Playing on the face of the moon – Essex v Somerset – County Championship 2022 – 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th July – Chelmsford

County Championship 2022. Division 1. Essex v Somerset. 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th July. Chelmsford.

Josh Davey, Sonny Baker and Ned Leonard were unavailable for selection due to injury.

The author was unable to travel to this match due to illness.The match was therefore watched in its entirity on the Essex CCC live stream without access to which this report would not have been possible.

Somerset. M.T. Renshaw, T.A. Lammonby, T.B. Abell (c), G.A. Bartlett, L.P. Goldsworthy/T. Banton*, J.E.K. Rew (w), L. Gregory, K.L. Aldridge, C. Overton, P.M. Siddle, M.J. Leach.

*T. Banton replaced L.P. Goldsworthy under the ECB Concussion Protocol on the final day.

Essex. N.L.J. Browne, Sir A.N. Cook, T. Westley (c), D.W. Lawrence, P.I. Walter, M.J.J. Critchley, A.M. Rossington (w), S.R. Harmer, A.P. Beard, S. Snater, J.A. Porter.

Overnight. Essex 505 for 8 dec. Somerset 359 for 3. Somerset trail by 146 runs.

Final day 27th July – Playing on the face of the moon

The pitch on which this match was played could have done service on the face of the moon so little life was there to be found in it. Wickets fell, across the match, at the rate of four a day, and some of those when attempts were made, as Essex approached 500 and Somerset 600, to accelerate ahead of a declaration. Had the match been timeless, ten days might not have been sufficient to complete it. It took nearly 177 overs of the Somerset innings for six wickets to fall, and one of those fell to a run out with Gregory halfway up the pitch, suggesting he had fallen asleep when he set off, and another when Craig Overton tried to send a ball back to Taunton and was stumped by nearly as much as Gregory had been run out by.

The final reckoning: twelve points and two injuries a side, a double century for Essex, three centuries for Somerset, including two maiden first-class centuries, and, curiously, in an innings of 509 for 9 declared, career-best bowling figures for Tom Lammonby. Perhaps even more curiously in a match in which scoring occurred, like an army on a long march in the heat of the day, at a monotonously and seemingly endless three runs an over. Tom Banton did score his 126 on the last day when the pitch was at its slowest at more than a run a ball, but much of his innings took place against Essex’s part-time bowlers, the frontline ones having been excused more drudgery. Even so, the desperately slow pitch still had to be overcome, and he did hit Simon Harmer out of the attack when he returned after an unsuccessful first spell of the day for what turned out to be a single-over final spell of the match just before lunch.  

By the start of the day Somerset had already saved the follow-on, and the crowd, as far as could be seen from the rare glimpses of it afforded by the live stream as it doggedly concentrated on the cricket, was small even by last day standards. Somerset’s second injury, after Tom Abell had departed the field on the third day with a hamstring injury, was Lewis Goldsworthy, withdrawn overnight under the ECB Concussion Protocol after ducking into a Snater bouncer which appeared not to get up. Banton was his replacement, joining James Rew who was 22 not out overnight.

In a session which stood out from the determined, methodical scoring of the rest of the match, Somerset added 121 runs without losing a wicket, with Banton scoring 93 of them. With two overs to go, he was within an ace of scoring a century before lunch, but neither he nor Rew showed any inclination to manipulate the strike or the scoring rate to enable him to make the attempt and the match went back to sleep. The mood of the day, Banton’s innings apart, can perhaps be judged from the fact that Essex managed only 29 overs in the morning session despite 18 of them being bowled by spinners. At the outset, Harmer obtained a little more spin than on the previous day and one or two balls bounced, perhaps there was some sweating under the covers overnight. He troubled the left-handed Rew in particular, but within half an hour the pitch had resumed its somniferous lethargy of the first three days.

Banton began circumspectly enough as he has in the Championship this year, but in the fifth over of the morning he swept Harmer twice in two balls, once square and once to deep midwicket, both for four. It set the tone for the remainder of his innings. Sweeping against Harmer did tweak Somerset nerves, but the strokes were played with precision, and Banton, perhaps relying on the comatose nature of the pitch, looked settled from the outset. The two sweeps banked, he returned to playing Harmer with meticulous care for a period as he further established himself, but drove Shane Snater for successive boundaries, once straight and once through midwicket. The drives took him to 30 and past Rew in only a little over a third the number of balls Rew had faced, 35 to 88, and he was soon sweeping Harmer again, this time fine for another boundary. 

