Can they do it? Yes they can

County Championship Division One, Somerset v Hampshire, Taunton Day 2, Hampshire 349 all out (Northeast 101, J Overton 5-70) and 12-1 require another 406 runs to beat Somerset 408 all out (Hildreth 105, Abell 82, Banton 79, Bartlett 68) and 358-8 dec (Ali 79, Banton 70, Abell 58) with 9 second innings wickets remaining

Is there another event in any sport which can cause such angst to players and supporters as the declaration in cricket. Who would like to be in the position Somerset’s Tom Abell found himself in toward the end of Somerset’s third day against Hampshire at Taunton.

Many of the media and in the ground would have wanted Abell to declare earlier, equally many would have wanted Somerset to bat on to the close and declare on their overnight score. In the end I think Tom got it about right, even if Lewis Gregory hadn’t struck in the four over spell Somerset had to bowl at Hampshire, setting 418 in 100 overs in the fourth innings is a big challenge even for a fully fit team. Hampshire are far from that.

Both Tom Alsop, who injured himself in the first session and is severely incapacitated by a hamstring injury, and Joe Weatherley who has turned an ankle fielding on the third day will be unable to bat in their customary style and with Weatherley’s opening partner going for a pair before the close Hampshire’s task is even tougher.

Kyle Abbott fulfilled the emergency opener / night watchman role and survived the 12 balls he faced but no more. He can expect a warm greeting form Jamie Overton tomorrow morning.

But the crux of this game, on a pitch that has been excellent throughout, is likely to be the Somerset spin pair of Jack Leach and Dom Bess. If the can conjure the turn and bounce that Mason Crane, when he landed it in the right place, showed allied to better control Somerset will be optimistic that they can register their 6thwin of the season.

And it is a win which they need to maintain their lead over Essex at the top of the table. Essex’s opponents, the hapless Notts, closed day 3 at Trent Bridge on 100-5 needing another 206 runs to make Essex back again. As near a forgone conclusion as forgone conclusions go. 

We’ve said it before her and we will undoubtedly say it again but tomorrow is likely to be a pivotal day in this season’s campaign.

But Somerset could not be faulted for their performance on day 3. They wrapped up the Hampshire innings in quick time, scored at better that 4.3 runs per over and then picked up a quick wicket before stumps. Anyone walking into the ground before play would have surely settled for that.

The conclusion of the Hampshire first innings was a little bit of 20:20. Twenty minutes of play, twenty runs added with Lewis Gregory getting the wickets of Tom Alsop and Mason Crane. Somerset’s lead was 59. In the process Lewis reached 250 first class wickets for Somerset.

Gregory seems to possess a hunger for runs and wickets at the moment which is fuelling his all-round performances. Having gone without a wicket on Monday he bristled with intent, determined, or so it seemed, to avoid going wicketless in this outing. This desire, and the obvious friendly competition for wickets among the Somerset bowlers will stand the side in good stead as the campaign progresses. 

The rapid conclusion to Hampshire’s first innings set up the prospect of Somerset, if they batted as well as they had on the first day in what were now favourable batting conditions, there was every prospect of a lead of around 300 by tea.

From the outset from of Somerset’s second innings there were encouraging signs of such positive intentions. Tom Abell and Azhar Ali began at a rate of better than a run a ball, a rate of progress which would see the lead reach near 300 by the tea interval. Somerset’s intent in the session up to lunch contrasted markedly with Hampshire who were at best passive in their approach. Anthony Gibson mused that they were already thinking about the final day and the prospect of batting last on this pitch against Jack and Dom.

Whatever it was, Hampshire’s sluggishness assisted Somerset who had, by the end of the first hour of play extended their lead to 90. Hampshire’s new ball pair of Abbott and Edwards were less effective than they had been on the first morning as Somerset rattled along initially at 4 runs and over. That rate of progress increased with the introduction of Mason Crane, his five overs before lunch cost 34 runs, were punctuated with frequent long-hops and full-tosses and numerous false starts in his run up.

It would take an incredibly cold soul to not feel for poor Mason. If he had been one of the protagonists in a boxing fight the referee would have stopped him on the justifiable grounds of avoiding unnecessary punishment. On a wicket that you would expect to provide increasing turn and bounce to his wrist spin he rarely was able to bowl two consecutive balls in the same area.

It was so bad that batting, paradoxically became much harder against him. Uncertainty as to whether he was actually going to complete his run-up and deliver the ball combined with the vagaries of length and line is a challenge all club cricketers are used to but for Somerset’s openers this must have been a very different sort of challenge to what they are used to. 

