Decisions, Determination, Destiny?

County Championship Division One, Somerset v Surrey, Taunton, Day 1

There are days in championship cricket that are like this. Attritional days when the toss, luck, wicket goes against you. But these days are at the end of the season as important as those where everything goes right and you run through the opposition or bat serenely all day. The test of a side with real title ambitions is whether it is able to not let the game get away from it and when the opportunity arises fight back, especially when, as in this match, you are facing last season’s champions.

Having elected to contest the toss it was no surprise that Surrey couldn’t wait to bat. Somerset’s bowlers were presented with the first “batting day” of this young season and, for the most part toiled. A pair of wickets either side of lunch saw Surrey pegged back to 99-2 but two of the more obdurate left-handers in county cricket proceeded to bat well into the final session. Rory Burns made 107 and Dean Elgar 103 as the pair added 166 untroubled runs. Encouragingly however the run rate never got much above 3 an over even when Surrey were taking on Jack Leach with some clearly planned controlled aggression.

Somerset were partly culpable for their own difficulties before tea, most tellingly when Burns was dropped by Azhar off Jack Brooks, the sort of drop which utterly deflates the fielding side. But this team is built of better stuff and they dusted themselves down from that disappointment and regrouped in the tea interval to take 4-30 in the first hour after tea. Tom Abell was the catalyst for the fight back getting some nip , bounce and possibly reverse swing out of the old ball.

Lewis Gregory was again the pick of the bowlers with 3-44 (17 already this season) but Tim Groenewald was economical and picked up the key wicket of Burns. Jack Brooks after an excellent opening spell was once again expensive and it never really happened for either Craig Overton on Jack Leach. 

A seventh wicket stand of 35 enabled Surrey to close the day on 330-6 a position that will no doubt have disappointed the visitors. Somerset buoyed by their last session performance will hope that they can bowl as well with a relatively new second new ball and keep the visitors first innings under 400.

With the weather set fair for days 2 and 3 the pitch should be at its best for batting. If Somerset can build a platform on day 2, they may, unexpectedly, find themselves in a position of some ascendancy on the last day.  

The build-up to this first meeting of last season’s top two was one of contrasts. Somerset arrived on the back of a superb three days in the one-day cup which more than made amends for the mid-campaign swoon. Having dominated the first half of the group phase Somerset saw the prospect of a home quarter or semi-final dashed by three consecutive defeats.

It says a great deal about the mental strength of the group that they were able to go to the top two in the north group and win both with superb all-round performances. Surrey by contrast had an utterly forgettable one-day cup campaign which saw them finish bottom of the south group. So while Somerset would have rolled back from Nottingham full of confidence Surrey really were glad to see a red ball in the umpires’ hands.

Further debate and contrast surrounded the various squad and selection decisions made by Somerset in the build-up to the game. Dom Bess and Jamie Overton have gone off on month long loans to Yorkshire and Northants respectively a subject of much debate among Somerset supporters on social media particularly the Jamie Overton loan. 

Irrespective of the rights or wrongs of those decisions Somerset still had some selection decisions to make. Which of the “red ball specialists” would come back into the side? Jack Leach and Jack Brooks were virtual certainties but the possibility of Tom Banton replacing either Tres or Steven Davies after his one-day heroics was the subject for much debate.

I need to say here that they clamour in some parts for Marcus to step down is misplaced. As was the deplorable comments on thatvideo late last week. To criticise Somerset’s left handed opener for some low scores in the April championship games is unfair. To belittle him in the way many did for slipping over twice while batting in a 2ndXI game unforgivable. Marcus deserves far greater respect.

Let’s not forget Somerset have won both of their opening championship games with Marcus being an integral part of that team. His value is not only measured in runs but in the experience he provides in support of Tom Abell. His enthusiasm is undimmed. The effect his presence has on the opposition still palpable. Anyone who saw his catch at short leg off Jack Leach as Somerset closed in on victory on the third afternoon at Nottingham will know his reflexes and skills remain of the highest order.

