A formidable base – Gloucestersire v Somerset – County Championship 2022 – 12th, 13th and 14th May – Bristol – First day

County Championship 2022. Division 1. Gloucestershire v Somerset. 12th, 13th and 14th May. Bristol.

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

Gloucestershire. M.S. Harris, G.F.B. Scott, J.R. Bracey (w), M.A.H. Hammond, G.L. van Buuren (c) R.F. Higgins, J.G. Bethell, Z.J. Chappell, Zafar Gohar, M.D. Taylor, B.T.J. Wheal.

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, P.M. Siddle, M.J. Leach.

Toss. Gloucestershire. Elected to field.

First day 12th May – A formidable base

The large proportion of Somerset supporters present among a smallish crowd was obvious when I arrived two overs after the start. A two-hour bus ride, a walk through the centre of Bristol and another bus ride to reach the ground my excuse for a late arrival. For the record, the scoreboard, always the first thing a cricket supporter will look for on arrival, read Somerset 2 for 0. After a meander to identify a vantage point, and looking for a bit of height, I took a seat in the second row from the back of the Mark Alleyne Stand at the Ashley Down Road End with the sightscreen to my right.

There was a Somerset supporter behind me, he had made the trip from Barnstaple in farther Devon. Two more a couple of rows in front of me. Two more a few seats along the stand towards the sightscreen. Two more, further down the stand from them, and another two a few seats to my left. The stand was fairly sparsely populated but included a generous allocation of Somerset hats along its length. The large Mound Stand to our left, square of the wicket and far from the pitch was sparsely populated, although a few more came in during the day. The crowd was heavily concentrated immediately in front of the Pavilion and in the Jack Russell Stand on the far side of the sightscreen from me. A row of folding chairs of the type you see at festivals and scattered along the length of the square boundary opposite the Mound Stand, closer to the wicket, and in front of the car park were also popular. There were 700 or so in the ground by my count, although that expanded to perhaps 1,000 later in the day.

By the end of the day, Somerset had built a formidable base at 319 for 4, although many Somerset supporters would have liked them to have pressed harder towards 350. I was just relieved that after the depredations of the first three matches the batters had maintained their discipline throughout the day, and built the base for an impregnable position rather than risk falling short through attempting to score too quickly. Before the start of play, 319 for 4 would have been settled upon by any Somerset supporter to consolidate the home victory over Warwickshire in the last match.

Given the nature of the pitch, Gloucestershire’s decision to ask Somerset to bat surprised most despite some cloud at the time of the toss. One Gloucestershire supporter offered the theory that the pitch at Bristol tended to become slower as a match wore on and wondered if the thought might have been to bowl on it while it had some life. There was a tinge of green visible from beyond the boundary and Somerset supporters were more inclined to the view that Gloucestershire might have preferred not to face Overton and Siddle. Such though are the musings of cricket watchers before any match. As it was, a scratch attack of Gloucestershire bowlers and players loaned from other counties because of a Gloucestershire injury crisis began by taking on the increasingly settled Somerset opening partnership of Matt Renshaw and Tom Lammonby.

Both Lammonby and Renshaw registered attacking centuries early in their Somerset careers, and both have been more circumspect this season. Now, following the innings victory over Warwickshire after the three consecutive defeats at the start of the season, an opportunity afforded itself to bat on another pitch conducive to batting. The only anxiety was a sky of high, clumpy white cloud, albeit with occasional dashes of blue. The Gloucestershire attack took a while to settle, and perhaps to discover how best to use their miscellany of bowlers. It presented an opportunity to Lammonby and Renshaw of which they soon took advantage .

As I took my seat, an on drive from Renshaw off Ryan Higgins, along the ground and through midwicket to the Mound Stand, took him to 16 and Somerset to 22 in the seventh over. A glorious straight drive for four in Higgins’ next over raised a round of applause sufficient to highlight the considerable size of the Somerset contingent in the crowd. In Higgins’ next over, Renshaw found the boundary again, this time with an on and a straight drive. “Shot!” a Somerset supporter cried above the growing applause. Then, “No point in chasing that,” when one of Gloucestershire’s loan signings, Hampshire’s Brad Wheal, was driven through the offside as Renshaw’s wagon wheel began to fill out, at least in front of the wicket. A hook and a cover drive off Wheal followed, both to the boundary, and took Somerset to 54 for 0 in the 15th over, with Renshaw on 42. This was the rampaging Renshaw of old putting smiles on Somerset faces, albeit with a little more discretion and on a demonstrably flatter pitch than the green tops of 2018.

