Chelmsford - A test of a Match
By Farmer White et al
June 24 2019
Jack and the CC1 boys are back in action in Essex against one of our challengers for the ultimate Somerset prize. Chelmsford is the ground and we hope to see our bowlers once more on form and our batsmen in a little better nick as we seriously look at putting the Championship beyond the grasp of our nearset rivals early in the 2019 season. Farmer is there for us and his reports are being produced on a seperate thread to enable the forum thread to run more speedily for the mobile users at the ground. Let me know how it goes.
County Championship Division 1. Essex v Somerset. 23rd, 24th, 25th and 26th June. Chelmsford.
Toss. Essex. Elected to bat.
First day. 23rd June – A test of a match
Somerset travelled to Chelmsford for the greatest test of their Championship ambitions to date. This is Somerset’s seventh match in the competition, they have won five of the previous six, but it is their first against a county in the top half of the table. It is also against Essex, perhaps Somerset’s strongest challengers, on the ground where Essex have won every Championship match this season. Key to Essex’s success has been Stephen Harmer’s off spin and the 31 wickets he has taken on a pitch which has a reputation for increasing turn as a match progresses. When Essex won the toss and elected to bat they handed themselves the prospect of building a score which Harmer could exploit.
By lunch they must have felt they were well on their way to achieving that aim. And I was well on my way to arriving at the ground. The vagaries of the Sunday railway timetable being such that the earliest I could arrive at Chelmsford from the far end of Somerset was a few minutes after lunch. The trains, to give them their due, all ran perfectly to their timetable. Not unlike the Essex innings I concluded as my trains were chased all the way to Chelmsford by a series of texts keeping me up to date with the score. Whether the purpose of the texts was to inform or torment I leave the reader to determine.
They arrived as follows:
10.50: “Lost toss. Essex batting. Groenewald in for Craig Overton.”
11.32: “Looks like you are missing an Essex masterclass.”
11.42: “43 for 0. 10.3 overs.”
12.14: “64 for 1.”
12.34: “77 for 1.”
12.48: “94 for 1.”
13.00: “110 for 1”
It was a bit like being pummelled unmercifully by some unseen force as thoughts of Essex building a gargantuan score for Harmer to play with formed in my mind. I didn’t dare ask if the one wicket was Cook. The news was bad enough as it was. I arrived at the ground just after lunch with the score on 117 for 1 with, inevitably, Cook still batting. From the gate I was escorted to the ticket desk in the Essex shop, that being the only place you can buy a four-day ticket at just under half the price of buying four separate single tickets on the gate. The thing that was immediately obvious as I was taken to buy my ticket was the size of the crowd. Very large in Championship terms. As large as any you will see at Taunton although it was more tightly packed because of the smaller confines of the ground.
Armed with my ticket I emerged from behind the Pavilion to see Jamie Overton streaming in and delivering a perfectly directed bouncer at Westley who looked hurried into the hook and edged the ball with the faintest of touches straight into Davies’ patiently waiting gloves. 126 for 2. Westley 36. When Overton runs in like that it is a sight to behold and to be treasured. A fast bowler ‘in his pomp’ and at the top of his form is one of the great sights of cricket. It is the sort of arrival at a match you do not forget quickly.
“He looks a bit sharp, this lad,” said an approaching Essex supporter. When Overton bowls like that, and increasingly he does bowl like that, he does indeed look a ‘bit sharp’. A Somerset supporter added that the ball with which Overton bowled Browne had been a beautifully directed ball, “a peach” a later text described it as, although Browne had not played a stroke. Such dismissals are usually attributed to misjudgements made by the batsman. In a sense leaving a ball which goes on to hit the stumps can only be a misjudgement but I do wonder how often such misjudgements are, in part at least, brought about by the quality and penetrating persistence of top quality fast bowling.
It was now that I noticed the Somerset flag was at half-mast and the players were wearing black arm bands in remembrance of Somerset’s late Chairman, Charles Clark, who died last week. There had been a minute’s silence before the start of the match and the Essex flag was also at half-mast and their players also wore black arm bands. There had been a minute’s silence before the start of play as cricket honoured one of its own.
