In the Balance - Hampshire CC1
By Farmer White et al
September 21 2019
Farmer provides the story of the game that puts the onus on Taunton next week. A poor Somerset performance and a very important individual performance from Kyle Abbott which made cricket history. On to Taunton
County Championship Division 1. Hampshire v Somerset. 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th September 2019. Southampton.
Somerset travelled to Southampton eight points clear at the top of the Championship. The match against Hampshire would be the second of their last three matches. All three involved other the teams in the top half of the table. Meanwhile Essex would play Surrey who had won only two matches in 2019 to Essex’s eight. Somerset’s final match of the season would be against Essex at Taunton.
Somerset. M. Vijay, S.M. Davies (w), T.B. Abell (c), J.C. Hildreth, T. Banton, G.A. Bartlett, L. Gregory, D.M Bess, C. Overton, R van Der Merwe. J.H. Davey
Hampshire. F.S. Organ, I.G. Holland, T.P. Alsop, S.A. Northeast, J.M. Vince (c), L.A. Dawson, A.H.T. Donald, L.D. McManus (w), K.H.D. Barker, K.J. Abbott, F.H. Edwards.
Toss. Hampshire. Elected to bat.
First day. 16th September – In the balance
One of the greatest barriers to following Somerset around the country is the A303. In 2017 I went to the first ‘pink ball’ match in which Somerset had played. The ball went soft before its time, the weather was awful and Somerset’s run chase nearly ended in disaster. There was an accident on the A303 and it took us five and a half hours to get back to Somerset. There was no accident this time as we travelled towards Southampton on the day before the match. But there was traffic. Endless traffic. Tailbacks at every roundabout and at every one of those places where a stretch of dual carriageway or your priority on a single carriageway section ends. That is the A303 on a summer Sunday and, the onset of autumn notwithstanding, this was a glorious summer Sunday. It was while we were in one of those queues that my phone rang.
Half an hour before, I had finished loading the car, checking everything was on board. Suitcase, Somerset backpack, wyvern hat, laptop, laptop charger cable, coats, extraneous bags, wallet, Somerset membership and all the paraphernalia of a trip to a Somerset match. Then a check through all the things that needed to be turned off or left on, doors to be secured and so on by the people staying with us but leaving after us. And all the while, do not tell me I cannot multi-task, turning over in my mind a multitude of the important things. What sort of pitch would Hampshire prepare? Would Somerset play two spinners? Craig Overton is back. Presumably he will play. If two spinners are needed which paceman would be dropped? Dare Somerset drop Davey after he took eight wickets against Yorkshire? If not he, then who? Will Surrey be able to put up a fight against Essex? Oh, how Somerset’s prospects swirl and overwhelm all else when there is the hope of winning the County Championship running around the mind.
All done, we were on our way and in those queues. And then my phone rang. “You have left your key in the door,” my travelling companion advised. That was twice in two cricketing days my door key reared its worriesome head in a Somerset cricketing mind with more important things to concern it than the mere whereabouts of a door key. Fortunately, my travelling companion has a door key, instructions were sent as to a ‘safe place’ in which to lodge my key and I got back to the traffic and the cricket.
I am not sure I can recall meeting quite so many Somerset supporters outside the entrance to an opposition cricket ground, except perhaps at Chester le Street on the final day of the 2010 season when Somerset had also had a realistic chance of winning the Championship. The entrance at Southampton consists of a set of fearsome looking turnstiles, beyond which I found more Somerset supporters, some with faces I recognised and many I did not. Some had come to Southampton for the first time. People it seemed had come from near and far and all the faces spoke at the same time of hope, anxiety and a look that asked, “What do you think?”. Others just asked the question outright. A question to which there was no answer. Time would just have to unravel and as long as Somerset have a chance of the Championship the unravelling will become slower by the day. 26th September seemed an aeon away.
I found a seat, roughly behind first or second slip and adjacent to the steps up which the Somerset players climb to their dressing room. Across the aisle from me were a miscellaneous group of about 40 Somerset supporters. Beyond those, a legion in Somerset colours was spread about in twos and threes in a crowd which, to my eye, might have, at its peak, reached towards a thousand. Somerset had opted to have a toss, lost it and Hampshire had elected to bat. The pitch was heavily green, the clouds were heavily grey and there was some humidity in the air. “Why not just put them in?” some asked. The pitch, apparently, was very dry someone had heard. Perhaps batting first was the lesser of two evils.
