled, leg before wicket or caught behind. That spoke of the unrelenting accuracy of the Hampshire bowling, some help from the pitch and a lack of focus in much of the batting. It was as if, after the loss of two early wickets, Somerset batted more with hope than precision. Chancing their arm rather than grinding the opposition down as they had Warwickshire and Gloucestershire.

The innings was only five overs old when Lammonby drove straight at Abbas and edged the ball to Brown who moved neatly towards the slips to take the catch. 10 for 1. Lammonby 0. Renshaw’s return to Taunton had brought hope born of his exceptional performances on his first visit to Somerset in 2018. His performances in 2022 had not disappointed. But this time he was late in defence to a ball from Barker homing in on leg stump with only the pad to keep it out. There was no doubt about the decision. 12 for 2. Renshaw 11.

The ground was now very quiet, for with Abell, Renshaw had been the backbone of Somerset’s batting in 2022. Abell began with careful defence as he has tended to do this year. Then an unwelcome visitation from his past that some though Abell had left behind. The left-arm Barker, bowling around the wicket, slanted a ball across him. He attempted to glance, the angle of the ball took the edge of the following bat and Somerset were 19 for 3. Abell 2. “I thought he had got over that,” someone said, a reference to the frequency with which Abell used to be dismissed glancing. The applause was all for the bowler. Banton, who had replaced Renshaw, took himself into double figures with a neat steer off Abbas for four to the River Stand. When Somerset have been under pressure this year, Banton has battled, his duel with a rampant Jamie Overton at the Oval a sight to behold. Now, after another battling start, he followed the steer for four with a pull to a ball that tucked him up. The resulting edge was taken down the leg side by Brown. 23 for 4. Banton 10.

Hildreth was quickly off the mark with a single which took him to 18,000 first-class runs and a round of applause. As quickly, he attempted to drive a ball from Barker which came in off the pitch and bowled him through the gate. 25 for 5. Hildreth 1. When Gregory tried to clip his second ball through midwicket, it crashed into the pads for Barker’s fourth wicket in eight overs and his second in three balls. 25 for 6. Gregory 0. The last four wickets had all fallen to attacking strokes played early in an innings on a pitch which was assisting bowlers, and at that, bowlers bowling with an iron discipline and the precision of a Swiss watchmaker.

The retaliatory strike from Overton and Davies was short and sharp. It lasted precisely 18 minutes and realised 32 runs. Fourteen of those came in an over from Abbott. Four leg byes before a lofted on drive from Overton brought a solitary, slightly forlorn, shout of, “Hooray!” as it crossed the Ondaatje boundary. A second on drive, straighter, crossed the rope in front of the cover store and a miscue cleared mid-off and ran towards Gimblett’s Hill for two. The partnership brought some applause, but it gave only an empty lift to the spirit, for the fight it showed was mixed with the sight of the scoreboard showing a score of 44 for 6 and a piece of mental arithmetic, with which any County Championship supporter will be familiar, revealing that Somerset were still 25 behind.

Against a team of Hampshire’s quality, the situation was hopeless, against virtually any team the situation would have been hopeless, a fact the feeling in the pit of the stomach had already confirmed. Davies, the only Somerset batter to survive more than half an hour, responded with an angled bat to drive the ball through backward point to the Temporary Stand and a lofted on drive through long on to where Legends Square used to be before it was engulfed in the Gimblett’s Hill works. It is to be hoped the stroke did not open the ethereal eyes which inhabit the area of the old Stragglers to the dire straits in which Somerset found themselves.

When Overton was bowled through another drive, the comment was, “Tenth over. Five wickets,” such was the decisive extent of Barker’s unbroken spell. And it was not over. He continued to the end of the Somerset innings, ending with figures of 13-4-27-6. Overton had made 13 and the seventh wicket had fallen at 57, still 12 runs behind. Davies continued with a steer wide of and over gully, as he is so often inclined to do, to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary, and then attempted an on drive to a ball angled into him and had his leg stump removed as if one of those Swiss watchmakers had flicked away a bit of grit. 65 for 8. Davies 19. Somerset four behind. “The incoming batter, Jack Leach,” brought a cheer, but in Abbott’s next over Leach was brilliantly caught at cover by Nick Gubbins. 65 for 9. Leach 0. Davey first defended against Barker, then guided him through fine leg to the Gimblett’s Hill boundary. The stroke brought the scores level which produced a huge ironic cheer before Davey left a straight ball from Barker onto his stumps and Hampshire needed one to win.

Somerset played the Hampshire second innings straight. They opened with Siddle from the River End. He ran in and delivered the first ball as if Hampshire needed 400 to win. It was the fourth ball before Organ attempted to score the winning run. He miscued a drive over Lammonby at mid-off, Lammonby almost prolonged the spectre of Somerset’s defeat by catching the ball, but it fell just too far ahead of him for it to be a chance and the batters completed a single. The Hampshire team, who had been standing on their balcony, arms locked together in anticipation of the inevitable, cheered while their supporters stood to applaud. Somerset’s supporters meanwhile sat in stunned silence.  

Result. Somerset 211 (C. Overton 44, K.J. Abbott 3-60) and 69 (K.H.D. Barker 6-27). Hampshire 280 (A.H.T. Donald 57, I.G. Holland 49, C. Overton 4-57, P.M. Siddle 4-80) and 1-0. Hampshire won by 10 wickets. Hampshire 21 points. Somerset 4 points. James Hildreth reached 18,000 runs in first-class cricket during the course of the match.

Elsewhere in Division 1.

Headingley. Warwickshire 244 and 252 for 3 (W.M.H. Rhodes 111*, S.R. Hain 109*). Yorkshire 449 (A. Lyth 145). Match drawn. Yorkshire 14 points. Warwickshire 11 points.

Northampton. Kent 519 for 9 dec (B.G. Compton 140) and 170 for 1. Northamptonshire 430. Match drawn. Kent 13 points. Northamptonshire 12 points.

Old Trafford. Essex 391 (D.W. Lawrence 120). Lancashire 103 and 232 (S.R. Harmer 5-89). Essex won by an innings and 56 runs. Essex 22 points. Lancashire 2 points.

Division 1 Table

        Pl       W       L       D      Ded*    Pts

1.      6        3        0        3         0       105           Surrey

2.      6        4        1        1        -2       102           Hampshire

3.      6        1        0        5         0         90           Yorkshire

4.      6        2        1        3         0         87           Lancashire

5.      6        2        1        3         0         76           Essex

6.      6        1        1        4        -1         73           Warwickshire        

7.      6        0        1        5         0         66           Northamptonshire

8.      6        2        4        0         0         60           Somerset        

9.      6        0        2        4         0         53           Kent        

10.    6        0        4        2        -2         35           Gloucestershire

*All deducted points were the result of slow over rates.