I stood behind the Tom Pearce Stand at the River End for a while chatting to the Essex supporter about ground developments. I first went to Chelmsford in 1986. The Cooper Associates County Ground has been almost completely redeveloped since that time. The ground at Chelmsford is virtually unchanged. It looks its age but for anyone who hankers after ‘the old days’ of county grounds Chelmsford is probably the one, floodlights apart, most frozen in time. Some things may be moving on though for an echo of the old days, the roving scorecard seller of my last two visits, was not in evidence on this occasion. Perhaps a window on the past has closed for I have not come across one at any other ground in recent times.
One Somerset supporter thought the bowling in the morning had not been quite of the intensity and standard it has reached for most of this season. Neither had it been quite so cloudy as it was during the afternoon and for most of the evening session. As the afternoon warmed up the cloud covered the sky and the bowlers found their mark. At least Gregory found Lawrence’s pad with a ball which cut in sharply as the batsman tried to work it to leg. 138 for 3. It still seemed a good score in the context of a match in which spin was expected to become a factor later in the game and in which Cook still loomed large at the other end.
For the committed supporter the balance of a match can make a greater impact than the actual quality of the play. The quality of the play is seen. The balance of the match is felt. And for the Somerset supporter this year there is another layer to be experienced. The balance of matches is increasingly being felt in the context of a possible first Championship for Somerset. As long as the Championship remains a realistic possibility that feeling will grow. With Essex starting this match 30 points behind Somerset a victory for Essex would at least halve that gap and act as a chill reminder that the Championship will have to be fought for all the way to the line. But one of the joys of watching this Somerset team has been the way in which, time and again, they have worked their way back into matches where they have fallen behind.
I worked my way around to the Felsted Stand and found a seat in the front row. There are often front row seats there because the sun can roast their occupants after lunch. With no sun you can comfortably sit in a seat within touching distance of boundary fielders. “Will we see Essex bowl?” asked a child of her Essex parent. “Only if Essex collapse badly,” the horrified reply. With that Bopara tried to pull Gregory, a replay suggests the ball moved away off the pitch, and skied the ball to Brooks at midwicket. 147 for 4. Cue exasperated sigh from parent. Somerset were beginning to redress the balance of the match. Leach was bowling from the River End and barely conceding two runs an over. Even Cook seemed to be affording him due care and attention and the pressure was beginning to build on the Essex batsmen.
As Cook and Ten Doeschate tried to hold on to what still felt like Essex’s advantage the bowling began to impose that vice-like grip that has been a feature of Somerset’s season and the scoring rate began to grind rather than flow. It was the sort of situation that nurtures tension. Not yet intense but the signs were beginning to develop. A quiet was beginning to descend on the ground although it was broken by smatterings of chatter as the scoring rate tightened up. As Leach tied up the River End the pace bowlers rotated from the Hayes Close End. The Essex innings was turning into an ‘old-fashioned’ Championship tussle and it just felt as if the bowlers were getting on top.
Cricket can create moods depending on how the play is going. Joy at a side moving into a winning position, despair when it moves into a losing one. Sometimes though it seems as if moods create the cricket. It seemed like that here. As the tension ratcheted up Essex became increasingly bogged down, especially compared with their swift progress in the morning. The Somerset bowlers piled on the pressure. Something, it seemed, had to give. When Overton bowled another ‘peach’ which cut in sharply off the pitch ten Doeschate was too late with his desperate jab down and the ball crashed into the pads. Even from square the raising of the finger seemed inevitable. 166 for 5.
You could ‘hear’ the tension now. At times the ground was almost silent although the apparently disconnected smatterings of chatter continued first from one part of the stand and then another. But still Cook, that interminable obstacle, or rock, depending on your point of view stood firm although the exquisite boundaries with which he had apparently festooned the morning were now virtually extinct and eventually even he succumbed. Groenewald managed to find the edge from where the ball found the pad and looped in a fairly gentle arc to gully where, running hard across from second slip, Overton made a difficult catch look easy. 182 for 6. Cook 80. Just how precious that 80 will be for Essex remains to be seen but no other Essex batsman reached 40. If the ball continues its lateral movement it could turn out to have been an absolutely crucial innings.