With ten minutes to the start I decided to go for a walk. Tension seems to bite less when you are on the walk. I watched the first over through one of the passageways beneath a stand. After three balls, Organ was walking back to the Pavilion. He had driven at ball from Gregory pitched wide of off stump and edged straight to Hildreth at first slip. 0 for 1. Back in my seat I had the perfect view of a ball from Davey, angled markedly into Alsop and perhaps moving in a little more. It pierced Alsop’s desperate attempt to get his bat down and bowled him. Hampshire were 3 for 2. The group of 40 across the aisle from me erupted into cheers and applause and more could be seen, and heard, from around the ground.
When Northeast edged a drive off Gregory wide of gully for four someone shouted, “Come on Louis!” When Northeast repeated the stroke, the ball flew like a lightning bolt off the bat and wide of gully again. This time, not quite so wide. “Four again,” the sinking thought. But van der Merwe took off from gully, as if propelled by a giant catapult, and caught the ball far, and high, to his right. What a celebration that provoked among the fielders. And what a celebration among the group of 40. All were applauding or cheering, some rising to their feet in the process. Some looked on in disbelief. It was that sort of catch. “We’ve got a bonus point,” someone said as if it had been forgotten in the commotion. 12 for 3 the score.
When Gregory pitched full and a foot outside off stump to Vince the cover drive to the boundary was met by applause from both sets of supporters. “Shot!” said one from Somerset. When Gregory pitched on the same length but a shade closer to the stumps Vince drove again, the ball jagged back, went inside the bat and hit the middle and leg stumps. It was a viciously unplayable ball which I doubt any batsman on Earth could have played. The cheers and applause from the 40 were reflected wherever Somerset supporters sat in the ground for this was beyond hope. And then an over in which Holland was constantly troubled by Gregory brought gasps from all around. When, in the next over, Overton angled a ball sharply into Holland, it moved a little more off the seam, Holland tried to adjust but edged the ball low to Vijay’s left at second slip. Vijay reached down so smoothly he might have been having gentle catching practice and caught the Overton missile a few inches above the ground. Holland had batted an hour for four. His innings was the first hour in miniature. Hampshire were 24 for 5, Somerset were rampant, their supporters were ecstatic. Hampshire were in disarray, their supporters, at least the ones behind me, talking ironically of being safe from relegation.
And then in the midst of Hampshire’s headlong rout, ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’ The man was Liam Dawson. Where others had defended desperately, perhaps with the occasional driven or edged boundary, Dawson launched a counterattack as breathtaking as it was effective. As the cloud lifted a little, but never went away, he looked as if he was playing in some batsman’s paradise, some other cricketing world far away from the careworn purgatory which the rest of Hampshire’s top order had inhabited. His driving, with only one or two exceptions, was faultless and it mattered not which Somerset bowler he faced. An edge off Davey flew between slip and gully. Otherwise the ball came crisply off the middle of the bat and hugged the grass. Nothing seemed to be hit in the air. There were drives through the covers, often the stroke to be treasured in any innings. But Dawson’s cover drives, stunning though they were, were overshadowed by the smooth perfection his on driving and the power of his straight driving. In an over from Gregory an on and then a straight drive brought gasps of awe, cries of “Shot!”, applause from both sets of supporters and epitomised his innings.
It was an innings which transcended the game of cricket in which it was played. It shifted the balance of the match too, whether sufficiently to turn it in Hampshire’s favour only the Somerset innings will tell. As the Hampshire score mounted, the home supporters began to find their voice and the boundaries to bring forth cheers. The Somerset supporters never lost their voices though. “C’mon Somerset.” “C’mon Louis,” “C’mon boys,” typical of the frequent shouts. “C’mon boys,” from Abell too.
Dawson did not stand alone. First Donald, nine in a partnership of 33 at near six an over, stood with him until Davey rushed him into a defensive stroke and forced an edge which Overton, falling forward and to his left, took neatly at gully. Then McManus, 11, in a dogged partnership of 31 with Dawson which stretched for an hour either side of lunch, held the line as the conditions seemed to improve or perhaps the ball began to soften.
Lunch came at 75 for 6 and the group of 40 stood to a person and applauded the Somerset team all the way off the field and up the steps, for it had still been a morning, Dawson’s innings apart, of unremitting Somerset dominance. My lunchtime circumnavigation of the ground, anti-clockwise of course, came across an uncommonly high proportion of Somerset supporters pacing up and down with anxious or distant looks in their eyes. Distantly looking, perhaps, at the possibility, no-one would go further, of a Championship. Anxious that the Hampshire attack, Abbott to the fore, might be particularly effective on that pitch.
