Mixed Fortunes, Mixed Emotions

County Championship Division One, Somerset v Surrey, Taunton, Day 2 – Somerset 243-5 trail Surrey 380 All Out by 137 runs with 5 first innings wickets remaining, 

A game worthy of last season’s top two is unfolding at Taunton. After two days there is very little to choose between the two sides with each having had periods of ascendancy throughout the first two days. 

The morning session belonged to Somerset who bowled Surrey out for the addition of 50 runs, over half of which came in a frustrating last wicket stand. Having added 20 with Rikki Clarke in 10 overs and 45 minutes, a testament to Lewis and Craig’s control. Ironically it was a double bowling change which broke that stand, Jack Leach bowling Ryan Patel in his first over. Three overs later Groenewald struck getting Morkel caught behind for 1, and an over later Batty was gone LBW to Leach 352-9. 

Rikki Clarke has apparently scored more runs against Somerset that any other county. He added another 59 unbeaten (his seventh career score of 50 or more against Somerset) and with Conor McKerr added 28 for the last wicket before the McKerr was caught off Leach attempting something over-expansive 

Groenewald finished with 2-62 off 24 overs a return notable for its economy, thoroughly justifying his selection and proving once again that Jason Kerr knows a lot more about cricket than I do! Jack Brooks was unable to field or bowl due to a calf injury. Andy Hurry was quick to play down concerns in his lunchtime interview with the BBC but such injuries are a concern for quick bowlers and might be indicative of wider joint problems. It seems highly unlikely that Brooks will be fit for Warwickshire next Monday so the possibility of an immediate recall of Jamie from Northants appears highly likely. Overton, according to Charlie Taylor who is commentating at Old Trafford, bowled with considerable pace and hostility and much better than his 1-68 indicates. 

McKerr’s dismissal left Marcus and Azhar a nasty 20 minute spell to see out against Clarke and Morkel which they did to lunch at 10-0 off 5 overs. This sort of phase of a championship game is what makes the longer form first class game so wonderful. While we all enjoy the 50-over format given Somerset’s current success, a little spell like this, set in the context of the game and season is like no other. 

Being able to listen to the commentary of Anthony Gibson and Mark Church who are, while partisan in their support of their respective counties, proper cricket supporters. Gibson appreciative of the menace of Morkel, Church effusive in his adoration of an Azhar cover drive. Two consummate professionals with no media ego just a desire to share their enjoyment of the game we love. In a week where TMS is again letting itself down the powers that be at the BBC would do well to nurture Gibson, Church and their peers on the county commentary circuit.

Having lunched with a small sense of achievement of surviving that nasty spell, Trescothick went immediately after without adding to his solitary boundary. Having defended Marcus yesterday there is no doubt that 26 years and 2 days after he made his Championship debut for Somerset the great man is in desperate need of some runs.

We, as Somerset supporters in a horrible position. We have a team that is a very real championship contender. We also have a legend closing in, albeit painfully slowly, on the mythical mark set in the 50s by Harold Gimblett. All of us want nothing more than to see Tres’ making substantial runs and being an integral part of that side. But ever more vulnerable early in his innings is now the time to consider asking Banton to open with Azhar and move Marcus down to five? The logic is inescapable, Trescothick is more likely to flourish in such a less testing role away from the pressure and jeopardy of the new ball. The problem is such a move would involve dropping either Davies, with Tom taking the gloves, or George Bartlett or compromising the bowling depth. 

Where Next for Marcus?

Marcus’ dismissal heralded a sudden change in the direction of the day’s play. Whereas batting had been an Attritional task against quality bowling Azhar and James Hildreth proceeded to add 94 runs in 17 overs. It seemed midway through the session that Somerset were building a position to really put Surrey under pressure while the visiting bowlers were made to look distinctly ordinary.

But as abruptly as fortunes had swung in Somerset’s favour they swung against them with the dismissals of Azhar and the skipper as the introduction of the much despised Gareth Batty and reintroduction of Morne Morkel first slowed the run rate and then took the 2 wickets to reduce Somerset to 117-3 half an hour before tea. Azhar who had been imperious seemed to lose concentration while Abell inexplicably for a batsman of his class played perhaps the worst shot of the season to one of the worst balls of the season.

