Can They Do It? Yes they can

County Championship Division One, Somerset v Hampshire, Taunton Day 3, 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.