Tea was taken at 192 for 6 with the general opinion of those I spoke to being that 250 would be a good score on that pitch. This year is the 40th anniversary of Essex winning their first ever trophy, the Benson and Hedges Cup. They also won the Championship in that year. Co-incidentally 1979 was also the year in which Somerset won their first two trophies, the Gillette Cup and the John Player League. In the tea interval several members of the Essex Benson and Hedges team were presented to the crowd. They included Keith Fletcher, Graham Gooch, Jon Lever, Ray East, David Acfield and Stuart Turner. What an anniversary 2019 will create for Somerset cricket if the Championship challenge can be sustained through the forthcoming matches against the top half of the table.
The evening session was one of those passages in a match which seems to last interminably but which grips the attention relentlessly. Only 56 runs were scored in it and just five wickets fell but the amount of nervous energy burnt was enormous. The Somerset bowlers bowled, if that were possible, even more tightly than they had before tea and the pressure on the batsmen intensified as they focused almost entirely on keeping the ball out, just squeezing the occasional run where they could. Such pressure tells and when Groenewald moved a ball away slightly from Wheater he edged it towards Hildreth at first slip, Davies dived across and took the catch just as Hildreth’s hands seemed to have it lined up. 197 for 7. From a Somerset perspective it was a tremendous transformation from 110 for 1 at lunch but the potential value of that 110 in a low-scoring match could not help but tug at the mind. But Somerset were, as they say, where they were and they worked their way quickly forward from there. The last three batsmen in the order all fell to Leach in quick time as Essex went from 211 for 7 to 216 all out to now almost complete silence from the Essex crowd as the tension bit hard at their nerve ends.
That left Somerset to face what promised to be a difficult final hour as the humidity continued to build and the light began to fade. Abell drove Porter’s first ball through the covers for four. Porter’s immediate response was a piercing yorker which Abell had to jab hard down on to survive. In his next over Porter was beautifully cut behind square by Azhar for another four but the picture of that last hour is of the batsmen playing with the utmost care, being beaten past the outside edge, and past the inside edge onto the pads to appeals that had the sound of conviction about them. By 5.30 the lights were on and the Somerset run rate of precisely two runs an over confirms a tale of gritty survival very occasionally punctuated by an aggressive stroke from Abell. It was no surprise when Porter found the edge of Azhar’s bat for he could have found the edge of either batsman’s bat a number of times with a millimetre or two more or less of movement.
That Somerset reached the close on 32 for 1 with Abell, now accompanied by Groenewald as nightwatchman, on 22 left two thoughts in the mind. It had been a tremendously disciplined and skilful piece of batting by Somerset’s opening pair. In the conditions and against the quality of bowling they faced it had been quite an achievement to lose only one wicket. At the same time it showed the size of the task ahead on a pitch giving help to the bowlers and in overhead and atmospheric conditions ideal for swing bowling. There is an awful lot for the Somerset batsmen to do on the second day when the conditions are expected to be very similar to the first. This does indeed look like being a match which will test Somerset prospects in the matches to come against the better teams in the division.
Close. Essex 216 (Sir A.N. Cook 80, M.J. Leach 3-30, J. Overton 3-43). Somerset 32 for 1. Somerset trail by 184 runs with nine first innings wickets standing
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Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 2019:06:28:16:35:30 by Grockle.
The report on the first day of the Essex match - A test of a match - can be found on my website home page at:
Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 2019:06:24:14:35:58 by Grockle.
It is also reproduced in full here:
County Championship Division 1. Essex v Somerset. 23rd, 24th, 25th and 26th June. Chelmsford.
Overnight. Essex 216. Somerset 32 for 1. Somerset trail by 184 with nine first innings wickets standing.
Second day. 24th June – Somerset fall behind
The morning of the second day was very like the afternoon of the first, at least as far as the behaviour of the ball, pitch, overhead and atmospheric conditions were concerned. The dominance of bowlers over batsmen was equally pronounced on both occasions. On the first afternoon and evening Essex lost their last nine wickets in the space of 90 runs. Now, on the second morning and early afternoon Somerset lost their last nine wickets in the space of 77 runs. Food there to feed the debate about whether an individual’s prospects are most shaped by their endeavours or by their circumstances. Here the circumstances, or conditions, in which each side bowled and batted were the same and, unless 13 runs is cause for dispute, so were the outcomes. The difference between the sides on first innings was the 110 runs scored for the loss of one wicket in the much more batsman friendly conditions of the first morning.