With Banton clearly looking for runs and with the Essex field set deep, the pair were able to take singles with some ease, a feature of the day being smooth, almost lazy, drives or guides easing the ball wide of the inner ring or to one boundary fielder or another as ‘long’ or ‘agreed’ singles were taken by ambling batters while fielders eased their way unthreateningly towards the ball. Cricket in slow motion played at a pace to match that of an astronaut traversing that lifeless lunar surface. Only the low-gravity bounce of the astronaut was missing. A pull from Rew to the deep midwicket boundary opposite the Pavilion saw Harmer’s first withdrawal from the attack and with Matthew Critchley bowling his leg breaks from one end and Dan Lawrence off breaks from the other, Banton pressed his attack. Lawrence he drove with an angled bat past the slip area for four while Critchley was pushed to mid-off for a single to bring up his fifty from 66 balls before he charged on, reverse sweeping Critchley through backward point for four more.

Now, Banton’s attacked became ferocious. Lawrence was struck for three sixes in an over. Twice in successive balls he was lofted over long on, and a full toss was pulled over midwicket to the semi-permanent marquee which occupies the space next to the Pavilion. When Harmer replaced Lawrence for the next over, he was swept from well wide of off stump to the square leg boundary, then for six to the marquee next to the Pavilion and reverse swept backward of point for four. It was the last over Harmer bowled in the match and Banton had reached 89 from 83 balls. Then, with three overs remaining before lunch he and Rew reverted to defence and long singles until the umpires removed the bails.

At lunch, to Banton’s 93, Rew had added 28 to his overnight score, taking him to 50. He had been the epitome of studied defence, especially against the spinners. He was badly beaten by the third ball of the day from Harmer which turned sharply and bounced. He was also the subject of a concerted leg before wicket appeal before he settled into playing Harmer with a solid, forward defensive stroke. Indeed, the enduring image of Rew in the morning session is of him coming forward with front foot stretched down the wicket, the ball played gently back up the pitch or running into the off side. He was the perfect foil to Banton, although he did not entirely eschew attack, pulling Harmer square, lofting Critchley over the on side and reverse sweeping Lawrence behind square, all for four before Somerset lunched on 480 for 3. Such was the speed of Banton’s advance that it dawned only slowly that Somerset were only 25 runs behind Essex at lunch.

Banton duly completed what was his maiden first-class century from 104 balls shortly after the interval with a simple deflection into the leg side for another uncontested single and accepted Rew’s congratulations with a huge grin on his face. His hundred contained 12 fours and four sixes. He soon added more against Critchley who had drawn the short straw of taking the lion’s share of the bowling once Essex had withdrawn their main bowlers from the attack. In all in the innings he and Lawrence, each with a first-class average of 42 with the ball, bowled nearly 51 overs in the Somerset innings. Over two successive overs, Banton swept Critchley for four, taking Somerset to 501 for 3 in the process, lofted him over long on for six, dropped to one knee to lift him over extra cover for a one bounce four before driving him back over his head and into the River End sightscreen for six, just defeating the fielder who got a hand to it as it went. Finally, in Critchley’s next over the lofted on drive just failed to carry beyond Lawrence on the boundary and Banton departed, his 126 coming from 120 balls in two and a half hours, with Somerset on 523 for 4, 18 ahead of Essex.

And all the while, Banton’s innings apart, the long, toiling march of the Essex bowlers towards a seemingly distant tea became ever more laboured. No doubt the intent was to protect the stamina and fitness of their main bowlers in the face of what had become a pointless cause. There had after all already been four injuries sufficiently serious for the individuals concerned to be withdrawn from active participation in the match. At the start of each over Tom Westley and the bowler would take their time placing their field, looking as if they might be undertaking a meticulous survey of the actual surface of the moon. Then, field finally placed, they might review it, as if to make assurance doubly sure, part way through an over. In the full two hours between lunch and tea, 26 overs were bowled, eight from the medium pace of Walter, the other 20 from the spin of Lawrence and Critchley. Thirteen reluctant overs an hour.