That is not to say that either Trescothick or Davies are entitled to a place in the Championship side. They will be more aware than anyone that they need to deliver in the next two games at Taunton, aware that there are worthy replacements waiting in the wings. The first innings against Surrey would be the perfect time for the pair to make substantial contributions.

The Somerset line-up was the same as that at Trent Bridge in mid-April with the exception of Timmy G coming in to replace Josh Davey in what was probably a case of workload management. I’m not trying to be in anyway disparaging toward Groenewald but I felt, as did Anthony Gibson, that Jamie Overton would have given Surrey’s batsmen more to think about. His extra pace providing a different dimension from what was available. It will be interesting to see what Morkel and McKerr can get out of the pitch on day 2.

Speaking after the day’s play, Jason “Manager of the Month” Kerr explained the logic behind Jamie’s loan move. There is clearly a concern to ensure he is ready for the rigours of 4-day cricket and Somerset’s hierarchy see the loan as a chance for him to demonstrate his match fitness.

Surrey without the injured Ollie Pope, the Currans and Liam Plunkett for post-IPL / international reasons brought back Scott Borthwick, Rikki Clarke and Morne Morkel in a very recognisable version of their 2018 side.

Like most Somerset supporters our attention was drawn to events at Old Trafford and Canterbury where, respectively Jamie Overton and Dom Bess were making their loan debuts. Bess was first into action shortly after lunch scoring a run a ball 25 as the White Rose were dismissed for 210. Bess bowled three overs for 10 without taking a wicket as Kent replied with 130-4.

Northants, who also batted first were bowled out for 230, Jamie Overton made a very un-Jamie like 6 off 25 balls and had figures of 4-1-11-0.

Mixed Fortunes, Mixed Emotions

County Championship Division One, Somerset v Surrey, Taunton, Day 2 – Somerset 243-5 trail Surrey 380 All Out by 137 runs with 5 first innings wickets remaining, 

A game worthy of last season’s top two is unfolding at Taunton. After two days there is very little to choose between the two sides with each having had periods of ascendancy throughout the first two days. 

The morning session belonged to Somerset who bowled Surrey out for the addition of 50 runs, over half of which came in a frustrating last wicket stand. Having added 20 with Rikki Clarke in 10 overs and 45 minutes, a testament to Lewis and Craig’s control. Ironically it was a double bowling change which broke that stand, Jack Leach bowling Ryan Patel in his first over. Three overs later Groenewald struck getting Morkel caught behind for 1, and an over later Batty was gone LBW to Leach 352-9. 

Rikki Clarke has apparently scored more runs against Somerset that any other county. He added another 59 unbeaten (his seventh career score of 50 or more against Somerset) and with Conor McKerr added 28 for the last wicket before the McKerr was caught off Leach attempting something over-expansive 

Groenewald finished with 2-62 off 24 overs a return notable for its economy, thoroughly justifying his selection and proving once again that Jason Kerr knows a lot more about cricket than I do! Jack Brooks was unable to field or bowl due to a calf injury. Andy Hurry was quick to play down concerns in his lunchtime interview with the BBC but such injuries are a concern for quick bowlers and might be indicative of wider joint problems. It seems highly unlikely that Brooks will be fit for Warwickshire next Monday so the possibility of an immediate recall of Jamie from Northants appears highly likely. Overton, according to Charlie Taylor who is commentating at Old Trafford, bowled with considerable pace and hostility and much better than his 1-68 indicates. 

McKerr’s dismissal left Marcus and Azhar a nasty 20 minute spell to see out against Clarke and Morkel which they did to lunch at 10-0 off 5 overs. This sort of phase of a championship game is what makes the longer form first class game so wonderful. While we all enjoy the 50-over format given Somerset’s current success, a little spell like this, set in the context of the game and season is like no other. 

Being able to listen to the commentary of Anthony Gibson and Mark Church who are, while partisan in their support of their respective counties, proper cricket supporters. Gibson appreciative of the menace of Morkel, Church effusive in his adoration of an Azhar cover drive. Two consummate professionals with no media ego just a desire to share their enjoyment of the game we love. In a week where TMS is again letting itself down the powers that be at the BBC would do well to nurture Gibson, Church and their peers on the county commentary circuit.