Somerset’s openers reached 50 in the 12thover and lunched on 110-0 (Azhar 52, Abell 48). Incredibly the first century opening stand for Somerset in the Championship since Tres and Mybs at Trent Bridge in 2016!   

Things became a little tougher in the afternoon session, partly because the wicket changed markedly with seam movement becoming commonplace and partly because Hampshire, and in particular Keith Barker and Fidel Edwards bowled excellent spells. 

This remains a pitch where wickets fall in clusters and James Hildreth rapidly followed Tom Abell further slowing the scoring. Azhar Ali, having batted as well as he has for Somerset looked odds on for a century until a piece of “brainless batting” per the BBC’s Anthony Gibson saw him dismissed for 79. 

But Tom Banton, who looks better every time he walks to the wicket and George Bartlett ensured there was no mid-session collapse and calmly, with increasing confidence saw Somerset to tea on 236-3. Somerset added 126 in the afternoon session of 34 overs, excellent process but slower that the period before lunch.

The future of Somerset’s middle order seems to be in fine hands. Here Banton and Bartlett added 95 in 18 overs taking Somerset’s lead to 319. It took outstanding catches to dismiss both as they looked to accelerate further.

Steven Davies is in need of runs, aware as all of us are that Banton could step up to keep in the longer format as well. He looked out of touch for the majority of his stay at the crease but to his credit gutsed it out for 35 not out, albeit off a less than fluent 60 balls. Lewis Gregory did Lewis Gregory things before perishing, as did Dom Bess and Jamie Overton in a noble search for quick runs.

All that left Timmy G a couple of overs before the declaration to see what he could do. He duly obliged with a six and a four as the lead was extended beyond 400.

So another last day test for our potential champions. A test which, for the first time this season is in the context of a team breathing increasingly closely down our necks. 

Can they do it? Yes they can. 

The Dom Bess Derby!

Yorkshire v Somerset, County Championship Division One, Headingley, Leeds, July 13thto 16th

Cricket is mad isn’t it. What other sport could conjure a situation where your team announces that one of your players, heading into a crucial game which will have a significant bearing on the title race, will, after this game, be going on loan for a month to the team you are playing.

The lines between Somerset and Yorkshire were already blurred with Jack Brooks having arrived in Taunton over the winter straight from the Broad Acres and with Somerset’s highly talented international off-spinning all-rounder having spent a month on loan in the opposite direction.

But now Bess will in all probability not be on the bus back to Somerset at the end of this game but will be settling into his temporary home for the first ten T20 Blast games. Yorkshire fans won’t know whether to cheer or not for Jack and Dom at the weekend!

I won’t go into any detail here on what I see as the merits of this move as we have already covered it on The Incider ………………. Suffice to say I see only benefits for Both Dom and Somerset.

But before we get into the T20 Blast there is a crucial round of Championship games. One week on, another round of championship matches completed and Somerset and Essex continue to go blow for blow at the top of the Division One table. 

While Somerset’s victory over bottom of the table Nottinghamshire was a case of having to turn the tables in the form of a fine bowling display in the last session of day 2 at Taunton to assert their superiority, Essex led from the front against Yorkshire. At the end of the ninth round of games Somerset’s lead over Essex remained at 15 points.

Somerset will be forced to make two changes with Lewis Gregory and Jack Leach heading to Canterbury to captain / represent England Lions. I suspect both would much rather be 250 odd miles north in the north Leeds suburbs. Let’s not going to dwell on the rights or wrongs of such a meaningless game at such a crucial stage of the championship season or ask why neither Gary Balance or Ben Coad are required in Kent!

Somerset will, as they have all season, to just get on with it. I think that there will be three changes to the bowling department for Saturday with Craig Overton and Jack Brooks coming back in to the side in place of the two “Lions” but I also anticipate Josh Davey, who bowled well in Leeds last season returning for Timmy G.

Brooks has had a relatively light workload recently but don’t be deceived. I suspect Jason Kerr and Andy Hurry are keeping as much of the Headband Warrior in the tank as they can, conscious that his title winning experience will be a huge asset on the field as we get into the final five games. Expect Brooks, fitness permitting, to play the bulk of the remaining games.

For the second week running I am delighted to say that I have had the chance to chat to the BBC’s local commentator. Following hot on the heels of Dave Bracegirdle BBC Yorkshire’s Jonathan Doidge was kind enough to give me some time to talk Bess, Brooks and many other things cricket ahead of this game.

