Division One Baby

At just after 11:10 this morning Hampshire reached 331-5 off 110 overs at Cheltenham College. As a result their bonus points haul was capped and Somerset, who had started bowling in the Surrey first innings needing to take six wickets and pick up two more bonus points, had sealed their spot in Division One for the final phase of this year’s County Championship despite not having taken a Surrey wicket at the time.

Surrey v Somerset, County Championship Group 2, The Oval, July 11th to 14th 2021, Somerset 429 (Hildreth 107, Lammonby 42) lead Surrey 239-8 by 190 runs

What a strange day. Having clinched their place in Division One when the County Championship resumes on 30thAugust you would have thought that all Somerset’s supporters would be watching their side intently but all eyes were focussed intently 98 miles to the west where Gloucestershire and Hampshire continue to battle it out to join Tom Abell’s side in the top echelon.  

Hampshire, who Somerset supporters would prefer to see in Division One with them for reasons of points accrued and carried forward as well as local hostility, continued on their serene way through the afternoon extending their lead to 257 Nick Gubbins who had made 21 & 37 against Somerset at Lords in the opening game of the season and now a resident in the Hampshire middle order leading the way with an unbeaten 137 when the declaration came just after 3.

Gloucestershire who will probably need to bat until tea tomorrow closed on 107-3 having lost the key wicket of James Bracey in the final session. They trail by 150 runs putting, in my view, Hampshire as firm favourites.

Meanwhile Jack Leach and Roelof van der Merwe were drawing my attention back to Kennington…… 

Somerset’s bowlers were good in the first session despite only picking up the one wicket just before lunch. Burns and Stoneman were kept in check to the extent that only 75 was added in the session. They were even better after lunch keeping Stoneman and Amla in check although the latter was racing along compared to his last innings in this competition. Only 37 were added in the first hour after lunch for the loss of one wicket as principally van der Merwe and de Lange tightened the screw with fine spells. Jack Leach, who had been the catcher for Burns dismissal before lunch was the successful bowler to remove the other opener Stoneman thanks to a beautiful catch by Steven Davies.

Leach was looking every inch the Test spinner by mid-afternoon causing frequent problems with turn and bounce which troubled even Hashim Amla who, bamboozled completely by Taunton Deane’s finest, succumbed coming down the wicket in the 62nd over when an attempted clip through the leg side could only loop gently back to the bowler. 136-1 had become 145-3 in 6 overs.

Surrey’s approach seemed slightly puzzling at this time. While a place in the top division was no longer an option there was a very real prospect that Leicestershire could overhaul them for a place in tier 2 when Middlesex slumped to 17-4 in their second innings. Having made a positive start first thing their rate of progress slowed markedly due in no small part to the excellence of Leach and Co, but there was little sign of any positive ambition as their innings meandered along. In truth the anaemic surface in south London probably isn’t helping either side but it is disappointing for the neutral to see a side with such resources reduced to this. From a Somerset point of view, it is wonderful!

Tea arrived on the stroke of 4pm when Jack Leach picked up his third, Jamie Smith caught behind by Steven Davies. Leach 3-33 off 22.1 overs at this point and the follow-on looming into view with Surrey becalmed on 178-4. 

Steven Davies, “The ball melts into his gloves”

It got even better for Leach immediately after tea getting Ashwin first ball. With the old ball assisting Leach and van der Merwe the former all calm confident control, the epitome of undemonstrative, the latter a bundle of aggressive energy who seems to genuinely believe that pretty much every ball he bowls should have taken a wicket. The over rate continued to soar, the run rate continued to decline and Surrey’s discomfort showed no sign of easing. Wonderful.

Ryan Patel was next to go, Leach’s fifth victim forced to sweep something he shouldn’t have done was superbly caught by Devon Conway running back to square leg tumbling but holding on. With 25 overs left in the day prospects of wrapping up the Surrey innings seemed good but the two Clark(e)s provided sterner resistance albeit helped by the need to rest the spinners and take the new ball. They had added 42 in 21 overs when Roelof got Jordan Clark and then in his next but one over Jamie Overton. Still 41 short of saving the follow-on Rikki Clarke will start the day with just Virdi and Moriarty to support him.

I’d hope that, despite the overs they have already bowled Somerset will, if the opportunity presents itself enforce the follow-on. The chance of completing the win is there and while the bowlers have worked hard today this is a first outing for Jack Leach in the Championship since May while van der Merwe will for sure not be concerned about another long day. This was another fascinating day which emphasised what quality and depth Jason Kerr has at his disposal.

This though is an achievement by Somerset that deserves a moment to reflect on. It is fair to say that the batting has underperformed, that the bowling has not been at the level it was last season and that at times the out-cricket was not of the best. It is fair to say that injuries, international call-ups and some significant losses of form throughout the majority of the group phase were all factors which have been overcome.

The loss at home to Gloucestershire was the only blot on a campaign which achieved its objectives and overcame the eight-point penalty they started the season with. Superb victories at Lords, Leicester and Southampton and a rain ruined dominant performance at Bristol were the highlights. To be uber critical the home form needs to improve if a serious title challenge is to be sustained.

It looks almost certain that already qualified Somerset, Lancashire and Yorkshire will be joined by Notts and Warwickshire. I just hope we avoid a trip to soulless Edgbaston.  

But for now let’s all enjoy the achievement and sit back, relax and watch other teams sweat it out tomorrow.