It wasn’t all Renshaw, and it wasn’t all boundaries of course. Cricket is rarely like that. An attacking approach such as Renshaw’s on a fresh pitch, however flat, on the first morning courts risk. My notes carry enough examples of “play/miss” to demonstrate that. A mistimed hook too, off Wheal, which fell safely clear of the midwicket fielder caused an intake of breath. It presaged a period of consolidation from Renshaw, while Lammonby, again not without risk, went onto the attack. A thick edge off Wheal again demonstrated the risk, evading gully and running to the Pavilion boundary, but a pull was middled and flew through midwicket to the Mound Stand boundary before Taylor and Scott gained some control for Gloucestershire, restricting Somerset to 12 runs in seven overs as Somerset reached 77 for 0 in the 26th over.

Then, as if Somerset had merely paused for breath, Lammonby struck three times in five balls. Scott was pulled through midwicket to the Mound Stand. “That was a solid pull,” someone said. Wheal, bowling from the Pavilion End, was driven square and then, off the next ball, hooked, both for four, as Somerset applause turned to cheers. Renshaw renewed his assault with three boundaries in four balls off Scott, not least a stunning straight drive and a square cut both of which brought cries of, “Shot!” and more ringing applause. Somerset went to lunch on the back of yet another boundary, an on drive from Lammonby off the slow left arm of Zafar Gohar. 114 for 0 after 31 overs, with Renshaw on 65 and Lammonby on 44, was as emphatic a start to the match as Somerset’s large band of travelling supporters could dared have wished for.

From the Alleyne Stand, an anti-clockwise circumnavigation takes you behind the Mound Stand, a virtually deserted area on the first day of this match, for the Mound Stand, far from the wicket still had only a scattering of spectators. The Somerset team coach, parked behind its far end, proudly maroon, gave the impression of lording it like some brooding giant. Beyond that, and sharply to the right, the concourse between the modern Pavilion and the areas of seating next to the boundary was crowded with people on their own circumnavigations or just quietly perambulating. It was here I suffered my first delay, accosted by a Somerset supporter demanding to know my assessment of the morning’s play, and then arguing with it. Moving on, past the Pavilion, the row of ‘festival’ chairs along the boundary opposite the Mound Stand looked incongruous in front of the heavily used car park upon which the gargantuan temporary stand sits for one-day internationals. The occupants might really have been at a festival ground given their relaxed looks under a now mainly sunny sky. There was more to discuss here with a Somerset supporter beaming at the morning performance. Even so, I might have returned to my seat in time for the beginning of the afternoon session had it not been for the ice cream van. No scoop ice cream and so I settled for a glorified choc ice on a stick. “A pound cheaper than the same thing at the Oval,” my comment to the seller. “We’re poorer here,” the response.

The afternoon session did not disappoint, at least for Somerset supporters. Lammonby began it with an on drive off Taylor for four and an edge for four off Higgins, which flew midriff-high through an empty second slip. “A bit early in the match not to have a second slip,” someone said after gasps of relief and disappintment had subsided. “Especially when you have put the opposition in,” responded the person at work when I texted him the news. Those two strokes took Lammonby to 53, Somerset to 125 for 0 and presaged a period of Somerset dominance every bit as stirring as that of the morning. Lammonby continued to play his strokes and was now outscoring Renshaw to ever more enthusiastic applause from the Somerset contingent. An on drive, leaned into off Higgins, brought gasps of delight as it flowed easily through midwicket to the boundary. There was the occasional play and miss still but an off drive off Higgins to the Jack Russell Stand brought the comment, “Men against boys,” from another Somerset supporter. Harsh perhaps, but the afternoon was developing a majestic feel about it.