When, soon after lunch, McManus drove Overton to Bess at point Hampshire were 88 for 7 and hopes rose that the pre-lunch Hampshire revival might be over. But the afternoon session soon took the shape of the second rather than the first half of the morning. Barker, often thought of as a bowler, but with a batting average higher than his bowling average, almost matched Dawson’s rate of scoring. They added 92 runs at four an over as the cloud came lower and the floodlights came on and remained on. The remained on for the rest of the day. Barker was particularly strong off his legs with a series of deflections and turns to leg. A paddle sweep off Bess brought the comment, “Oh. Well played.” After lunch Dawson prospered as much with the pull, one off Gregory clearing the rope, as from the drive although there were some of those too. The Hampshire supporters roared their support of what was an exceptional innings. “Come on boys. Keep believing,” shouted a Somerset supporter. “Keep working hard,” demanded Abell.
And then in a flurry of Hampshire celebration and falling wickets it was over. Barker fell, lbw, to a full ball from Bess. Dawson, appropriately, going to his century with a straight drive off Abell, was almost immediately caught off the same bowler trying to cut, and Edwards, stepping away to drive Abell was bowled. Hampshire had subsided from 188 for 7 to 196 all out. Dawson had walked off to a standing ovation from many Somerset supporters as well as most Hampshire ones. It was that sort of innings. As a Somerset supporter later said to me, “It was the sort of innings that wins matches.”
Somerset’s reply was stuttering in the face of Abbott bowling in some Stygian light. The floodlights gave the area around the pitch an eerie ghost-like glow when it was at its darkest. A short stop-start 11 over session in which the players left the field and returned twice left Somerset on 30 for 2. In the end a short shower of rain convinced everyone, including the umpires, that hanging around in the gathering September gloom was pointless. Abbott’s figures, 6-5-1-2, are as impressive as was his bowling. Vijay looked surprised by his lbw dismissal but looked horribly plumb. Davies neatly turned Barker just behind square for a four and edged another but he looked disconcertingly uncomfortable and it did not come as surprise when he was bowled by a ball perfectly angled in by Abbott.
Abell and Hildreth saw out the gloom as Somerset supporters watched anxiously on. Twice the not out Somerset batsmen came up the steps in that final session. Twice the Somerset 40 stood to applaud them until they reached the staircase to the dressing room. The importance of ‘wickets for the morning’ had perhaps ever been so important. Somerset will start again on 30 for 2 with Abbott refreshed and the pitch still very green. The light, apparently, may be brighter but for Somerset this match, the one at Chelmsford with Surrey 137 for 4 after a truncated day, and the Championship are all, from a Somerset perspective, no more than in the balance.
Close. Hampshire 196 (L.A. Dawson 103, K.H.D. Barker 40, L. Gregory 3-63). Somerset 30 for 2. Somerset trail Hampshire by 166 runs with eight first innings wickets standing.
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Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2019:09:21:21:26:46 by Grockle.
Day 1 is produced presently on the front page of this site as well
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2019:09:21:21:25:00 by Grockle.
It is also reproduced in full here:
County Championship Division 1. Hampshire v Somerset. 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th September 2019. Southampton.
Overnight. Hampshire 196. Somerset 30 for 2. Somerset trail by 166 runs with eight first innings wickets standing.
Second day. 17th September – Abbott unleashed
This is a match in which the balance has swung first one way and then the other but by the end of the second day the overall direction of travel was heavily in Hampshire’s favour. With Essex only eight points behind Somerset at the start of this round of matches and well ahead in their match against Surrey at Chelmsford, defeat in this match could end Somerset’s Championship challenge, for although Essex and Somerset meet in the final round of matches the forecast for the final week is poor.
There are no such issues with the forecast here. There will be a result in this match and if Somerset are to maintain their position in the Championship, they will have to win it. I do not recall seeing a cloud in the sky all day. The decision to end play for bad light can only have been related to shadows covering the pitch and the setting of the sun on a day that, along with the heavy defeats at Chelmsford and Headingley, may, if Somerset cannot safely negotiate the new ball in their second innings, cast a shadow over Somerset’s season.
I started the day sitting next to the steps up which the Somerset players ascend to their dressing room and spent it either there, in a cold breeze that never let up all day, or on circumnavigations of the ground. Anti-clockwise, although none seemed to do the Somerset cause much good. The 40 or so Somerset supporters who had occupied seats on the other side of the aisle on the first day returned, and for a period were added to. But once the sun had departed behind the Pavilion the summer warmth was instantly transformed into a sharp autumnal chill. As the day wore on the numbers across the aisle fell away, rather as Somerset’s challenge did in this match, and perhaps in the Championship. It was not only Somerset supporters. The preponderance of Hampshire supporters on my side of the aisle departed too. Both sets of supporters presumably heading for the sunnier climes at the far end of the ground where the crowd gradually increased throughout the day.