The second morning began with me arriving for the first ball, not always an achievement I can claim when I have written a report about the previous day. As I walked along the Hayes Close End towards a seat in the Felsted Stand I stopped next to the sight screen to watch an over from Siddle bowled from the far end. Twice he bowled down the leg side to Abell, not something I imagine he does by accident. Twice Abell tried to flick the ball, twice he missed although once to the tune of four leg byes. I wondered, as I did with Rikki Clarke at Guildford in 2017, if Siddle was playing to Abell’s one-time apparent propensity to be ‘strangled’ by that stroke. Fortunately Abell seems less susceptible to the edge off that stroke these days.
As I turned to move on I was passed by the scorecard seller who I had not seen on the first day. That old tradition is not yet dead at Chelmsford it seems. I can also confirm that this year the ice cream van at Chelmsford sold scoop ice cream from the start and had supplies of vanilla,
Somerset’s progress was as slow and stilted as was not uncommon in the heyday of scorecard sellers half a century and more ago. As I took my seat Abell and Groenewald were battling with the hostile and accurate bowling of Siddle and Porter. Impossible to be sure from square but everything pointed to at least some balls moving either in the air or off the seam. It was a gruelling watch as Somerset’s score struggled to advance at above the two runs an over at which it had ended the first day. A gruelling watch but a curious listen. The tension in the air was palpable as, with the match in the balance, both sets of supporters saw their hopes and fears jostled about as each ball was defended, passed the bat or occasionally went for runs. The result was a heavy ‘quiet’ from the two sets of supporters punctuated by applause for a run or a beaten bat. Although if you were in the Felsted Stand the whole thing was enveloped in the constant high-pitched noise which came from what can only be described as an aviary of schoolchildren at one end.
In the middle Somerset could not break free from two runs an over in part because Groenewald played the nightwatchman role to perfection and simply closed Essex’s opening bowlers down at one end. Abell scored such runs as came but a rare boundary only came courtesy of a thick edge. When he was out it was lbw for 36 to a ball from Porter that, according to highlight footage, cut back into him viciously at pace. Somerset were 54 for 2 and the descent through those 77 runs and nine wickets had begun. Abell’s departure after half an hour, brought a comment of, “That didn’t take long,” from an Essex voice tinged with hope and it left an uncomfortable feeling in the Somerset mind. Somerset were still 162 behind and the run rate had barely crawled its way to 2.1 an over. In the prevailing conditions batting at two an over against Siddle and Porter, and perhaps Harmer when his turn came, gave no realistic prospect of Somerset matching the Essex score.
Perhaps that was what drove what followed. Groenewald, having scored two from 42 balls, suddenly launched into a lofted on drive against Siddle, cleared midwicket and tripled his score. When Beard replaced Porter, Hildreth started to attack and turned him behind square for three whilst Groenewald drove expansively at him and was caught by Westley at slip off a ball which swung away late. It might have accounted for a better batsman than Groenewald intent on attack. 63 for 3 and the tense quiet had been transformed into an Essex buzz. When Hildreth pulled Beard and top-edged to just backward of the empty square leg position Browne charged across from midwicket, always looked just out of range, and then judged a full-length dive perfectly to take the catch with his fingers scorching the grass as they went and Somerset supporters looking on with dropped jaws at the stroke and at the catch.
If the strokes of Groenewald and Hildreth had been the intended start of an attempt to break the pressure of the two-runs-an-over straightjacket by attacking the new bowler it had imploded spectacularly. Banton’s dismissal was more orthodox. A forward defensive sroke to a ball from Beard which perhaps swung away just enough to take the edge and for Wheater to take the catch low to his right in front of first slip. 54 for 1 had become 68 for 5 and suddenly Somerset were staring the prospect of defeat in the face on a pitch with a reputation for becoming more difficult as a match progresses.
Davies, so often a steadying if not heavily scoring influence in the middle order this season, drove Beard through the covers with not much more than a gentle push, the ball just beating Browne and ten Doeschate to the boundary in front of me. As they gave up the chase just short of the rope ten Doeschate said something to Browne with what I interpreted to be an ‘knowing’ look on his face. Davies repeated the stroke to the next ball and it floated to ten Doeschate at mid-on. The ball gave the impression of having ‘stopped’ but, and it was doubtless no more than the ramblings of an over-interpretive thought, I did wonder what ten Doeschate had said to Browne. Whatever it was the score was 74 for 6, Somerset still 142 adrift and the scoring rate for the innings had only just reached 2.3.