Having lunched with a small sense of achievement of surviving that nasty spell, Trescothick went immediately after without adding to his solitary boundary. Having defended Marcus yesterday there is no doubt that 26 years and 2 days after he made his Championship debut for Somerset the great man is in desperate need of some runs.

We, as Somerset supporters in a horrible position. We have a team that is a very real championship contender. We also have a legend closing in, albeit painfully slowly, on the mythical mark set in the 50s by Harold Gimblett. All of us want nothing more than to see Tres’ making substantial runs and being an integral part of that side. But ever more vulnerable early in his innings is now the time to consider asking Banton to open with Azhar and move Marcus down to five? The logic is inescapable, Trescothick is more likely to flourish in such a less testing role away from the pressure and jeopardy of the new ball. The problem is such a move would involve dropping either Davies, with Tom taking the gloves, or George Bartlett or compromising the bowling depth. 

Where Next for Marcus?

Marcus’ dismissal heralded a sudden change in the direction of the day’s play. Whereas batting had been an Attritional task against quality bowling Azhar and James Hildreth proceeded to add 94 runs in 17 overs. It seemed midway through the session that Somerset were building a position to really put Surrey under pressure while the visiting bowlers were made to look distinctly ordinary.

But as abruptly as fortunes had swung in Somerset’s favour they swung against them with the dismissals of Azhar and the skipper as the introduction of the much despised Gareth Batty and reintroduction of Morne Morkel first slowed the run rate and then took the 2 wickets to reduce Somerset to 117-3 half an hour before tea. Azhar who had been imperious seemed to lose concentration while Abell inexplicably for a batsman of his class played perhaps the worst shot of the season to one of the worst balls of the season.

Pausing to reflect half way through the second day it is worth noting that Somerset had fought magnificently since mid-way through the final session of the first day reducing Surrey from 265-2 to 380 all out (115-8) and then reached 104-1 making the two careless dismissals of top order batsmen all the more annoying.

George Bartlett joined James Hildreth and the pair stabilised things up to tea to adjourn at 140-3. Bartlett seemed immediately at ease while Hildreth was purring and had reached 61 off 98 balls in just under 2 hours with 9 fours in that gorgeous way that only James Hildreth can.    

The final session began in identical fashion to the afternoon session with McKerr taking a wicket in the first over of the resumption this time removing George Bartlett palpably LBW this time Hildreth’s rebuilding job was in conjunction with Steven Davies. Davies, like Trescothick would have been aware of the growing clamour for Tom Banton to get a place in the championship side at his expense, unlike Trescothick able to respond with significant runs.

The partnership, while not as flowing as the earlier Hildreth / Azhar alliance, added a very good 70 when Hildreth was deceived by Rikki Clarke looking to push the ball into the onside and only succeeding in giving a return catch to the bowler. For the second time this season Hildreth perished in the 90s when something even more substantial seemed possible.

With another 18 overs to go in the day Somerset were grateful for the maturity of Lewis Gregory, curbing his natural attacking instincts to see out the day on 18 with Davies 54 not out. While they have only added 32 their joint contribution has closed a potential door of opportunity for Surrey.

James Hildreth’s post close of play assessment of the balance of the game being 60-40 in favour of Surrey might be a bit of a case of dressing room mind games rather than a fair assessment. His comment that the wicket is beginning to take spin and his hope that Somerset can build a position where we can “unleash Jack Leach on them” is perhaps more indicative of the mood in the home dressing room. 

Somerset will be hoping for the overnight two to push on tomorrow. With a new ball due in 12 overs there is every possibility that they will be able to take advantage of the harder ball. We all know what an hour of Gregory in his pomp could do and if Davies can avoid his recent propensity to get out early in a session when set Surrey might start their second innings with at best a slender lead and the momentum against them.

An intriguing third day awaits.

Everything to Play for on Day Four

County Championship Division One, Somerset v Surrey, Taunton, Day 3 – Surrey 380 All Out and 152-5 lead Somerset by 134 runs with 5 second innings wickets remaining, 

Somerset will consider themselves in a strong but not yet match-winning position at the end of a fascinating third day at Taunton. With a day to go all four results are theoretically possible in a game that may go a long way to deciding the destiny of this year’s County Championship. 