Pausing to reflect half way through the second day it is worth noting that Somerset had fought magnificently since mid-way through the final session of the first day reducing Surrey from 265-2 to 380 all out (115-8) and then reached 104-1 making the two careless dismissals of top order batsmen all the more annoying.

George Bartlett joined James Hildreth and the pair stabilised things up to tea to adjourn at 140-3. Bartlett seemed immediately at ease while Hildreth was purring and had reached 61 off 98 balls in just under 2 hours with 9 fours in that gorgeous way that only James Hildreth can.    

The final session began in identical fashion to the afternoon session with McKerr taking a wicket in the first over of the resumption this time removing George Bartlett palpably LBW this time Hildreth’s rebuilding job was in conjunction with Steven Davies. Davies, like Trescothick would have been aware of the growing clamour for Tom Banton to get a place in the championship side at his expense, unlike Trescothick able to respond with significant runs.

The partnership, while not as flowing as the earlier Hildreth / Azhar alliance, added a very good 70 when Hildreth was deceived by Rikki Clarke looking to push the ball into the onside and only succeeding in giving a return catch to the bowler. For the second time this season Hildreth perished in the 90s when something even more substantial seemed possible.

With another 18 overs to go in the day Somerset were grateful for the maturity of Lewis Gregory, curbing his natural attacking instincts to see out the day on 18 with Davies 54 not out. While they have only added 32 their joint contribution has closed a potential door of opportunity for Surrey.

James Hildreth’s post close of play assessment of the balance of the game being 60-40 in favour of Surrey might be a bit of a case of dressing room mind games rather than a fair assessment. His comment that the wicket is beginning to take spin and his hope that Somerset can build a position where we can “unleash Jack Leach on them” is perhaps more indicative of the mood in the home dressing room. 

Somerset will be hoping for the overnight two to push on tomorrow. With a new ball due in 12 overs there is every possibility that they will be able to take advantage of the harder ball. We all know what an hour of Gregory in his pomp could do and if Davies can avoid his recent propensity to get out early in a session when set Surrey might start their second innings with at best a slender lead and the momentum against them.

An intriguing third day awaits.

Perfection Required

So how did you sleep? How did you feel when you woke up this morning? For the first time in 2019 I woke with a Somerset Cricket sized knot in my stomach ahead of the final day of the Championship opener.

The simple score does not even begin to tell the story for Somerset fans – Somerset 171 and 171-7 lead Kent 209 by 133 runs.

Somerset’s players will be aware as they arrive at the County Ground this morning that their margin for error on the final day is minimal. To achieve an improbable victory not only will they need to add at least 50 more runs for the last three wickets but will then need all the bowlers to perform at or above the level achieved by Lewis Gregory and Josh Davey yesterday morning. 

The probability is that this is going another occasion where Somerset supporters, as well as the players, are going to have their intestinal fortitude tested as with the games against Notts, Essex and Lancashire last season.

It seems incredible that, after being outplayed in five of the six sessions played so far, and comprehensively so in at least three of those, Somerset should have any chance at all in this game as it goes into its final day. Comfortingly however, home fans know that this Somerset side has demonstrated on numerous occasions that it only needs one chance to press home an advantage.

The likely outcome of the final day will almost certainly be dictated by the pattern of yesterday. On a pitch with good pace, carry and even bounce the overhead conditions have been the determining factor in the balance between bat and ball. 

Somerset’s eighth-wicket pair of George Bartlett and Craig Overton, who batted with great maturity and composure at the end of yesterday’s final session will be hoping that a ball that is 58 overs old will not deviate much in the early overs to enable them to add to the 60 the accumulated last evening. In reality Somerset need at least another 50 if they are to give themselves a better than even chance of pulling off an improbable victory.

George Bartlett, Inspired Selection?