There is usually some resistance in the midst of a collapse, either from a single batsman or from a partnership. Somerset’s came from Bartlett and Gregory in a seventh wicket partnership of 40. It was scored at four runs an over with some of the positivity which these two tend to show at the crease. IPositivity comes with attendant risk and they sometimes need a slither of luck to make progress. Bartlett drove Beard through the on side for three and Gregory drove him through the covers or four as they looked like they might take runs from him. Harmer replaced Siddle at the River End but made no progress against the batsmen and they made no progress against him. Before we could see where that little contest would go light rain fell and after playing on for a while the umpires took the players off more it seemed because the pitch was getting wet than because the players were. 90 for 6.
After the interval Essex reverted to Siddle and Porter and Bartlett and Gregory tried to take Somerset forward. Almost immediately Bartlett glanced Siddle, steered Porter past slip and drove him through the covers, all for four and gaining the accolade of “Nice shot!” from the Essex supporter behind me. Gregory lofted Siddle over midwicket and drove him through extra cover, “Good shot!”, and both for four. But Porter and Siddle were equal to the task. Gregory was caught at slip for 14 off a ball from Porter which seemed to lift and Bartlett was lbw to Siddle for 25 seemingly trying to clip the ball to leg and Somerset were 120 for 8. A ten run flurry from Overton ended when he pulled another lifting ball from Porter straight to Browne at deep square leg and Brooks lost his middle stump when another ball from Porter went straight through his drive. 131 all out. A deficit of 88 and those 110 Essex runs on the first morning weighed havily indeed. The helpfulness of the conditions to the pace bowlers can perhaps be gauged by the fact that Harmer, Essex’s destroyer-in-chief at Chelmsford this season, only bowled six overs and that Siddle and Porter bowled 38 of the 49 overs in the Somerset innings.
I watched the first hour of the Essex second innings from next to the sightscreen at the Hayes Close End. The bowling came from Gregory and Overton. Gregory was swinging the ball in to the right-hander and Overton got some lift and away movement off the seam. Most of Essex’s initial runs came from Browne repeatedly driving Brook’s full balls, pitched just outside off, for four. A repeat of the first innings I was told. When Groenewald replaced Brooks he pitched a little shorter and Browne, playing back edged him to gully where Gregory indulged in a little juggling but caught the ball one-handed in the end. Essex 43 for 1. Browne 29. Lead 131.
When Jamie Overton got a ball to rear up at Westley the edge ballooned towards gully where Leach homed in to take the catch. 72 for 2. Westley 12. Lead 160. Essex were moving forward at four an over. When Gregory produced a bit of extra lift to Lawrence he edged the ball to Davies for 21. Essex were 104 for 3 with a lead of 192 and it began to feel like one of those matches where one side is so far ahead you wait for the declaration, not that anyone was expecting Essex to declare. At 125 Sir Alistair Cook, on 47, edged Groenewald to Overton at slip where Overton scooped the catch from between his ankles just as Trescothick might have done had he been stood there. Cook had played an almost invisible innings with only four boundaries mainly behind square on the off side. Like many of his innings I have seen it hardly set the blood running but it was mightily effective for all that.
When Groenewald pushed a straight ball through ten Doeschate and Davies took the ‘feathered’ catch Essex were 134 for 5 and three wickets had fallen in the space of 30 runs. The heart said Somerset were edging their way back into the match. The head looked at the pattern of the match thus far and an Essex lead of 222 with five wickets standing and overruled the heart. Another 29 runs followed from Bopara and Wheater before Overton moved a ball off the seam and down the leg side causing Bopara to lift an attempted push to leg into the hands of Bess fielding substitute at short midwicket.
Play ended early when, even with the lights on, it was demonstrably too dark to play. As I walked back along the Hayes Close end to leave the ground a couple a few thoughts rambled around in an otherwise empty mind. It had been stiflingly hot all day, particularly in the morning. More uncomfortable than on the first day. I felt as if I had spent the day wearing a raincoat in a greenhouse. Wickets though, for both sides seemed to have more to do with movement off the pitch than in the air. Gregory was moving the ball but the swing was long and slow rather than sudden and late. Groenewald’s length had been more effective than Brooks’. Overton was the pick of the bowlers with his lift and movement off the seam but Groenewald was not too far behind. It still felt like Somerset had a chance, perhaps because of the loss of those four Essex wickets before the end, but my head would have none of it. The series of short partnerships between the wickets had kept Essex well ahead. The head concluded that with continuing movement off the seam and Somerset already needing by some way the highest score of the match any thoughts of a win were perhaps more suited to the writing of fiction than fact.