The performance of this Somerset side in this game has been one of consummate professionalism. They never allowed Surrey to get into a position of dominance even when passing 250 in the first innings for only two down and have, from the moment Surrey’s third wicket fell, worked their way back into a position of some strength. While any victory target on the final day will be tough against the Champions, Somerset have earned the right to have a shot at completing what would be a magnificent performance.

Having achieved a first innings lead of 18 Somerset have removed half of Surrey’s second innings and with the last of those removed Surrey’s captain the obdurate and hugely talented Rory Burns. With Dean Elgar unable to take part on the third day, reported as unwell by Surrey’s official twitter account, the possibility remains of Somerset needing only four wickets tomorrow to set up a run chase. 

I closed yesterday’s post play post with a quote from James Hildreth in which he said that the wicket is beginning to take spin and expressed his hope that Somerset can build a position where we can “unleash Jack Leach on them”. I also expressed the hope that Steven Davies could avoid his recent propensity to get out early in a session to enable Somerset to build the base for Somerset’s England spinner.

Davies did not do what was required getting out in the second over of the day after adding only 4 to his overnight score but yet again Somerset’s lower order came through with flying colours. Led by Lewis Gregory who made his second first class century and his first at Taunton with an unbeaten 129 and ably supported by Craig Overton, Tim Groenewald and Jack Leach in stands of 51, 64 and 32 respectively.

Groenewald deserves special mention for his 13 which lasted 66 balls and 95 minutes which was worth far more than the runs he contributed. Timmy was the recipient of a fearful barrage from Morkel and must have been close to retiring hurt just before lunch. But as we all know Timmy G is a very tough character and his determination, in obvious pain and discomfort, to guts it out was pivotal in Somerset’s lower order resistance. 

It also sent out a very powerful to Morkel, Batty and the Champions that this Somerset side are not to be bullied and will not be bowed. 

The only disappointment was that, not for the first time in recent history Somerset fell marginally short of the final batting bonus point when Jack Brooks succumbed to his second ball to leave the total 2 short of the required 400.

It has now become impossible to find a new superlative for Gregory who is clearly in the form of his life and has allied his undoubted natural talent to full fitness, after overcoming a long-running back injury, and maturity to fully justify his place at the top of the PCA rankings.

Run out of Superlatives – Lewis Gregory

Having added 147 for the last 4 wickets Somerset carried that momentum into the Surrey second innings reducing them to 19-2 and 43-3, a lead of 25 at that time. Needless to say Gregory took the first wicket to remove Mark Stoneman and then removed Ben Foakes. With Jack Leach also claiming a couple of wickets in this phase Somerset would have harboured hopes of dealing a mortal blow to their opponents in the final session.

With Jack Brooks unable to bowl Leach had the crucial role to wheel away from one end allowing the seamers to rotate at the far end. Rory Burns, Somerset’s shrewd captain seemed well aware of the influence his England counterpart was likely to have taking every opportunity to prevent Leach from settling into one of those trademark long metronomic spells that frequently turns promising into match-winning positions for Somerset.

Will Jacks, on a pair was tormented by Leach and seemed stuck on nought for an eternity but, he benefitted from a loosener from Groenewald and a couple of pieces of poor fielding to get away and by the close had become increasingly fluent with 31.

The wicket of Burns, attempting to advance to Leach once too often, shortly before the close leaves Surrey in need of further resistance from Jacks and will hope that Rikki Clarke can continue his outstanding record against Somerset. The fact that Morne Morkel was sent in as nightwatchman indicate to me that Elgar’s indisposition may be more serious than we have been led to believe and that Clarke needed to be protected overnight.

Craig Overton bowled really well without success and I wouldn’t be surprised if his first spell tomorrow gives him the wickets he deserves. With Gregory and Leach also keen to get among the action Somerset will be hopeful of restricting the target to under 200. The possibilities are endless tomorrow but, if the cricketing Gods are reading this, a nice unbeaten 80 odd for Marcus in a successful run chase would do very nicely thank you!