Such comments cause immediate anxiety among hardened supporters, for they so often seem to bring cricketing disaster. Almost immediately, a ball from Zak Chappell, on loan from Nottinghamshire, and the pick of the Gloucestershire bowlers, cut in off the pitch and lifted as Lammonby tried to leave with bat, face up, horizontal and pointing at the keeper, almost as if he was trying to uppercut. The ball followed the bat, cramped the leave, took the edge and flew towards Marcus Harris in the gully who took the catch diving forward. It was a peach of a ball and an excellent catch, but Lammonby had made 76 in nearly three hours and Somerset were 172 for 1. There were a few sighs of disappointment, for Lammonby’s batting is exhilarating to watch, all smoothness of stroke and sureness of timing when he gets it right, but an opening partnership of 172 had been beyond dreams for Somerset in recent times.

Renshaw, playing with more certainty and less risk than Lammonby, had continued to find the boundary. A clip through midwicket, an on drive and a pull through backward square leg, all for four, and all off Taylor, had brought the comment, “Renshaw keeps a lot of his strokes on the ground.” It came as a surprise therefore when, on 94 and with anticipation of a century growing, Chappell bowled him to a cheer from Gloucestershire supporters. “Inside edge,” the apparently eagle-eyed observation of one watcher, although a replay suggested another outstanding ball cutting in sharply was the culprit. Whatever the cause, the bails had been nudged off and Renshaw was walking back to the Pavilion. Somerset were 179 for 2 and the future of the innings was in the hands of Tom Abell and Tom Banton.

Banton drove Chappell and Higgins into the on side for three and four and lofted the slow left arm spin of Zafar Gohar over long on to the Ashley Down Road End for six. And yet, in three quarters of an hour at the crease he never looked secure, playing and missing, mistiming a number of strokes and leaving an uneasy feeling that he would not be long for the middle. An edge off Gohar evaded slip, ran away for a single and added to the feeling. Then, when he came forward in defence to a ball from Higgins, he edged it to Bracey and Somerset were 207 for 3, Banton 18, with James Hildreth joining Abell who had been at the wicket 12 overs for ten runs.

It felt like a critical moment. Somerset had scored a daunting 207 runs with the day only half spent but had just lost three top wickets for 35. Cloud had regathered overhead, and two batters were at the crease who needed to establish themselves. The Gloucestershire bowlers meanwhile, Chappell in particular, were finding their mark. The chatter among Somerset supporters became more hushed and there was hope in the faces of Gloucestershire ones. And yet, whatever the situation, Hildreth is always inclined to look for opportunities to score. This occasion was no different. Before Higgins’ over was out, Hildreth had steered him neatly through third man for four, Gohar was spectacularly driven square to the Mound Stand to cries of, “Shot!” and Higgins no more than pushed through the covers for four more. “He hardly put a bat on that,” someone said as the ball outran the fielder to the boundary. By the time the umpires had removed the bails for tea, Hildreth had caught Abell. Both were on 16 and Somerset were on 229 for 3. “That’s one more run than in the first session,” someone said, “although it doesn’t feel like it,” marking Somerset’s more disjointed progress since lunch.

My tea interval circumnavigation was greeted with smiles as Somerset supporters on clockwise circumnavigations saw the wyvern on my hat and signalled their approval of Somerset’s progress. The partnership between Abell and Hildreth had looked more secure than the one between Abell and Banton and 229 for 3 was beginning to promise a commanding score. Twenty minutes is rarely enough for a circumnavigation, for people have to be talked to and the atmosphere has to be absorbed. It took me a few overs past the restart to complete my journey, but meandering along the boundary and walkways of a cricket ground while play is in progress gives a feel for the broader pattern of the play, if not the detail which fills the brain from a fixed position in a stand.

As I walked or tarried to watch a few balls over the heads of those in the ‘festival’ seats, the impression was of Hildreth continuing where he had left off at tea. Two cover drives delivered two runs apiece and a steer through third man reached the boundary in front of me as I rounded the near corner of the Russell Stand. Then, as I regained my seat, Abell cut Chappell behind square and the ball crossed the boundary at third man while Hildreth pulled through midwicket to the festival chairs and someone said, “That’s another bonus point in the bag,” as Somerset reached 250 for 3.