My head also tried to put Somerset’s position in the Championship into context. The fears I had expressed before the start of the match that the strongest teams were yet to be played had not been assuaged. Essex are Somerset’s nearest challengers, much nearer after this match it seems. But, and there is a but, all three of their victories have been at home, all three batting first. They have not outplayed opposition away from home and after this match they have four away games to three at home. For Essex to win the Championship they will have to start winning away from home. Their bowling has been heavily dependent on Harmer, Porter and Siddle although based on the evidence of this match so far Beard should not be underestimated. Somerset seem to have deeper reserves of bowlers and that may become increasingly important as the season wears on.
Winning the Championship was never going to be easy and it is likely to become even harder after today but looked at in the round it is still very much all to play for.
Close. Essex 216 and 164 for 6. Somerset 131 (J.A. Porter 5-51, A.P. Beard 4-23). Essex lead by 249 runs with four second innings wickets standing.
However for those with a masochistic desire to relive the last day here it is - entitled Routed - via this link to my website home page:
It is also reproduced in full here:
County Championship Division 1. Essex v Somerset. 23rd, 24th and 25th June. Chelmsford.
Overnight. Essex 216 and 164 for 6. Somerset 131. Essex lead by 249 runs with four second innings wickets standing.
Final day. 25th June – Routed
Perhaps Guildford 2018 should have sprung into my mind as Somerset were being routed on the third day at Chelmsford in 2019. But it didn’t. It has appeared there now but only because I have been searching for a benchmark against which to measure my feelings during the inexorable descent to a 151-run defeat to Essex in a low scoring match. There is a distinct difference between the two defeats. Guildford was a seismic destruction of Somerset’s 2018 Championship hopes. The destruction of those hopes was plain to see for many of us present long before the match was over. Neither the Somerset batsmen nor the bowlers remotely competed with their Surrey counterparts and many of us left Guildford in no doubt that Surrey would be champions.
Chelmsford 2019 was a different proposition. It was played on a far more testing pitch, off which the ball cut both ways, and beneath, with the exception of the first morning, overcast skies and the heavily humid atmospheric conditions ideally suited to swing bowling. In that context much of the final Essex advantage of 151 came from the 110 runs for the loss of one wicket scored during the only period in which the match was played under bright skies. It formed the foundations of an Essex lead in the match which proved beyond Somerset’s resources to overhaul and formed the basis from which Essex gradually tightened their grip on the game.
By the third morning the Somerset cause appeared hopeless. Essex were 249 runs ahead with four wickets still in hand in a match in which the higher of the two first innings scores was 216. The pitch had showed no sign of flattening and in previous matches had shown a propensity to turn significantly by the third day or before. Even if Somerset found a way to deal with the seam movement Harmer’s off spin waited ominously at mid-on.
It was one of those mornings on which I was delayed through completing the previous day’s report on the next morning. I arrived, half an hour into the day, in still quite humid conditions although the heavy rain which had fallen in the night had reduced the temperature. Somerset’s bowlers had quickly found their mark, removing Harmer, bowled by a ball that cut in from Groenewald and Siddle caught in the gully off a Gregory lifter. He had also edged a ball to Overton that the Somerset players were convinced had carried. Such success was bitter-sweet news. 178 for 8 on the scoreboard as I arrived meant Essex had barely increased their lead but that the wicket was still offering considerable assistance to the bowlers.
I found my now customary first-few-overs-after-arrival spot next to the Hayes Close End sightscreen in time to see Gregory, running away from me, cut a ball away from Wheater just enough for the edge of the bat to send the ball to Overton standing in Trescothick’s old position. Overton took his third catch of the match as if he were to the second slip manor born. When Porter chased a widish ball from Groenewald which swung away Overton took his fourth catch of the match and Somerset needed those 269 runs to win.
I meandered to find a seat in the far front row of the Felsted Stand. The aviary of the first two days at the near end had been replenished with more schoolchildren. Unlike Taunton, where schoolchildren are admitted in the form of a single horde on one day of the year, Essex seem to prefer to take their schoolchildren in a succession of small doses. However small the dose, be assured, the effect is ear-shattering in a covered stand.