Abbott’s dismissal of Abell in the second over set the tone for the Somerset innings, or at least the greater part of it. Abell shouldered arms to a ball, angled in but pitching the best part of a foot outside off stump from where it cut in hard to hit the stumps. Abell 20. Banton followed, edging to the keeper, as he tried pull a ball from Edwards which pitched outside off stump. When Abbott reproduced the ball which had dismissed Abell, Hildreth jabbed down on it without moving his feet and edged the second catch of the day to McManus. Somerset were 45 for 5. “Oh dear,” I heard someone say, and you could sense Somerset hearts sinking all around the ground as the Hampshire crowd erupted into cheers.
Edwards welcomed Bartlett with a spearing yorker although Bartlett was equal to it. Two boundaries in an over from Bartlett off Edwards apart, there followed some desperate defence from Bartlett and Gregory, Bartlett once edging Edwards a foot or so short of slip. Twice Abbott was through Bartlett’s defence to hit him on the body and then struck him on the pads with a straight ball. When Gregory also departed lbw, to a full ball from Abbott which cut in sharply, for a 19-ball duck Somerset were 59 for 7. 65 for 8 when Abbot bowled Overton with a straight ball which cut in from a foot outside off stump. It had been a devastating piece of bowling. Perhaps some of Somerset’s batsmen might have got forward more in defence but with the ball moving off the seam to the extent it did I wonder how much difference in the end it would have made.
With Abbott’s astonishing burst spent, the frenetic mood, and the game changed. It was as if a hurricane had blown through the ground and then, as suddenly as it had come, departed and left the calm of a summer day behind it. The cheers of the Hampshire supporters after the fall of each wicket had subsided into a swell of excited chatter which washed around the ground rather as the sea does in the immediate aftermath of a storm. Somerset supporters, stunned by the cataclysmic speed with which the innings had subsided, steadfastly applauded each batsman up the steps as they returned to the Pavilion. The storm abated, their chatter began to pick up although it had never fully gone away.
Gradually Somerset’s ninth wicket pair began to give their supporters something to chat about and sometimes to cheer. Bess, always a fighter with the bat, and van der Merwe, who rarely plays red ball cricket these days, quickly came to grips with the post-Abbott normality of the bowling, helped at times by some sloppy Hampshire fielding. Determined defence held Somerset’s precarious line and a boundary and the occasional single inched the total forward. 23 were added in ten hard-fought overs. The defiance started to lift the Somerset support with every single being applauded. And then a moment of farce lifted the spirits further, if only momentarily. A single to Bess resulted in a wild throw at the stumps which ran almost all the way to the far boundary, chased long and hard by a Hampshire fielder whilst Bess and van der Merwe ran three more. As the fielder retrieved the ball just inside the rope there was a moment’s hesitation from the batsmen before they hurtled through for their fifth run as the ball made its way back to the middle. “I think that’s the first time I have seem an all-run five,” said the text from the online watcher. I think it may have been the first time many of us present had seen one too if the astonished cheers from the Somerset support were anything to go by.
Bess and van der Merwe saw Somerset to lunch at 103 for 8. 93 runs behind Hampshire’s 196. As I made my way around the vast concourse above the stand on one of the square boundaries, I looked up at one of the two huge scoreboards which somehow manage to have a font too small for many in front of the Pavilion to see. Still having some capacity for mental arithmetic, I calculated Somerset had scored 73 for 6 in that tempestuous morning session. On the first morning Hampshire had scored 75 for 6. For all Abbott’s ferocious bowling the Somerset bowling group had matched his impact and the Somerset batsmen had done no worse than the Hampshire ones. The crucial difference was the two wickets Somerset had lost in that ghostly Stygian evening of the first day. Somerset had two wickets to negotiate the calmer waters of the afternoon. Hampshire had had four, one of whom was Dawson. It made all the difference.
My perambulation among the supporters of both sides revealed two things about the crowd. Firstly, Somerset supporters had turned out in numbers. Everywhere you looked you saw the distinctive Somerset membership lanyard. More than you seemed to see of the Hampshire one although that may have been impressionistic, the Somerset eye being drawn to the maroon of home. If it were shown that Somerset supporters made up half the crowd none that were there would be surprised. Secondly, compared with Taunton or Headingley, the total numbers in the ground was low, perhaps comparable with the first day. Hampshire supporters were all smiles, if reserved, at least in the presence of Somerset supporters. Somerset supporters were pensive, still hoping. Hoping for that first championship. Hoping for a continued spirited revival from the last two wickets, but realistic enough to know that parity with the Hampshire score was almost certainly beyond the reach of the remaining batsmen, particularly when Abbott returned, as surely, he must.