This position had been arrived at by a bowling performance of some quality to bowl Kent out for 209 from the overnight 84-2. It is likely that, if Jack Brooks had been anywhere near his best Kent’s total would have been much closer to or perhaps below Somerset’s 171. Brooks 1-70 in 20 overs contained too many “four balls” which meant that he was never able to build the pressure on the Kent batsman that Messrs Gregory, Overton and Davey did. Gregory by comparison conceded only 26 runs in 17 overs in taking 3 wickets while Overton 3-46 and Davey 2-40 were almost as parsimonious.

While it is understandable that Tom Abell wanted to get Jack Brooks up and running and delayed introducing himself into the attack until the very end, it was a generosity in such a low-scoring game that Somerset could not afford. Abell did what he usually does with the ball to finish with 1-3. He must show more confidence in his ability with the ball in the Kent second innings if one of the four more senior bowlers are not performing.

The first target for Somerset in their second innings was to clear off the arrears of 32 with no loss. The scale of their failure to do this was spectacular with, in order, Trescothick, Hildreth, Azhar Ali and Byrom all departing with the deficit not erased.

Tom Abell and Steven Davies for the second time in the match steadied the ship but when they got to tea Somerset’s lead was a slender 15. Strangely Heino Kuhn seemed to adopt a less attacking strategy after tea which gave the pair room to breathe and a previously unseen level of comfort at the crease. The pair stayed together for the next hour to give Somerset supporters hope but Mitchell Claydon removed both in the space of a couple of overs and when he added the scalp of Gregory Somerset were staring down the barrel of an ignominious defeat.  

Therein lies the problem for Somerset, if they are to post a defendable target, they will need a semblance of decent batting conditions, a fair amount of good fortune or a combination of both. But their bowlers will require assistance from the overhead conditions if they are to have a chance of bowling Somerset to victory.

Kent won 10 games in division 2 last season, half of those were achieved chasing a target in the fourth innings and while the standard of bowling in the majority of those games is well below what Somerset possess they will take confidence from chases of; 95-1 against Durham 95-1, 110-4 v Derbyshire 110-4, 195-3 against Glamorgan, 253-2 at Leicester and perhaps most relevantly 157-5 against Middlesex 157-5. All of those successful chases were achieved with the pair of Denly and Billings present. It will be interesting to see how Kent’s batsmen respond to the challenge in the absence of those two. 

The mental aspect of this last day is not to be ignored. Will Kent embrace the chance to get their season off to a surprising win or will the magnitude of the prize induce nerves which no batsman can afford in these conditions,

On Arthur Wellard’s birthday, my thoughts turned to another stalwart Somerset all-rounder, Graham Burgess. The opponents were Kent, the venue was the County Ground, but this was a Gillette Cup quarter-final. Somerset had reached the previous year’s final but seen their hopes of a first every trophy dashed by a Javed Miandad and Imran Khan inspired Sussex. 

Roll forward to the beginning of August the following year. Somerset won the toss and decided to bat in front of a packed house.  The ground had been full a couple of hours before the start but within but within an hour Somerset had been reduced to 45-4. When Viv and Botham departed with the total on 110 Burgess was left with the tail and Somerset’s hopes we in tatters.

“Budgie” made an unbeaten 50 and the last 4 wickets added 80. Like in 2019 the damage was done by another of Kent’s dibbly-dobblers Bob Woolmer who included both Richards and Botham in his 4-28. Kent needed to barely score at 3 runs an over to achieve their target. As ever in the Tancock family, my optimism was heavily counter-balanced by Dad’s pessimism.

What followed was quite simply one of the best couple of hours in Somerset history. Having reached 14-0 Kent subsided to 19-4 before Asif Iqbal and Chris Cowdrey came together. The offered the visitors brief hope taking the score to 40 before Botham and Burgess removed them both in quick succession. From 54-5 Kent were wiped away for 60 by Botham 3-15 and Garner a scarcely believable 5-11 to give Somerset victory by 130 runs. 

What odds on a Somerset victory by a similar margin today?

Somerset’s 2018 Season Reviewed – July

Par for the Course

Having ended June on a very down note Somerset desperately needed to bounce back but frustratingly the structure of the 2018 season meant that we would have to wait until the 22ndof July to resume Championship action. In the meantime, 5 T20 Blast fixtures spread over the next 20 days were the matter in hand.