Stone dead though the match was some interest still focused on James Rew who had made an excellent start to his Championship career with an innings of 70 at Southport. At the departure of Banton he was on 60 from 159 balls, an innings the polar opposite of Banton’s. Now, once he and Lewis Gregory had established a new partnership, he began to accelerate against Essex’s second-string bowling. Walter was hooked through long leg, Lawrence guided off an angled bat past slip, driven through wide midwicket, and Critchley glanced to fine leg, all for four. Alongside the boundaries, he and Banton’s replacement, Gregory, repeatedly pushed singles into the gaps in the inner ring and either ran briskly through or, more often, the unwritten truce between batters and field continuing, ambled as the deep fielder beyond the gap ambled equally lethargically to intercept the ball and throw it in.

Gregory, once established, played a typically relaxed, at least to the watching eye, innings. Critchley was turned to long leg with what seemed barely a touch of the bat, and a swivel pull to the same place of Walter flew off the bat with an apparently equal lack of effort. One boundary, off Lawrence was fortuitous as it took the inside edge, just missed the off stump, and defeated the substitute keeper, William Buttleman before crossing the fine leg boundary. It was as if the pitch had no intention of delivering up a wicket, even if it meant awarding a portion of luck to an opposition batter. With Rew now on the attack, his partnership with Gregory was played out at five runs an over as the ball, when not running to the boundary, was pushed around for those endless lazy singles, five being taken at a somnolent jog in one over from Lawrence.

Then, with the score on 593 for 4 and the match reaching desperately for tea, it descended into bathos with the wicket of Gregory and, on 605 for 5, that of Overton. Gregory pushed the ball straight towards Walter at cover who descended on it with more urgency than anyone had shown for some time. Gregory set off up the pitch for the single, apparently unconcerned about where the ball had gone. Rew’s arms reached out from his sides as if in exasperated bemusement and Gregory was run out by half a pitch-length. When, finally, Overton tried to send the ball back over Critchley’s head to Taunton, or wherever lies a couple of hundred miles beyond Chelmsford’s River End, and was stumped by what seemed a similar distance, the players headed for the refuge of the Pavilion. By then Somerset, beyond 600, might have reached infinity had the match stretched till then and their batters been so inclined.

And yet, even in the conditions, and especially given their batting record in recent times, 605 for 5 marked a display of disciplined batting which needed considerable resolve and endless concentration which would have been welcomed by their supporters at the ground and watching or following from afar. It had too been achieved against one of the better sides in the competition on their home ground where the opposition are inclined to collapse in the face of the probing accuracy and skill of Harmer.

Rew meanwhile had, by way of 11 successive singles, taken himself to 101 not out and a maiden first-class century. It was, in the circumstances hardly the most accomplished maiden century in the history of the game. But, at the age of 18, he had batted all but five hours, come to the wicket when Somerset were not entirely out of the woods, and faced Harmer and his reputation when the game was still to some extent live. It was a display of technique, concentration and stamina which should not go unremarked and first-class centuries at the age of 18 are not easily come by in any circumstances.

When the players emerged after tea, it was the Essex openers who held the bats, and Peter Siddle, captaining Somerset in the absence of Abell, who held the ball. “I wonder if we will have a crack at them?” one text had asked as the afternoon was drifting by. Alistair Cook was absent having been off the field all day with a hand injury and Browne did not survive the first over as Renshaw at second slip scooped up a catch low to his left. Their opening partnership in the first innings has realised 105. Now, Essex were 0 for 1. But that was it as far as any noticeable action was concerned, although Jack Leach bowled six consecutive maidens bringing thoughts of Brian Langford’s eight maidens in a Sunday League game, also against Essex, at Johnson Park, Yeovil, in 1969 in a different age. In 2022 the pitch continued its moon-like lifelessness, and the match its laboured progress as it was put quietly to rest at five o’clock with 23 unlamented overs consigned to oblivion.

Close. Essex 505 for 9 dec (N.L.J. Browne 234*, P.I. Walter 86, Sir A.N. Cook 44, T.A. Lammonby 3-35) and 30 for 1. Somerset 605 for 6 dec (M.T. Renshaw 146, T. Banton 126, J.E.K. Rew 101*),  Match Drawn. Essex 12 points. Somerset 12 points.