Abbott did indeed return after lunch but Bess and van der Merwe made headway to rising applause and cheers from the Somerset contingent. Every single, the occasional boundary, and all the time the gradually rising score drove the hope with it. News of Surrey subsiding against Essex came as no surprise. Essex have won every match this year at Chelmsford and Surrey, after some initial fight, had been overwhelmed by Hampshire at Southampton a week before. Somerset if they are to win the Championship, as is the way with Championships, would have to do it off their own bats, literally.
At 132 for 8, with 67 already added for the ninth wicket, Bess and van der Merwe had more than halved the deficit to 64. Even with the ball getting older it was a sterling effort. But Abbott could not be resisted forever. Bess fended a short ball to Donald at short leg for Somerset’s top score of 37. He looked furious with himself as he walked off, and devastated as he walked up the steps to extended applause and a series of cries of, “Well played,” from Somerset supporters. Davey began positively, an on drive for four off Abbott particularly impressive, but just as he seemed to be making headway he looked surprised to be given out caught behind for Abbott’s ninth wicket of the innings and Hampshire led by 54 runs.
This match has a pattern about it. Tumbling early wickets followed by lower order recoveries. In Hampshire’s first innings they lost their sixth wicket at 57. Somerset lost theirs at 58. Now, in their second innings, Hampshire lost their sixth at 45. The devastation was just as traumatic as in the two first innings. Davey angled a ball in to Holland who edged it to Vijay at slip. Alsop was tucked up a little in turning Davey square and van der Merwe, at square leg, dived full length towards the ball. “Five maidens. Two wickets,” said the incoming text, emphasising the importance of control in building the pressure that take wickets. As so often with van der Merwe in the field, the ball looked out of reach but his dive seemed to become elongated as he caught the ball with fingers skimming the grass. “Come on Louis,” the shout from the stands as Gregory took up the ball for another over. Gregory, almost immediately, moved a ball away no more than a fraction off the pitch and Organ edged to Davies. Northeast struck successive boundaries off Overton, the second chipped over slip, before Overton moved a ball in sharply off the seam and removed him, lbw, for 22.
A teatime circumnavigation left me on the wrong side of the Pavilion standing and watching with a couple of Somerset supporters as the final two of those first six wickets fell. Dawson lbw to a ball from Gregory that cut into him and Donald, playing no stroke to a ball from Overton, that cut back into his stumps from more than a foot outside off. Hampshire’s lead was 94. Somerset hopes were bubbling but a doubt nagged on the lips of every Somerset supporter. The incoming text spoke for all of them, “We must get Vince.”
But Vince played a determined innings which turned further the match, perhaps decisively, in Hampshire’s favour. Just one run coming from his first 32 balls we noticed on the scoreboard. I returned to my seat and found the rows of seats around me virtually deserted. I doubt anyone, either in the Somerset interest or the Hampshire one, had deserted their team. Just gone to the sunnier climes on the far side of the ground I concluded, for the breeze, aided by the unforgiving shade which now engulfed the seating, was giving a warning of winter not so far away.
I watched awhile as Vince began to assert himself as Somerset’s three main pace bowlers reached the limit of their opening spells. McManus stayed with him, surviving an inside edge off Overton which flew past leg stump for four before being lbw to van der Merwe for 10. By then the lead was 148. And from there it was virtually all Vince. He lost Barker, lbw to Abell at 103, lead 157, but Abbott stayed with him in the evening sun until the umpires called play off for the day.
Vince never really looked threatened and, after one or two early scares, Abbott began to look unmovable at the other end. I walked around the ground for the third time in the day watching the score rise as I went. The final half a hour or so I watched in conversation with another regular travelling Somerset supporter. The evening sun was still warm but was by then so low in the sky it was troubling any fielder who had to field opposite it. After the departure of Barker, with just two wickets left, Vince had begun to attack the bowling. He drove van der Merwe through midwicket to bring up his fifty, and from there pulled, drove, cut and late cut his and Hampshire’s way forward.
