Absolutely Fabulous

Another win in the Championship for Somerset, this one a 24 pointer as the "Cider Train" keeps rolling

County Championship Division One, Somerset v Hampshire, Taunton Day 4, 

Somerset 408 all out (Hildreth 105, Abell 82, Banton 79, Bartlett 68) and 358-8 dec (Ali 79, Banton 70, Abell 58) beat Hampshire 349 all out (Northeast 101, J Overton 5-70) and 104 all out (Leach 3-14) by 313 runs 

The BBC’s Anthony Gibson could be forgiven for calling Somerset’s maximum points victory prematurely in a situation of some confusion late in the morning session. Somerset had been allowed the additional time to complete their victory which, with the emergence of Edwards at the fall of the seventh wicket, we all assumed meant that Tom Alsop and Joe Weatherley would not bat.

When Jack Leach bowled Edwards the mutual celebrations and congratulations, which included the bemused Edwards shaking hands with some of the Somerset team, were truncated by the sight of Alsop limping out of the pavilion to bat.

In the end it only delayed proceedings for 4 minutes allowing Somerset to wrap up what seems to be a crucial victory, allowing them to extend their lead at the top by two points to 15 over Essex who completed their victory in the afternoon session at Trent Bridge. Essex paid the price for their slow scoring rate on the second day which meant that, despite amassing 519-9, they missed out on two batting bonus points.

That difference may seem marginal but to me it points to a completely different mindset between the two sides. Somerset, in tougher batting conditions amassed full batting points with overs to spare. Essex against a slumping Notts were well short of 350 by the 110thover.  

After we all had agonised over the declaration on Tuesday evening I don’t think we expected, even in our wildest dreams, Somerset to wrap up such a comprehensive victory as early in the day as this. 

This was a case of two sides moving in opposite directions. Somerset re-affirming their title challenge while Hampshire after a great start to their campaign are rapidly slipping into mid-table anonymity. We live in hope that Hampshire will have similarly little stomach for the fight when Somerset travel to Southampton for the penultimate game of the season. 

This is the first time, in 12 attempts since 1996, that Somerset have beaten Hampshire at Taunton. And, after the frustration of the final day of the corresponding fixture last season, and James Vince’s superlative 190, a much happier outcome. 

It really was a sorry performance from Hampshire illustrated by the innings timeline:

Resuming at 12-1.

11.1118-2 Rahane ct J Overton b Gregory 8 poor shot, as far away from the discipline and application Hampshire would have been looking for, a very positive sign for Somerset. Sharp catch by Jamie over his left shoulder. I suspect there were some smug nods among the Indian selectors who chose not to call Rahane up to India’s world cup squad this week. 

11.1618-3 Abbott ct Davies b J Overton 4, (Again – 6thsuch dismissal of the match) a quick ball leaving the night watchman which would have been good enough for many a top-order player

11.2728-4 Roussouw ct Banton b J Overton 8 – Rilee Roussouw is probably the last man any cricket fan would choose to bat out the day for you. When you add into the mix the challenge that Jamie Overton offers the Hampshire left-hander, the odds in the batsman’s favour diminish even more. Flashing at a ball outside his off stump at one that might have bounced a little more than expected he provided perfect catching practice to Tom Banton in the gully. I think it is fair to say that Jamie enjoyed that one.

With (unsurprisingly) Joe Weatherly unable to bat in the top 6 the effect of these three early wickets was that Somerset were through to the Hampshire all-rounders within the first hour. James fuller is however a redoubtable character, someone who you would love to have in your team in such a situation.

11.52Jack Leach was introduced with Hants 50-4. His analysis after his first six overs read 6-3-4-0 but Hampshire’s fourth wicket pair added 54 with a lot of good sense and a little good fortune (a missed run out chance and a poor missed stumping by Steve Davies). It appeared that this pair were going to make Somerset work for the remaining wickets.

12.30Dom Bess brought on in tandem with Jack Leach.

12.3885-5 Northeast ct Abell b Leach 23 a leading edge by the Hampshire skipper superbly caught by his opposite number diving in at a very short extra cover.

12.4789-6 Barker ct Abell b Leach 4 – repeat the dose another fine tumbling catch at short mid-wicket by the skipper. Surprisingly the redoubtable Barker seemed completely disinterested in battling it out. The most positive movement he showed in his brief innings was toward the pavilion on his dismissal.

12.5397-7 Fuller b Bess 35, a ball delivered around the wicket which turned back out of the rough to bowl him. Reward for Bess who was not afraid to give the ball increasing amounts of flight.  

