Well I Don’t Declare

Now I know what a proper cricket writer feels like. I’d written the day’s report based on the batting of Tom Abell, Steve Davies and George Bartlett being the main stories. And then 7 overs before the close Lewis Goldsworthy went and got himself out!

Somerset v Hampshire, County Championship Group 2, The Cooper Associates County Ground, Taunton, June 3rd to 6th 2021, Day Three, Somerset 360 (Gregory 107, van der Merwe 88, Barker 6-72) and 323-6 (Abell 98, Davies 82, Bartlett 74*) lead Hampshire 311 (McManus 91, Davey 5—78) by 372 runs with 4 second innings wickets remaining

The lead at the time was 360 so the options seemed to be either declare and have five overs at Hampshire this evening or give Tom Banton or Lewis Gregory licence to have fun at the expense of an utterly deflated Hampshire attack.

When Josh Davey walked out to join George Bartlett it is fair to say no one had a clue what was going on. I’ve taken an hour since the close of play and I’m still none the wiser. The fact that tomorrow’s weather forecast for tomorrow is a little uncertain adds further difficulty in understanding the decision, but it is fair to say it’s caused a fair bit of debate.

Josh Davey, another Five-fer

Let’s be clear the declaration decision was never going to be an easy one, I was actively canvassing opinions on social media through the afternoon and there were a wide range of opinions then and many changes in them through the afternoon.

Jason Kerr regularly refers to wanting his side to play a positive brand of cricket which led me to conclude that a declaration setting Hampshire around 350 in the last day and a few overs was a reasonable bet. Set against that the pitch seems to have flattened out even more and without the twin threats of Craig Overton and Jack Leach, both especially potent in such situations, the chances of Hampshire surviving are enhanced. The high scoring draw seems to be the attractive and safe option or perhaps more correctly the risk involved in giving yourself enough time to bowl Hampshire out and seeing James Vince steer his side to an unlikely win too great.

Let’s fast forward 24 hours and imagine that scenario. The captain and coach would be pilloried with Hampshire leapfrogging Somerset to lead the Group by five points.  

My view before the game was that a high scoring draw would not be a bad result irrespective of what Gloucestershire did at Leicester. Leicestershire’s innings win means that if Somerset bat Hampshire out of the game and take the draw they would be clear of second place by 10 points and clear of third by 11. With two games still to go and Somerset’s two closest challengers, Hampshire and Gloucestershire playing each other in the last round that seems a pretty good outcome.

But of course, the temptation of going for the win is real. Should Somerset secure the win they would be 18 points clear of second, 27 clear of third and almost certain to qualify for the top division.

We will probably know more tomorrow morning when we see how Somerset approach the first hour but my belief is that Banton and Gregory will play positively from the outset and Somerset will pull out after 30 or 40 minutes. The equation would then by 400 for Hampshire in 80 overs and that is a risk Vince & Co won’t consider. The prevailing psychology in first-class cricket is that you have more chance of bowling out a team who have no prospect of winning and are utterly deflated. Perhaps Tom Abell and Jason Kerr have confidence that their bowlers only need 80 overs to complete the job.

The conundrums of the last fifteen minutes shouldn’t detract from what was another excellent day for the home side. Not only dd they dominate their opponents scoring quickly and easily but Davies, Abell and Bartlett did so in the “Somerset way” attractively and positively.   

By mid-afternoon, with the sun shining in Taunton, the Somerset faithful back in the County Ground and the captain Tom Abell closing in on a well-deserved, beautifully crafted hundred that had put his side in a commanding position in the game it was impossible to have a care in the world. 

It was so perfect that I imagined myself back with my Dad watching Viv Richards bat, the market still there across Priory Bridge Road and the sounds of the cattle mingling with the calls of the auctioneers. The farmers who used to stand on Priory Bridge and watch the game would have surely approved as their Tauntonian leader continued on his serene way.

It was perfect, too perfect. Two runs short of his ton Abell played perhaps his first false shot of the innings and was bowled by Felix Organ. Abell would have been quickly consoled on his return to the dressing room not only by the dominant position he had put his side into – the lead was 252 at tea, but also the news from Leicester that Gloucestershire had been beaten by an innings of the second week running. 

Abell’s dismissal slowed the progress of the second innings which would have changed the calculations in the home dressing room perhaps reducing the chance of a declaration before the close. The first hour after tea indicated as much with George Bartlett and Lewis Goldsworthy batting sensibly but still scoring surprisingly quickly, to the point where I was surprised when the 50 partnership came up.

George Bartlett – back to his elegant best

Bartlett, all Edwardian elegance and drives was finding his form, he really is a beautiful batsman to watch when he is batting like this. Goldsworthy, hampered by his “ankle niggle” less fluent but showing his character in determination in contributing to the fifth wicket partnership which reached 100 in the 78th over and took the lead to 355 with 7 overs left in the day.

The morning session had set the game up for the home side by virtue of the overnight pair in the first two overs of the day. When last man Brad Wheal was lbw to Davey (another five wicket haul for Josh) the lead was 49 and Somerset had more time to bat before lunch than they would have anticipated.

Poor Eddie Byrom was unable to stake his claim to be Devon Conway’s opening partner for the last two games dismissed for four (that a slightly streaky one) bringing Tom Abell to the crease early in the innings yet again. But he and Steve Davies quickly eased fears of a third innings collapse taking the side to 59-1 at lunch. The pair continued after lunch if anything even more fluently taking the second wicket stand to 139 in just 30 overs. Davies who perished 3 short of a deserved 50 in the first innings was 12 short of his century when Organ elicited an lbw verdict.

Davies aggregate of 129 in this match, his first opening this season, puts down a big marker and will provide more food for thought on the Somerset batting order against Leicester. I’m also very worried about James Hildreth. His poor run of scores shows no sign of ending as he continues to find ways to get himself out. He badly needs a good T20 campaign to restore his confidence.