By the time I was engaged in that final chat of the day Somerset had resorted to packing the boundary with fielders during the first four balls of the overwhenever Vince was on strike. It is a tactic which contains some boundaries and might reduce the scoring rate but it rarely, in my experience, exposes the tail end batsmen to the strike for long enough to take his wicket. It is a dispiriting experience for the supporter of the fielding side as the match seems to drift away from them. All teams seem to do it but I do wonder if anyone has analysed its effectiveness. It would make an interesting piece of analysis. It seemed to achieve nothing here, although of course I have no way of knowing what the score might have risen to had the boundary fielders been brought into more attacking positions and a wicket not fallen.
As it was, Vince ended 102 not out, his century being met with a standing ovation, he and Abbott had added 73 runs for the ninth wicket, and Hampshire would start the third day with an advantage of 230 runs. News of Essex’s 128 run lead over Surrey with four first innings wickets still standing added to the sense of this being a day on which things had drifted away from Somerset. Somerset will now have to make the highest score of the match if they are to win. They will have to avoid a start to the innings like the three so far and then have to bat uncommonly well for a long time to achieve it. But, if, if they can overcome Abbott and the rest of the Hampshire attack in the opening phases of the second innings, and it is an ‘if’ as tall as the Blackdowns on the evidence of this match to date, perhaps the prospect of the prize that will then open up might just drive them over the line.
Close. Hampshire 196 and 176 for 8. Somerset 142 (K.J. Abbott 9 for 40). Hampshire lead by 230 runs with two second innings wickets standing.
It is alkso reprodued in full here:
County Championship Division 1. Hampshire v Somerset. 16th, 17th and 18th September 2019. Southampton.
Overnight. Hampshire 196 and 176 for 8. Somerset 142 (K.J. Abbott 9 for 40). Hampshire lead by 230 runs with two second innings wickets standing.
Final day. 18th September – The ‘thousand-mile stare’
This was a crushing defeat in a match in which victory would have taken Somerset a long way towards their first County Championship. They succumbed to outstanding bowling in both innings by a bowler who bowled throughout as if ‘on a mission’, although 68 wickets thus far this season suggests he has been rather effective against other teams too. Abbott’s 17 wicket’s in the match, apparently the first time the feat has been achieved in the County Championship since before the Second World War, is a phenomenal achievement. At lunch on the final day nothing seemed less likely. Somerset, 62 for 0 in pursuit of 281, with Abbott having bowled an apparently innocuous opening spell, seemed to be in little trouble. Within an hour of the restart the innings was almost over and by the end the only surprise was that Abbott had only taken 17 wickets.
Abbott is an exceptionally skilful bowler, a world class performer plying his trade in county cricket. However, that he took 17 of his 68 wickets this season in this one match suggests a performance which transcends skill. Such performances are rare. Devon Malcolm’s 9 for 57 for England against South Africa in 1994, Alfonso Thomas’s ‘four in four’ for Somerset against Sussex in 2014, Joel Garner’s 5 for 11 in a Gillette Cup quarter-final against Kent in 1979 spring to mind. Bowlers bowling as if they had the force of nature behind them. Abbott’s 8 for 46 in the second innings here was one such, or at least the six over phase of 6-2-12-6 in his second spell of eight overs was. Such performances seem to overpower rather than defeat batsmen. Abbott bowled over a third of Hampshire’s overs in the match, 18.4 of 48.4 in Somerset’s first innings and 17.4 of, curiously, 48.4 in Somerset’s second innings. It was a towering performance. As another Somerset supporter said to me at the end, “We may never see the like again.”
The morning had started rather dismally from a Somerset perspective with the hoped-for early breakthrough into the remainder of the Hampshire innings not materialising. Vince continued to drive Somerset’s eventual target into, for this match, the stratosphere. I, report-lagged, arrived at the ground a few minutes late. “Vince has already hit three boundaries in an over,” the immediate anxious comment from a Somerset supporter. Vince continued in like vein to mounting and increasingly rapturous cheers from Hampshire supporters. They knew, as well as did Somerset supporters, the value of a string of boundaries on a pitch on which wickets fell in piles, especially with Abbott awaiting the start of the Somerset innings.
But Abbott had damage to inflict on Somerset’s cause even before he had the ball in his hand as he continued his unbroken partnership of the previous evening with Vince. Hampshire supporters knew the importance of his contribution, for every defensive stroke he played received applause. For 11 overs he stood with Vince whilst 46 more runs were hammered into Somerset’s hopes. Abbott scored just eight of his 25 runs on the third morning but the time he gave Vince was gold dust to Hampshire. Vince was particularly harsh on Gregory, mainly pulling and cutting him square and behind the wicket. It was not just the rapid accumulation of runs but the quality of stroke which drove those nails into Somerset hopes and caused their supporters to look on with mounting apprehension. The certainty of stroke and the crack of ball off bat had qualities about them which left an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the Somerset stomach as to just how far Vince might take the Hampshire score.