At a time when Somerset appeared to be settling for what they had achieved in the first session this wicket really iced the cake. Northeast had, unsurprisingly, shown the mental strength and skill required to bat for a long period of time so his removal 20 minutes before lunch was a huge boost for the home side.   

13.03104-8 Edwards b Leach 4 Three minutes into the extended session and Jack Leach bowls Fidel Edwards. Everyone, players, umpires and commentators thought that was it, to the point that Anthony Gibson called the win and the 24 points, only for Tom Alsop to emerge from the pavilion.

13.07104-9 (All Out) Crane ct Leach b Bess the spin twins combine to finish it off. 

Leach finished with 3-14 off 10 and Bess 2-12 but the crucial early wickets of Gregory (2-20) and Jamie Overton (2-24) should not be forgotten as part of this impressive victory charge. 

Even allowing for the impairment to the Hampshire batting line up you would have got very generous odds on Somerset winning before Essex. As it was Notts showed some unexpected resistance mainly in the form of their new arrival Ravi Ashwin, to lose only three wickets in the pre-lunch session. It was a case of delaying the inevitable though as Essex wrapped up a win by an innings and 123 runs shortly after 2pm.

Following the conclusion of this round of games, we are now into the second half of the 2019 County Championship. There are six games remaining and, with a neat touch of symmetry the remaining rounds of division one fixtures will see all 8 sides playing at the same time. There are two more rounds of games before the T20 campaign starts so while nothing is going to be decided in the next couple of weeks the shape of the run-in will become much clearer.

The next round of games starting this week are the last before international calls impact on selection for the counties. Worryingly there is the looming threat of England Lions call ups for their game against Australia A which starts on 14thJuly (the second day of Somerset’s Championship game at Headingley). Somerset could find themselves without Jack Leach and Lewis Gregory while Tom Banton, Dom Bess and a recovered (?) Craig Overton would also be in the reckoning.

While it seems fanciful to suggest that the ECB will do anything sensible we need to hope that they will show some balance in the selection so as not to disadvantage any of the division one side. 

Thereafter there is the test against Ireland and the Ashes taking up the bulk of August and September. Surrey and Yorkshire will almost certainly see a significant number of their squad involved in these, while for Somerset and Essex the effect is likely to be less pronounced. Essex will be hoping that Sir Alistair Cook does not reconsider his international retirement and Somerset will be concerned about Jack Leach being unavailable to them at the time of the season when he is likely to be at his most effective for them.

So what of the contenders?

Essex are, as we know very strong at home at present and after their trip to Trent Bridge this week, have two eminently winnable games at Chelmsford against Yorkshire and Warwickshire. 

The psychological impact of Somerset’s win today on Essex should not be ignored. Essex will have started the day hoping for both an early trip back down the M1 and some Hampshire resistance. They would have hoped that the gap between them and Somerset was even further reduced. In the event it increased by two points. But Essex are likely to be around for the rest of the season. We have to hope that Yorkshire fare better at Chelmsford than the other division one teams have done this season. 

Surrey, despite their dreadful start, would have felt at the start of this round of games that they were not out of it. In the event the game at Scarborough turned out to be the best of this round of matches in division one. Shortly before tea Surrey, in pursuit of 318 to win, were 157-2 with Dean Elgar well set. But within the space of five balls Surrey lost Elgar (to a calamitous run out), Foakes (first ball) and Sam Curran (second ball) to slump to 159-5 at the break. 

That passage of play sums up why we love this form of the game. After over three and a half days of tough cricket with little to choose between the sides a spell of three balls completely turns the match on its head. 

Things did not improve after tea as Keshav Maharaj (Dom Bess’ spinning replacement at Yorkshire) removed Ryan Patel and Rikki Clarke (for a third ball duck). And despite an hours resistance from Jamie Smith and Jordan Clark (1 run off 58 balls) two more wickets in two balls and another 10 overs by the last pair Surrey fell 10 balls short of earning a draw.

Yorkshire travel to Essex on Sunday 21 points adrift of their opponents but knowing that wins in their next two games, over the two teams above them in the table would make this a three-horse race with four rounds to go.

Surrey are now 62 points behind Somerset and 47 behind Essex so while they now have Kent and Notts in their next two games, matches they should be expected to win, they will require a remarkable combination of results for them to retain their title. Despite this I am glad Somerset have played them twice already.

And to make the day even more perfect, if such a thing is possible on a day when England reached the World Cup semi-finals Somerset seconds beat the old enemy, Gloucestershire, by 9 wickets, chasing down 289! Eddi Byrom 137*, Marcus Trescothick 90, Ben Green 56*. 

All to play for but we can ask no more of Tom Abell and his team.  

First published on The InCider 3 July 2019