An Almighty Tussle – Somerset v Hampshire – County Championship 2022 – 19th, 20th and 21st May – First 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.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day 19th May – An almighty tussle

Hampshire were a different proposition than either Warwickshire or Gloucestershire. The pitch too was of an altogether different nature. The ball asked questions of both sides all day. Playing and missing was an occupational hazard which had to be endured. Hampshire were 29 for 0 after 15 overs of their innings at the close. Somerset had been 31 for 0 after 15 overs of theirs at the start. After 78 overs Somerset were 211 all out, or 2.68 an over, and that after a calculated assault of 44 in 54 balls from Craig Overton. It was that sort of day. Bowlers offering batters next to nothing. Batters, Overton apart, scavenging for runs among the scraps of thick edges, pushed or guided singles, and the occasional ball of doubtful length or line. And yet, all day, the cricket held the attention. Eyes, at least those around me in the elevated section of the Trescothick Pavilion, were rarely diverted from the action being played out on a strip of green set on an increasingly lush, newly seeded outfield. It was a day of cricket of the old sort.

The morning had begun with large clumps of high white cloud mixing with clear blue sky. The sun seemed to find its way into the blue sky most of the time, for the shadows on the outfield were crisp of outline. There was heat in the sun, and enough warmth in the shade for me to sit for the first two sessions in the elevated section of the Trescothick Pavilion in my shirt sleeves, although others preferred a jacket or jumper. The pitch was set well towards the Somerset Stand, in line with the end of the Trescothick Pavilion next to the slowly rebuilding Gimblett’s Hill. The crowd was a good one for the Championship and would have been in pre-pandemic times. There were perhaps approaching 2,000 in the ground, the River Stand looking particularly well populated, perhaps helped by its proximity to the pitch and its place full in the face of the sun.

Matt Renshaw and Tom Lammonby, Somerset’s increasingly settled opening partnership walked out to face a Hampshire attack headed by the three bowlers who had routed a much-weakened Somerset team at Southampton just over a month before. The tone for much of the day was set as Keith Barker and Mohammad Abbas immediately found their mark and it took Somerset seven overs to reach 8 for 0. The first boundary did not come until the eighth over, and that from the edge of Renshaw’s bat. The ball ran along the ground to Gimblett’s Hill, passing through the slip cordon which applauded the bowler, Abbas.

Somerset’s second boundary did not come until the 12th over, and that another edge, this time over the cordon from a Lammonby cut off Ian Holland, who had replaced Abbas. Next, Kyle Abbott beat Lammonby twice in two balls. Watching in the Somerset interest was an uneasy occupation not eased when Lammonby’s second boundary also flew over the slip cordon. Finally, on 16, Lammonby played forward to Abbott and edged the ball to Liam Dawson at second slip. “It’s been coming,” said the person in front of me as the scoreboard registered 37 for 1. Renshaw had looked the more confident of the opening pair and had found the boundary with the middle of the bat, leaning neatly into a ball from Abbott and driving it through midwicket to the Somerset Stand. A pull off Abbott was so well struck it went through the hands of the deep midwicket fielder with still enough energy to scramble over the rope. Twice in an over from Holland he drove, once through the covers to the Somerset Stand, and once straight to the Lord Ian Botham Stand. Cries of, “Shot!” were ringing out and the applause was gaining force as the crowd’s confidence grew. Then, Holland first defeated Renshaw’s defensive push before pitching a ball on a length for the drive. Renshaw aimed his drive at the covers, the ball moved away off the seam and Dawson took his second slip catch. Somerset were 47 for 2 with Renshaw walking off for 27 and conversation becoming more edgy.

Tom Banton joined Tom Abell who had already played defensively to a full ball from Abbott which took the inside edge and ran past the stumps to the Lord Ian Botham Stand for four. Now he played a ball from Abbas straight down to his feet. It ran back towards the stumps, evading his attempt to kick it away, and dislodged the leg bail. Abell stamped a foot in frustration, Somerset were 55 for 3 and Abell had departed for six. Someone said, “Three wickets down now.” It was a statement of the obvious, but the tone reflected anxiety about the struggle Somerset’s batters were facing to hold their wickets. A look at the clock added to the anxiety. Those 55 runs had taken over an hour and a half to accumulate and lunch was already bearing down on the match. In the five overs to the break Somerset scored another three runs and Hampshire beat the bat four times. Somerset were 58 for 3 with Banton on six and Hildreth on one. A score that might challenge Hampshire was a long way off.