It came almost as a surprise when Vince drove at a ball from Gregory which cut into him and took the inside edge. Davies took an outstanding catch diving far to his left with Vince on 142. Vince walked off to a virtually unanimous standing ovation from both sets of supporters, with Somerset supporters again present in large numbers. Abbott followed soon afterwards, driving Davey to Gregory at mid-off. Somerset’s target had finally stopped climbing at 281. To succeed Somerset would have to score, by 55 runs, the highest score of the match and just three runs short of double their first innings score. It made for an anxious innings break for Somerset supporters, and, I imagine, one full of anticipation for Hampshire ones; for Somerset’s first innings collapse in the face of Abbott’s fire and the low scores in each of the first three innings made 281 seem a mountain.
As Vijay and Davies came down the dressing room steps behind me the autumn sun was hot on the back of the neck and here was no cloud in the sky for the second day running. The seats opposite the Pavilion were dotted with people bathed in sunlight, their numbers increasing markedly, as is the way with cricket crowds, as the seating approached the sightscreen. The sky spoke of runs to come but the pitch and Abbott threatened otherwise. Vijay and Davies continued down the steps between the seating in front of the Pavilion to enthusiastic applause and good wishes from Somerset supporters gathered there. Meanwhile the Hampshire team walked out from the far end of the Pavilion to loud applause from their supporters.
The pattern of the match to date had been that batting seemed to become easier as the ball approached 30 overs old. The key to Somerset’s prospects of success seemed to be the number of wickets they would have in hand when the innings reached that stage. Confidence among supporters I spoke to was not high but cricket is a game of uncertainties and surprises and that is enough for the heart to hope even when the head counsels otherwise. Somerset’s start encouraged the heart rather than the head. It was as confident as the start of their first innings had been stuttering. Vijay drove Abbott confidently, just to the off of straight, for four in his first over. In Abbott’s second over Davies, with a stroke that was to become a feature of his innings, steered the ball backward of point for another four. That took Somerset to 13 for 0. “That is the highest opening partnership of the match,” said the ominous text from the online watcher.
Vijay, and particularly Davies, then played as if the early collapses which had bedevilled all three innings played thus far in the match had never occurred. Abbott bowled five overs and gave no hint of threat. Edwards was tried from the other end, and Barker from both ends, with the same lack of success. Vijay was circumspect but did not hold back when a ball offered itself up. Davies was more adventurous, “He is playing at deliveries wide of off stump,” said the text from the online watcher. He caused Somerset hearts to miss more than one beat as he played and missed more than was comfortable. But when he succeeded the deflections, particularly the steer or nudge to the off, brought gasps at the delicateness of the stroke and applause as the ball reached the boundary. It was a glorious hour of slowly mounting excitement among Somerset supporters and, as lunch approached, a moment of quietening doubt for Hampshire ones for this was not in the Abbott-inspired script.
Somerset were 62 for 0 at lunch. It was the first time in the match that a team had passed 60 with less than six wickets down. It could not other than bring hope to the Somerset mind. As I conducted my customary lunchtime circumnavigation of the ground, anti-clockwise of course, constantly coming towards me were Somerset faces daring to hope and Hampshire ones for the first time since lunch on the first day with anxiety in their eyes. The sun was bright and warm with still not a cloud in the sky although the chill breeze still found you if you wandered into the shade. It really was a wonderful day on which to watch cricket. A wonderful day to relax in the sun. But not if you were a Somerset supporter. For all the progress of the morning, Somerset’s target and a clear view of the Championship were still 219 runs away, Abbott would be building up for another blow and Edwards had hardly bowled badly. At best it would be an afternoon of purgatory.
Back at the top of the steps, behind my seat and in front of the Somerset dressing room, I stood and chatted with two or three other Somerset supporters as Davies and Vijay walked out to applause and shouts of encouragement from the large group of Somerset supporters in front of us. They started quietly but the cheers rang out when Davies steered Holland either side of the wicket for a pair of boundaries. Somerset were properly on their way towards that distant target. Sporting superstition bites deep. Those of us standing talking knew, in our more rational moments, that superstition makes not a jot of difference to the outcome of a match. And yet none of us wanted to be the one that moved from where we were or talked up Somerset’s prospects in case a wicket fell immediately afterwards. The fact that several people in a crowd of a 1000 or so must move before virtually every ball made no difference. Sporting allegiance makes irrational slaves of us all.