While this is a review of the season I think this is an appropriate point to jump sideways and examine the way the fixtures work. It is clear to anyone who spends more than a few seconds looking at the way the summer panned out for Somerset that the ECB’s priority is not ensuring that the Division One sides have a balance schedule. Having played three pivotal Championship games in the last three weeks of June, potentially twelve days cricket in 20 days we now have a maximum of 200 overs (under 2 days equivalent) in the next 21. Even. More absurdly Somerset were sent to Lords on the Thursday evening in a floodlit game and then asked to play Glamorgan at Cardiff the following evening. Surely there was enough space in the schedule to avoid that.

I was thinking how my 16-year-old self, fresh from O Levels and with a whole summer to look forward to would have reacted to knowing there was no championship cricket at Taunton until 19thAugust and only 2 T20s. I would have been insufferable at best. 

I know it is only going to get better but it is when you take a more distant view of things that you realise how crazy this is. I am not suggesting more cricket just a better organisation of the existing number of games. Wouldn’t it be better to start the season a week later and slot that round of games into the first week of July? Surely 4 T20s in 10 days isn’t asking too much?

Anyway …. After that 19-day stretch Somerset were on a decidedly indifferent won 2 lost 2 pace. Surprisingly the opener against Gloucs wasn’t rain affected, inevitably Trego was the main man with 72* but surprisingly this time we were on the right end of a 6-wicket win.

This was followed by a home 8 wicket defeat to Kent and this time, with the rain arriving in Bristol, a four-wicket defeat in a shortened game. Just pause for a moment, that last sentence encapsulates so much of Somerset’s one-day cricket in 2018. We did not win a rain-affected game and against Kent and Gloucestershire we under-performed on virtually every occasion.

Almost a week after the defeat at Bristol Somerset beat Middlesex at Lords by 4 wickets with 2 overs to spare and the following evening saw off Glamorgan by 30 runs to at least keep them in the conversation in the south group.

The return of the opening fixture saw Somerset travel to Worcester in what for both sides, at opposite ends of the table, was a must win. Somerset were bolstered by the return of Tres and Jack Leach and the arrival, for the rest of the season of Azhar Ali to replace Matt Rensahw at the top of the order.

Batting first Somerset amassed 337 mainly due to nos 4,5 & 6. James Hildreth with 57 and Tom Abell and Steven Davies with 72 and 70 respectively. In reply Worcestershire trailed by 80 thanks to Josh Davey with 4-68 and the returning Jamie Overton 4-61. The latter reminded us all of what we have been missing with a sustained hostile performance which the Worcestershire batsmen were unable to cope with.  

Needing to press home their advantage Azhar Ali with 125 and Marcus (71) did just that enabling Somerset to declare on the third evening on 362-9. Crucially, with the wicket of Mooen Ali off the last ball of the day, Worcestershire closed on 50-2 still needing 392 on the last day.

Azhar Ali – Debut century at Worcester

The combination of Josh Davey and Jamie Overton repeating their first innings wicket hauls saw Worcestershire reduced to 165-9. Jamie Overton finished the match with figures of 31-6-143-8, vindication of the management and rehabilitation of him by Jason Kerr and Andy Hurry and a huge boost to Jamie and the rest of us for the remainder of the season.

But as ever with Somerset that was not the end of things. Debutant wicketkeeper Alex Milton and fully paid up member of the No11s club, Steve Magoffin, proceeded to add 136 for the last wicket before Craig Overton wrapped up a 22-point 144 run victory. The only consolation for the Worcestershire last pair was that they set a new record for the club surpassing the previous best set at the beginning of the last century against ….. Somerset.

Although the result was never really in doubt from the moment Moeen fell on the third evening the frustration and creeping doubt was agonising for all of us. While the victory moved us back into second in the table Surrey opened the gap further with a maximum point victory of their own, this time by an innings and 183 runs.

July ended with a rain affected T20 defeat at the Oval and a dominant win at Taunton against Middlesex to end the month P6 W3 L3. Clearly an improvement was needed if Somerset were to progress to the Quarter finals at the end of August.