My lunchtime perambulation, the works on Gimblett’s Hill still preventing me from turning a perambulation into a circumnavigation, ended as it invariably does, short of my seat. In my seventh decade of watching Somerset trying to win the Championship, there are too many people to talk to and too much to talk about to complete the task in the 40 minutes permitted for lunch. As so often, I had reached the popular gathering place of the covers store as the players reached their positions. My stay was extended by an ice cream van selling vanilla scoop ice cream (with flake). There was no alternative but to purchase an example, scoop ice cream from a van being a rarity in the modern age. Progress does not always equal improvement.

While buying and eating an ice cream and passing conversation with spectators known and unknown the cricket can be a blur, although the important bits seem always to register. The continued playing and missing, Banton sending a ball from Keith Barker furiously on its way to the cover boundary in front of the Caddick Pavilion. The climb to the top of the Trescothick Pavilion, this time without causing a Somerset wicket. A few overs watched from the terrace under the media centre. More playing and missing, Abbas losing his line and sending a ball down the leg side to the Lord Ian Botham Stand for four precious byes. A stunning straight drive off Barker to the same spot as the byes, the identity of the batter lost in the blur. A heavenly square drive from Hildreth off Abbas to the Somerset Stand. What joy it was to be over the umpire’s head at that moment.  

Then back to my seat. Hildreth forward in defence. Rapped on the pad by Abbas. Appeal. Out. “Really?” the disbelieving question from the row in front of me. Hildreth did look a long way forward, but he was walking off for eight, Somerset were 77 for 4 and the umpire was an awful lot closer to the action than the person in front of me was. Now Banton and Davies got their heads down and battled. Eight overs. Seventeen runs. Banton, driving, edged Holland past fourth slip to the Trescothick Stand boundary. Davies drove Abbott, bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End, with barely a touch to the Somerset Stand boundary at deep midwicket and then edged him for two towards the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. From there, Abbott and Holland reduced the scoring to singles, pushed and deflected, before dot balls began to proliferate. Another thunderous appeal, this time from Abbott. Banton, trying to play into the leg side, had to give best, for the umpire’s finger was again raised. Somerset 94 for 5. Banton 24.

Gregory to the wicket. Second ball. Driven. Uppishly. Just short of mid-on. Mid-on moved straighter and closer. Midwicket closer too. Gregory drove to mid-on. Safely. End of the over. Batters confer. The Somerset innings is hanging by a thread. An over from Holland. Davies steadies the ship, takes a single and then attacks Abbott. A square drive as spectacular and effortless as you will see races to the Temporary Stand boundary. Cheers break out. A defensive stroke connects only with the edge but the ball races again for four, this time to the Lord Ian Botham Stand. Applause, for the fortuitous boundary and for Somerset passing 100. Then, “That got up a bit,” as Davies was beaten by Abbott. “Anything over 200 will be a decent score on this,” the opinion of one watcher as Davies edged short of gully and then played and missed again.

Gregory began confidently enough with a two and singles steered and clipped off his legs, but then, trying to defend against James Fuller edged and Dawson had his third catch at second slip. Somerset 113 for 6. Gregory 5. Two hundred now seemed a very long way off, but a cheer erupted as the arrival of Craig Overton was announced under gathring cloud and the disappearance of the sun. Davies continued to steer, this time wide of gully, the ball running to Gimblett’s Hill. After a careful start from Overton, and with tea approaching, Hampshire confronted him with Liam Dawson’s slow left arm spin. Overton rarely mixes his messages and Dawson’s second ball was promptly deposited over long off, crashing into the back wall of the Gimbett’s Hill construction site. Two balls later, it was the official announcer positioned in the open air next to the covers store who found himself in the landing zone as Overton lofted a six over long on.

Dawson was under fire, but with four fielders defending the boundary, Davies tried to finesse his way through and steered the ball straight into James Vince’s hands at slip. Davies hour and three quarters long vigil had ended on 29 and Dawson had his revenge. Only Banton batted longer than Davies, by two minutes. Somerset were battling, and at 144 for 7 the innings was in its 63rd over. Davey did not mince his intentions where Dawson was concerned any more than Overton had. His lofted straight drive was more understated and slightly miscued, but it still struck the same piece of the Gimblett’s Hill rear wall. Now, with the sun pushing the cloud back again, Overton and Davey steered Somerset to tea and a score of 154 for 7. “Overton looks the part,” someone said.