The worst fears of Somerset supporters were realised when Abell pushed Porter’s second ball back at waist height and in the direction of his follow-through. No caught and bowled is easy to take because, so a club bowler of my acquaintance tells me, the bowler’s entire focus is on delivering the ball unlike a fielder whose entire concentration should be on receiving the ball. However, Porter took this one with apparent if, as is the way with return catches, hurried ease. When Porter hurried Azhar’s bat into edging to Westley at slip Somerset were 7 for 2 and even those wisps of hope that flutter through the mind in impossible situations were dashed. Somerset were going to lose this match. The heart sank to the pit of the stomach and the mind to checking the calculations of what the gap between Somerset and Essex in the Championship table would be at the end of the match. I sent the score by text to someone working. “I was afraid that would happen when I saw the card of the end of the Essex innings,” the reply.
It was a better than average fourth day rather than a third day crowd for there would have been few who expected the match to reach a fourth day once the threatened weather had blown through in time for a prompt start. Hildreth and Banton began to build a partnership although it did nothing to dissipate the feeling hanging in the air, and being spoken on the expectant lips of some Essex supporters, that it would only be a matter of time before the Essex bowling burst through the Somerset dam. Against that running Essex tide Hildreth and Banton ran their singles and ‘twos’ hard. Essex chased the ball as hard, Beard once pulling a racing, bouncing ball back as it bounced over his horizontal, diving body, but for the most part the batsmen raced home for the runs. They found the boundary too. Hildreth had early crossed the rope with a cover drive although it went through the air where no fielder stood. A hook flew, too low for comfort, just cleared midwicket, and found the boundary.
The bowlers pushed their cause too. Once Porter let out a thunderous appeal to a rap on Hildreth’s pads. Hildreth instantly responded by charging half way up the pitch as the ball ran loose but Banton sent him back. Whether Hildreth’s dive would have saved him had the throw not missed the stumps probably only the umpire knew but it left no doubt of the precariousness of Somerset’s position. Banton, after he had turned Siddle neatly to fine leg for four and Porter equally neatly square for two, top-edged rather than middled Beard high over fine leg for six. A cover drive for two took the score to 36 for 2. Progress for Somerset of sorts but the mixture of class and luck necessary to get them that far served only to emphasise the enormity of the chasm Somerset still had to cross.
When Browne chased a looping drive from Banton and dived to save it just in front of me to save a run the aviary erupted into gleeful cheering. A smile and a wave from Browne resulted in a repeat performance. Had ear plugs been offered to other spectators in the stand most would probably have snapped them up and given thanks for such mercies but in truth it was good to see so many incessantly chattering faces still with enough attention to acknowledge an excellent piece of fielding when they saw it. It was followed by an excellent piece of bowling from Harmer. First, he defeated Banton’s drive to the extent that the ball seemed to become tangled in a flurry of bat and pads and then, next ball, he enticed a slightly lofted mis-drive to mid-on and Banton was gone for 24. Perhaps Banton might have resisted the second stroke with some more experience but, given the progress of the match overall, 24 was probably a ‘par’ score on that pitch.
Somerset were 39 for 3. Bartlett joined Hildreth. With Somerset’s last two specialist batsmen at the wicket 269 seemed as far away as the Blackdown Hills at the other end of Somerset and just as foreboding to contemplate. Harmer beat a Hildreth sweep and then went through his defensive stroke. “He’s settling into his groove,” said the Essex voice behind me.” Even so Hildreth and Bartlett worked the score forward with some intense concentration. As the score moved past 60 with still three wickets down and lunch fast approaching I tried to convince myself that perhaps, if the pair could continue beyond lunch, they might just build something of a base but the hope was barely yet even a wisp.