Somerset were dominating, and a score in excess of 350 by the close was being speculated about by all and hoped for by beaming Somerset supporters for, the occasional ball like the ones with which Chappell had taken his wickets apart, the bowling did not look overly threatening and nine runs had just come from that one Chappell over. And then, just as the flow of Somerset runs looked set to become a flood, Abell and Hildreth turned to consolidation. Perhaps the bowlers’ tightening lines were beginning to have some effect, perhaps Somerset were determined to protect their unfamiliar dominance. The next 18 overs yielded just 43 runs and the ball crossed the boundary only three times. Hildreth scored more quickly than Abell, “Hildy does score quickly,” someone commented, “he is always busy,” as he cut Gohar for three and Wheal for two in successive overs, but singles were his main fare as he and Abell worked assiduously to strengthen Somerset’s position. It was all in stark contrast to some of the frenetic collapses of recent times.

The new ball was taken with Somerset on 272 for 3 and Hildreth drove it through the on side off Higgins, the ball glinting in the sun as it ran along the ground to the Jack Russell Stand. Three overs later he clipped Chappell off his legs with the minimum of bat movement and the ball ran just behind square to the Mound Stand beneath the main scoreboard which promptly registered his second fifty of the season. “Well done, Hildy!” someone shouted. It was as far though as he would go, for after nearly two hours at the wicket he attempted to keep a ball from Taylor out and edged it for Bracey to take his second catch of the day. Somerset were 292 for 4 with ten overs still to be bowled. A wicket more than some would have liked given the dominance of the batting but, for the second game in succession, the top order demons of recent times were being scattered before our eyes.

Abell was on 37, having been at the wicket, defying the Gloucestershire attack, for 43 overs. He had defended with the obdurate nature which he has so often demonstrated in Somerset’s interest. He has a style with the bat which reflects the determined nature he portrays at the crease. Correct, precise and decisive. In defence, whether he is playing or leaving the ball, he plays with the same classicism and abruptness of stroke that he deploys in attack. The bat flows through the stroke at speed and stops abruptly once the ball has been played or, if being left, has passed by. His leave leaves no doubt. The bat retreats from the path of the ball at speed until it is above his shoulder and there it stops, motionless, as if awaiting some further call to action. His forward defensive too. His foot and bat come forward, and there they remain, locked in position, until the ball is safely neutralised.

In accumulating those 37 runs Abell had been at the wicket with Renshaw, Banton and Hildreth while 113 runs were scored. In his 43 overs my notes record him reaching the boundary just four times. A straight drive and a cut through wide third man, classic strokes both, off Chappell, an edge past slip off Higgins and a deflection to fine leg off Wheal. It had been a demonstration of absolute determination of the they-shall-not-pass variety. A glance for three off Gohar did cause a few sharp intakes of breath among the Somerset contingent given Abell’s chequered history with that stroke, but this one was perfectly played.

With the departure of Hildreth, Steven Davies came to the wicket, filling the gap in Somerset’s lines as he and Abell steered Somerset to the close. He did allow himself one square drive off Wheal. It was played off the back foot with a minimum of bat movement and easily outpaced two chasing fielders to the Mound Stand, reminding those who see him regularly of what he is capable. With three overs to go, and facing Taylor, bowling from the Ashley Down Road End, Abell finally allowed himself some licence. First, he came down the pitch and drove fiercely through the covers to the Mound Stand for four. As classical and precise as ever, the stroke drew the comment, “Glorious!” And then, “Yes!” as he again drove Taylor, this time through long off to the Alleyne Stand, again for four. Whether the “Yes!” was for the stroke or the fact that it had brought up Abell’s fifty is beyond knowing, but both deserved the accolade. Abell had batted 53 overs, given no chances, been the rock-solid core of Somerset’s innings once the opening partnership had been broken and a foundation from which the match might be dominated had been laid.

Close. Somerset 319 for 4.