Happy Hildyday

Somerset, led from the front by James Hildreth have taken a significant if not decisive step to clinching their place in division one of the 2021 County Championship when it resumes in six weeks. The fact that Surrey’s seamers picked up three wickets in the last hour took a little of the lustre off the day and reduced the visitors’ dominance. There is still much to be done but this was a day which belonged to our Hildy.

Surrey v Somerset, County Championship Group 2, The Oval, July 11th to 14th 2021, Somerset first innings 280-6 Hildreth 107, Lammonby 42

When you get to my age people give up asking, “what would you like for your birthday?” If they had I might well have said a James Hildreth hundred at The Oval on Sunday. We’ve all been worried about the great man’s form but hoped that there was a resurgence just around the corner. Not only did the acting captain deliver, as he so often has, when most needed, but he did so in a way that, for those of us who have been following the county club for the last 16 years in a way both familiar to and loved by us. 

Three key bits of news at 10.30 at The Oval. No Tom Abel, no Josh Davey, toss won by James Hildreth. For me the first was devastating, clearly there has been a setback in the skippers recovery given that he was sprinting last week. The second disappointing although reassuring – my fear that Josh would play and break down was a risk I didn’t want to take.

The far more positive news was that James Hildreth called successfully and, on a surface that all anticipated would favour the spinners, got first use of the track with Jack Leach back in the side. If you were still not convinced of the likely dominance of spin by both sides picking three spinners the sight of Ravi Ashwin bowling the first over of the day should have convinced you.

In a reprise of the World Test Championship last month Devon Conway found himself facing Ashwin and initially seemed to be benefitting from that extended net. Alongside Steven Davies the openers had moved serenely to 31 when Jordan Clark got one through Devon’s defences at the end of the 12th over.

I suspect I wasn’t alone in being filled with trepidation when the man who has almost become the linchpin of this Somerset side in a couple of weeks (see Chelmsford and Southampton) was dismissed. No disrespect to Steven Davies intended as the former Surrey man was purring already but more a concern at the other end as the woefully out of form Tom Lammonby marched out at 3.

Somerset’s new No3 Tom though was looking far more like the stellar 2020 incarnation of himself. Less frenetic, more measured and more in control of himself. He survived to lunch with increasing confidence but had lost Davies with the score on 78.

James Hildreth joined Lammonby similarly in need of runs and confidence. You could almost see the determination like an aura around the skipper as he battled ball after ball to find his touch. For a man who has always seemed completely at ease at the crease the struggles of the last two years must be a combination of agony and inexplicability. 

At the other end, slowly, Lammonby began to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis his batting becoming more a thing of beauty with each over. He had moved onto 42 off just 89 balls with five 4s and a 6 when he was bowled by Ashwin. If, as the sages say, class is permanent Lammonby will take heart from this innings and see it as an important turning point. He is one who can look forward with relish to the imminent One-Day Cup.

Tom Lammonby – signs of his 2020 form returning

Lammonby’s departure meant Hildreth was joined by Lewis Goldsworthy and for the next 50 overs a pattern was set which will have provided further warming to the Somerset hearts. Neither were scoring particularly quickly but that was not the requirement here. The objective was to build a base not just for this game but to seal that all-important Division One place.

The first two bonus points were accrued by the fourth wicket pair as they added 144 in a way that most of us would happily see repeated week after week – calm, diligent and nerve-calming. But, as is the way in the harsh reality that is four-day cricket, having got through to tea and seen their side into that zone where bonus points come along regularly they were faced with another task that had become primary – to see the side through to the close unscathed. You anticipated if the could not do this it was likely that Somerset’s promisingly dominant position would be eroded.

Goldsworthy having just passed his previous first-class best was dismissed in that most unfortunate way for any batsman at any level (OK run out at the non-strikers end backing up runs it close) caught down the leg side two short of his fifty.

Lewis Goldsworthy – a mature and crucial 48

George Bartlett, the third of the Somerset middle-order triumvirate came and went in short order, completely deceived by Rikki Clarke lbw. Having nominated George to be Somerset’s leading run-scorer this season on Charlie Taylor’s pre-season Cricket Show I’ve lived every agony with him this season. 

When your trying to preserve wickets in the last half-hour of the day, there are many who, wonderful cricketer that he is, would not nominate Roelof van der Merwe to calm the nerves. At the other end Hildy had already been in the nineties for some time and on 99 for a fair part of that. As I said in my preview Somerset cricket does not have “straightforward” in its DNA. But van der Merwe saw it through calmly on 6 off 14 balls especially against the two Clark(e)s with a new ball in their hands. No small achievement especially as Hildreth, with ten minutes to the close, in ironically the 96th over, lost his off-stump to the persevering Jordan without a “e’. 

James Hildreth celebrates is hundred – courtesy Sir Peter Wanless

At the close Surrey had, with their three spinners combining to deliver 65 overs rattled through a total of 98 in a day that ended on the stork of 6pm. Perhaps the England football team is the answer to slow over rates! 

Somerset who seem to have eschewed batting bowling points for a first innings total that makes the game safe although that is not merely a function of aggregate runs but time taken out of the game. If the last four bat beyond lunch surely both those objectives will be close especially against a Surrey side who, when Somerset passed 250 lost their incredibly slim mathematical chance of getting into the top division.

Then again, if there were to be a repeat of last Monday’s pyrotechnics……..

There will be those in the Somerset cricket universe who won’t be happy with this, seeing the failure to secure more bonus points in the context of the division. Sadly there are always those who will not be happy whatever is achieved.

Spare a thought for Jamie Overton. I desperately want him to succeed even though he is no longer at Somerset but I’m sure Mark and Helen will allow me to suspend that desire when their younger twin plays against us. What I don’t want to happen is for injury to play a part in that but sadly Jamie was unable to field after lunch the result of a painful blow in a place best not described here.

At Cheltenham College Gloucestershire, in a game that mid-afternoon was moving along at a pace that suggested a positive result when the home side slumped to 173-6 Hampshire’s progress was halted firstly by a Taylor / Price seventh wicket partnership and then the rain. They closed on 214-6.