Doidge confirmed my suspicion that Brooks will be welcomed back with open arms by the Yorkshire faithful. His contribution to Yorkshire’s two title winning seasons is widely acknowledged as is his wonderful off-field persona. It will be bittersweet for Yorkshire fans to see Jack again as his departure was greeted with much sadness.

It didn’t take us long to get on to the subject of Jack Brooks’ landlord.  Jonathan was not surprised to hear how much the Somerset faithful love Dom and how highly we value him. Doidge says that Bess fitted in really well in the Yorkshire dressing making a really good impression on and off the field. He will be welcomed back with open arms after this game.

Bess as we all know is desperate to play first team cricket and to get back to international consideration. He used his time at Yorkshire to show that he can contribute with both bat and ball and left nobody at the White Rose in any doubt of his abilities. He, like Brooks, will be relishing his return to Leeds and keen to do well with Bess having the added incentive of a month’s worth of bragging rights in the Vikings dressing room if Somerset can come out on top of this one.

Yorkshire come home after a chastening defeat to Essex. Having won the toss and batted first they passed up the opportunity of taking control of the game making only 208 first time around. From there, and despite a lower order fightback on the third afternoon, Essex were not going to relinquish control of the game and went on to by 8 wickets.

Doidge is happy to admit that Yorkshire were outplayed over the three days at Chelmsford but feels that they did not perform anywhere near their best in that game. In fact Doidge goes on to say that he feels there is only one championship game so far this season where Yorkshire have been at their best, the early season thrashing of Hampshire.

Combine this with rain frustrating them in the home games with both Essex and Hampshire last month and it is easy to imagine a world where Yorkshire, not Essex are Somerset’s closest challengers. 

Yorkshire aren’t the only team who under-performed at Chelmsford recently.  Gratifyingly Somerset have bounced back from that big setback with the two wins at home over Hampshire and Nottinghamshire in the last fortnight.

Make no mistake this is a very good Yorkshire side and one that is more than capable of giving Somerset a severe examination. When you look at the youthful talent they have in Ben Coad, Harry Brook and Will Fraine among others and add in the experience of Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance you know Somerset will have to be at their very best in Leeds. Lyth and Balance are far and away the top run scorers for Yorkshire this season with 622 and 739 runs respectively although Balance has been in a bit of a rut recently. Dismissing these two cheaply is likely to reap huge rewards for Somerset as the rest have been much of a muchness so far this season.

Ben Coad leads the way with 33 wickets at a shade under 26 each, Patterson and Olivier follow close behind with 26 and 27 respectively. A measure of the difference between the sides, apart from the gap of 55 points is that Somerset have 6 bowlers with a better average than Coad.

A performance akin to last season would do very nicely.  A fine all round performance with runs from Azhar, James Hildreth, Tom Abell (132*), Steven Davies and Lewis Gregory (twice) was topped off by a superb bowling display on the last day to bowl the Yorkies out for 194 with Lewis and a very very quick Jamie Overton both taking four wickets.

Would a draw be a good result? Absolutely. Even though there is the possibility that this will allow Essex, who “Welcome” improving but still fragile Warwickshire to Chelmsford, the chance to close the gap even further. Doidge certainly believes Yorkshire will give a good account of themselves over the four days and is looking forward with anticipation to the contest.

Those of you like me who have listened extensively to the BBC cricket commentaries since they began covering “every ball of every game” and who like me jump over to another commentary when Somerset’s game has finished will know that Jonathan’s predecessor, the much loved and much missed Dave Callaghan was in addition to being a massive Yorkshire fan a huge cricket fan. 

How Dave would have loved the four days Yorkshire recently spent at Scarborough when they beat Surrey with 10 balls to spare. I was fortunate enough to listen to the closing stages and was on the edge of my seat as the final overs played out. Doidge points to that result as evidence of the typical Yorkshire grit possessed by this side. A characteristic he hopes will be in evidence this weekend.

Doidge does have one potential disappointment going into this game. It seems unlikely he will get the chance to commentate on Marcus Trescothick. Hopefully there is a world where Jonathan gets his wish in early September at Taunton.

Somerset of course have shown equally great powers of determination this season. You only have to look at the Nottinghamshire first innings on Monday to demonstrate that Somerset just keep coming at you. Peter Moores described Somerset after that game as “relentless”. I’ll settle for that thank you! 

Jonathan Doidge will be heading up the BBC’s commentary team at Headingley over the four days starting Saturday and is on Twitter @JonathanDoidge