After tea, the attacking edge which Overton had introduced into the Somerset innings continued. In the 53 overs before he arrived Somerset had scored at 2.12 an over. In the 25 overs after he arrived the rate was 3.87. A straight drive from Davey off Abbott reached the Lord Ian Botham Stand boundary, a high lofted on drive from Overton bounced a couple of yards inside and scrabbled over the River Stand rope, while a pull crossed the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary. There was risk in the approach, Overton playing and missing several times, a push for a single staying in the air too long and just evading Abbott in his follow through, while Overton’s final boundary came from an edge which flew through fourth slip when there were only two. On 44, he attempted to lift Abbott into the Somerset Stand but was caught a yard short with relative ease by Organ. Somerset were 184 for 8, Overton and Davey had added 40 in 11 overs and Somerset had moved to within reach of a bonus point.

Leach picked up the mood, tried to drive his second ball from Abbott through the off side and edged it over the fine gully from where it crashed into the Gimblett’s Hill pickets next to the Trescothick Pavilion. The next ball he steered wide of gully from where it found the pickets at the other end of Gimblett’s Hill. There was still worry about the adequacy of Somerset’s score, but the pace and nature of Overton’s attack had lifted spirits and the boundaries were now being cheered as well as applauded. Hampshire kept to their task with equal endeavour. When Davies executed an extra cover drive to a cry of, “Shot!” a Hampshire fielder pounced on it like a cat on a mouse. “Shame,” someone said as the toe-to-toe tussle played itself out. A late cut off Abbott from Leach penetrated the field and crossed the much-abused Gimblett’s Hill boundary. It provoked extended applause as it took Somerset to 200 for 8 and a batting point that had looked beyond reach at 113 for 6, the wake of Overton’s assault still carrying Somerset forward.

Against bowling of the quality of Hampshire’s on a pitch which had challenged batters all day, such an assault was bound to founder eventually. Leach perished driving a ball from Holland, angled into him from around the wicket which perhaps cut in a little more off the pitch and bowled him. Leach 13 from 14 balls. Siddle drove Fuller through the covers to the Somerset Stand. The ball hit the rope with such force it cleared the boundary board. Hitting across the line to the next ball resulted in an inside edge onto the stumps and Somerset were all out for 211. Davey was not out on 22 made in over an hour. They were past the 200 suggested by someone earlier in the day as a “decent” score, the instinctive feeling of those around me though was that it was short of what it needed to be.

“When the luck is against you, the luck is against you,” was the first thing someone I saw for the first time since before the pandemic said as he left the ground. To a Somerset supporter it felt as if, like Achilles, the stumps and the edges of the Hampshire bats had been dipped in the River Styx to make them invulnerable, but with no Achilles heel for the bowlers to exploit. In 15 overs only one ball reached the boundary off the bat as Felix Organ and Ian Holland played, missed and pushed the ball away. With Overton opening the bowling from the Trescothick Pavilion End and Siddle from the River End, by the fourth over someone was asking, “They have gone past the bat a few times, haven’t they?” An attempted drive from Organ off Siddle fell just too short of backward point, “Nearly,” someone said. The fielding was its usual predatory self, a cover drive from Holland off Overton being restricted to two runs as it was fielded within inches of the Somerset Stand boundary.

“That wasn’t far away,” the comment when Siddle beat Organ. Applause too for Siddle when he returned to field in front of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion after another testing over. Twice in an over he beat the batter. When Gregory and Davey replaced Overton and Siddle a missed cut off Gregory and an edge wide of the cordon off Davey  brought the comment, “We could have had three or four wickets.” “Work at it,” shouted Abell, although it seemed an unnecessary exhortation. Gregory finished the day with two leg before wicket appeals in an over, and a text arrived from an online watcher with a forensic eye saying, “Fifteen plays and misses in the Hampshire innings.” It had looked an exceptional piece of bowling from Somerset, and they had perhaps been on the wrong end of the luck, but the hard news was that Hampshire had reduced the deficit to 182 and would start on the morrow with all their wickets intact.

There had been only 240 runs in a full day of cricket, barely three-quarters of a modern day’s ration, but the cricket had gripped the whole day long. Eyes rarely left the middle, tension regularly gripped the air, and the single operating scoreboard probably never had a ball’s respite from anxiety strewn eyes seeking solace. Good cricket is not all about runs. It is about the context and the contest, the toe-to-toe grapple for supremacy. Sixes pummelling the back wall of Gimblett’s Hill and cover drives rapping the Somerset Stand boards have their place as the batting side fights its corner. But so do batters defending their wicket in difficult conditions. So too do bowlers pinning batters to their creases for overs on end as the balance of a match is fought over. Or beating the edges of bats and rapping the pads as they build pressure aided by miserly fielders saving runs as if the match depended on each one. This had been such a day. Hampshire ended it with the edge, but it had been an almighty tussle.

Close. Somerset 211 (C. Overton 44, K.J. Abbott 3-60). Hampshire 29 or 0. Hampshire trail by 182 runs with ten first innings wickets standing.