Being Somerset

After the frustration of the first three days Somerset signed off their season with a performance that just fleetingly made the impossible conceivable

County Championship Division 1, Taunton, September 23rd to 26th Day 4 – Somerset 203 all out (van der Merwe 60, Abell 45, Harmer 5-105, S Cook 4-26) and 0-0 (forfeit) drew with Essex 141 all out (Cook 53, Leach 5-32, van der Merwe 4-41) and 45-1

I have a challenge for you over the winter. Find someone who doesn’t follow cricket and explain to them the events of the last four days. If you can do that, I tip my cap to you because I’ve a strong suspicion it is impossible.

It seemed somehow fitting that Somerset and Essex were the last two counties in action in the 2019 cricket season. It seemed more than a little ironic that the two finished in glorious late September sunshine after three days plagued by the weather. It seemed somehow very Somerset that the game finished as it did, so fitting that I am beginning to wonder if we need to get a new word into the dictionary, Somerset, “to be continuously excellent without due reward”

This game demonstrated everything that is good about this Somerset side. Many would have scoffed at Andy Hurry’s comments after Wednesday’s wash out. More would have mid-way the afternoon of the final day, yet, gloriously Somerset kept going, exerting more and more pressure where many sides would have eased off. In an incredible hour and twenty minutes either side of tea there was a chance that, in a season of scarcely believable cricket the best was yet to come. 

But before we get to all of that, credit to Essex who over the course of the season were worthy champions. No one should begrudge this championship to Sir Alistair Cook. Everyone should applaud Essex’s conduct at the end of the game. The guard of honour for Marcus Trescothick and the muted celebrations showed dignity and respect. They are worthy champions.

Somerset for the second season in a row finished second to a team who had from mid-season put together a run that was unstoppable. After the innings defeat in Southampton in the opening round Essex were unbeaten for the rest of the season. That is some performance.  

But how Essex had to earn this title in the last half of the last day of their campaign. Somerset put them under huge pressure with the Somerset spinners bowling to fields not seen since Derek Underwood at the Oval over 50 years ago. At one point, excluding the ‘keeper Jack Leach had 7 close catchers only one on the on side. It was riveting, exhilarating cricket the sort that only 4-day cricket can provide. The contrast between the cheers of the crowd between balls and the total silence as the bowler ran in was palpable in the ground and only added to the drama.

Jack Leach’s extraordinary field

Ultimately, fittingly as with the game at Chelmsford earlier in the year Alistair Cook was the difference. While he was batting in Somerset’s first innings it was a different game, his judgement, concentration and ability to put away the rare bad ball were outstanding. I freely admit he is not a batsman I have never enjoyed watching but you could not fail to be impressed by him yesterday.

Sir Alistair Cook – Different Class

The drama of the day seemed a very distant prospect for those like me who arrived just as a sharp shower drove the two warming up teams off the field and yielded an 11.30 inspection, an eventual noon start.

And still the rain wasn’t done, in that short session to lunch when a couple more squally showers blew through. The most annoying of interruptions where by the time the covers were on the rain had stopped. The majority of the Somerset players did not even leave the field choosing to either chat to the ground staff by the covers or wait by the dugouts on the boundary edge.  

Dom Bess during a rain interruption

When lunch arrived Essex appeared to be easing their way to safety. In truth that safety was never far away and in “Captain” Cook they possessed the navigator supreme for such a journey. By lunch Cook had lost one of his crew, Nick Browne (to Dom Bess) but either side of the adjournment Tom Westley was helping take the score past a hundred.

It is worth pausing her for a moment to consider. Essex had reached half of Somerset’s first innings for the loss of only one wicket on a final day pitch that had repeatedly drawn the ire of the Essex captain. Cook was making batting look both simple and easy but a hint of what was to come could perhaps be gleaned from his partner.

If Jack Leach recently made the greatest 1 in the history of cricket, Westley was on his way to possibly the worst 36. To stretch the nautical analogy to its extreme the Essex number 3, hailing from a county that has more than its fair share of “-on seas” was Westley-at-sea. 

Cook’s 50 was reached with utter inevitability, another ruthless punishment of a ball that was not delivered to the most precise length and line, but the very next ball Jack Leach got one to bounce Cook watched aghast as the ball looped into Tom Banton’s hands at short leg. The departing knight seemed surprisingly annoyed but it soon became clear that Cook anticipated what was about to come.

From the summit of 102-1 Essex subsided in 19 overs to 141. Even more remarkably the last six wickets fell in just 32 balls for 15 runs, most of those of involuntary edges. On the fall of the 9th wicket Tom Abell went to speak to both umpires, it soon became clear that he had advised them that he was forfeiting Somerset’s second innings. Essex had 16 overs and 7 minutes to make 63. Somerset to take 10 wickets.

Neither was likely but with Cook providing the encore Essex needed there seemed a chance that Somerset’s efforts would end in what would have been an unjust defeat. When Tom Abell offered the former England captain his hand it was accepted as much you felt in Cook recognizing that a draw was a fitting end to this most pulsating of days.

On an emotionally charged afternoon Somerset fans had one last chance to salute Marcus Trescothick. It had been rumoured that he would be on 12th man duties and so it proved. Never has a man been cheered so loudly for carrying on the drinks. As Somerset’s momentum grew Tres was seen acting as ball boy after a four to the boundary in front of the Andy Caddick Pavilion, running with the exuberance of youth to retrieve and throw the ball back. 

And then, with the sun bathing the Cooper Associates County Ground at around 5pm Lewis Gregory vacated his place at slip and the great man replaced him. Immediately adopting his “all-fours close catching position. A wicket fell to the first ball and you felt the cricketing Gods presence both on and off the field. In my 50th season I had one of my most treasured memories of my cricketing life. I did my best to hold back the emotion, avoided being a blubbering mess, but the tears flowed then.

Of course this was an unsatisfactory way for the season to end. You can’t blame the schedulers as the last few seasons have seen few interruptions to the last round of games.  You had to wonder what might have been if, as ESPN’s George Dobell reported “Cook had been given out leg before in the day’s first over (as he should have been)”. Or even if Murali Vijay’s last contribution in an historically unproductive short-term contract had not been to drop a straightforward slip chance in the first over of the second innings. 

As I watched the post-match formalities, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do I could hear my Dad’s words loud and clear, “they’ll never win it in my lifetime now. I hope and prey they do so in yours.” 

You have to say that we are one by one eliminating the ways in which you can finish runners up. You have to agree that this was not as hard as 2010 but as ever with Somerset we couldn’t do it the easy way, we couldn’t just allow Essex to bat through the day for the draw, we had do make the impossible seem almost possible, for a short while.

And so, as I draw to an end the joy that has been writing about Somerset Cricket Club’s 2019 season I do so with a smile on my face, a sense of deep pride and an excitement for next season’s Championship campaign. Yes there were flaws, yes we lost three times, but would you, seriously want to support any other county?

And if you hesitate even for a minute listen to the emotion in Tom Abell’s voice as he had to front up and do the immediate post-match interview for Sky, look at the images of the Somerset team on the dressing room balcony watching Essex lift the Championship Trophy and there you have your answer. 

Truly the end of an era