And then, with the last available ball before lunch any thought of hope was dashed. Siddle pitched short, the ball raced towards Hildreth’s throat, Hildreth shaped to chip it over the keeper or slips to the empty boundary but directed it straight into the keeper’s gloves. The Essex cheer was deafening. The sort of cheer that says, “the match is in the bag”. Somerset jaws simply dropped. A replay shows it was a brute of a ball rising on Hildreth and cutting sharply into him off the pitch. The reason for his edging rather than guiding the ball obvious. But the stroke? It was a deliberate stroke, not a reaction to the ball and the ball was good enough to defeat it. But on the stroke of lunch when an opportunity to re-assess had all but been reached? The looks on the faces of Somerset supporters said it all although I don’t think anyone seriously thought it changed the outcome of the match with Somerset still over 200 behind at 64 for 4
There was not much to be said at lunch so old ground was gone over. The fragility of the top three this year and how out of form Azhar looked. Hildreth, Somerset’s most consistent batsman in recent seasons – he has achieved the increasingly uncommon feat of a thousand runs in a season in three of the last four seasons – but still with the propensity to play the chip off the last ball before lunch. The price to be paid we concluded for the glorious days which have produced 45 first class centuries, nearly 17000 first class runs and an average of 43. Another question passed between us. How destabilising has it been to the batting to play the two most successful batsmen of 2018, Hildreth and Abell, out of place in 2019? Would it have been better to have avoided that and keep the erstwhile engine room of the batting in place at the price of exposing young players at the top of the order? Such discussion and speculation perfectly fills a cricket lunchtime even if the two of us involved were perfectly aware that we have no knowledge of the myriad factors unseen on the field of play that coaches have to consider.
The discussion meant I forget to buy the excellent vegan curry which is now available from one of the outlets at Chelmsford. That and other vegetarian and vegan offerings now available are such an improvement on the days when a vegetarian was limited to chips and an ice cream and a vegan to chips at this ground.
There was not much discussion at the start of the afternoon session as I watched from near the sightscreen at the River End. Davies replaced Hildreth and within an over had edged a ball from Harmer to slip. The ball drifted into him and turned away. “Beautiful ball,” the comment. Bartlett, having perfectly reverse-swept Harmer for four all along the ground through third man, drove at a wide ball from Porter which didn’t seem to do much and was also caught at slip. Overton provided a live action-replay of his first innings dismissal as he was again caught by Browne trying to clear the long square boundary off a ball from Porter that cut in slightly. Somerset were 73 for 7 and it looked as if the hopelessness of the situation, the bowler-friendly pitch and the relentlessness of the Essex bowling had finally undermined all Somerset resistance. Somerset supporters were left hoping for no more than that someone would drag the score into three figures. And, for those who had not already come to that conclusion, the realisation must have dawned that if the end of the road to the Championship is to be reached in September it will be a long and relentlessly tough one to travel.
Gregory tends not to subside this year. Neither does he drag the score forward. He emerged and promptly set about making some sort of Somerset statement. Or rather launching a spirited Somerset sally at the Essex attack. Four times he hit Harmer for six. Three times off the first three balls of an over, one of those going into the top tier of the Tom Pearce Stand at long on and one clearing the stand in search of Chelmsford’s river. Harmer did not tease Gregory again with a tossed-up ball but rather began to fire it in flat. Gregory’s innings was exhilarating whilst it lasted. His reputation is spreading too. “He’s a dangerous player, this Gregory,” said an Essex supporter even before the sixes started to fly. He was out, just beaten for pace by a straight ball from Beard which removed his off stump as he stretched well forward in defence. He was the only batsman in the match, other than Cook who did it twice, to reach 40. Somerset’s last two wickets added seven runs and the Championship ‘race’ had been opened up, Essex having beaten the top two sides in successive weeks now have the wind in their sails.
The challenge to Somerset at the start of the match was: can they beat teams from the top half of the table as they have so impressively beaten the teams from the bottom half this season? The question remains unanswered. It will be asked again at Taunton on Sunday when third placed Hampshire visit whilst Essex play bottom placed Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. There is no weather ‘about’ according to the forecast. Those two matches may set the pattern for the rest of the season. To remain the team to be overhauled rather than become one of those playing ‘catch-up’, and to regain their momentum, Somerset may need to beat Hampshire, for all the form books say Essex should beat Nottinghamshire.
Result. Essex 216 (Sir A.N. Cook 80, M.J. Leach 3-30, J. Overton 3-43) and 183 (Sir A.N. Cook 47, T.D. Groenewald 5-51, L. Gregory 3-37. Somerset 131 (J.A. Porter 5-51, A.P. Beard 4-23) and 117 (L. Gregory 40, J.A. Porter 4-22, A.P. Beard 3-22). Essex won by 151 runs. Essex 20 points. Somerset 3 points.