And so, we stood at our posts as Abbot ran in again from the Pavilion End whilst Davies and Vijay carefully picked their way forward. Successive boundaries from Davies off Holland, guided behind square either side of the wicket, soon had the Smerset applause and the cheers going again. A lofted straight drive off Holland from Vijay gave another push to the optimism that was trying to break through. And yet the tension generated by the conflict between the hope arising from the growing score and the anxiety inflicted by the size of the target continued to bite.
And then, as if abruptly awoken from an idyllic sun-drenched dream by a bucket of ice-cold water, Somerset supporters had looks of horror on their faces. Hampshire ones of surprise and relief. Vijay had pulled Abbott from well outside off stump. Abbot seemed to generate some extra bounce and the ball ballooned off the top edge and floated towards mid-on where Donald trotted a few paces to take the offering. There was stunned silence among the Somerset supporters beneath the dressing room before the questions began to flow, all of which amounted to, “Why? Why such a stroke to such a ball?” And above all, “Why now?” The Hampshire support erupted wherever in the ground it could be found. Abbott was ‘slipping himself’ again. But Vijay was a Somerset batsman and the Somerset supporters around the steps to the dressing room roused themselves to clap him as he walked up the steps from the boundary. Somerset were 86 for 1. Vijay 29. It was a score most Somerset supporters would have settled for at the outset, but for the wicket to fall in such a way left an emptiness in the chest, for suddenly 281, and the Championship, seemed a lot further away than they had two balls before.
The spell of the opening partnership broken I descended the steps to my seat. From there the next half hour of play was as dream-like as the hour before lunch but it was a dream of a wholly different order, at least for the Somerset supporter. One of those dreams in which you feel yourself being enveloped by some inexorably unfolding disaster from which there seems no escape. Somerset wickets began to fall in such quick succession that each seemed to blur into the next. Abell, on the back foot, tried to defend and was caught behind. Hildreth, again on the back foot, but this time to Dawson’s slow left arm was bowled past an out-of-sorts looking prod. “Needed a forward defensive,” said the text from the online watcher.
But the real damage was inflicted by Abbott. In successive ballls, Banton tried to turn him into the on side and Bartlett to glance. Both were lbw to balls which might have moved or cut. Then Davies tried to guide Abbott to third man once too often and McManus took the catch. It was Abbott’s third wicket in four balls but that feat seemed to pass almost unnoticed, lost in the far greater bowling feat that was unfolding around it. When Bess tried to turn Abbott square to another ball that looked like it moved into him, he too was lbw and Somerset had fallen headlong, as if in one of those nightmares, from 86 for 0 to 100 for 7. Three lbws, all playing across the line, all early in an innings. Perhaps the pressure of Abbott’s bowling was telling although modern batsmen do have a tendency to play across the line in search of runs early in an innings. “The old way of trying to see off the opposition’s strike bowler seems to have been lost to the modern game,” someone had said to me on one of my circumnavigations. Although I wonder, with Abbott bowling in this sort of form, if it would have done more than stave off the inevitable.
It all seemed to happen in a numbing, confused daze of wickets falling, ever louder and ecstatic cheering from Hampshire supporters, batsmen coming down and going up the steps next to the small group of Somerset supporters who had braved the cold which descended on that part of the Pavilion seating as the sun began to sink towards the west. The Somerset supporters continued to applaud each batsman as he departed to and came back from the wicket but the effort to clap sounded harder with every wicket that fell as the match slipped away and Somerset’s view of the Championship became more distant. “This is painful,” said one Somerset supporter as another Hampshire cheer filled the air. Only the return to the Pavilion of Davies broke through the daze. He had made 51, mostly in partnership with Vijay. It was Somerset’s highest score of the match and the supporters showed their appreciation with some extended applause.
And then Abbott rested and normality was restored. Gregory and Overton suddenly looked virtually untroubled against Edwards’ pace, Dawson’s slow left arm and Organ’s off spin. Overton defended for nearly an hour and took more of the strike than Gregory. Gregory, defensive for the most part, picked singles where he could, took fours off Edwards and Dawson with powerful drives and a pull off Organ. They gradually edged the score forwards and the frenetic emotion created in Somerset hearts by the avalanche of wickets settled into a stunned numbness and thoughts turned to Taunton for the final match of the season against Essex. The steady tumble of Surrey wickets at Chelmsford left no-one in any doubt that Somerset would go into the long-predicted ‘Championship decider’ 12 points adrift of their rivals.
The return of Abbott saw the departure of Overton, caught off a defensive edge by the only slip, positioned between the normal second and third slip positions. Van der Merwe drove at Dawson and edged to Abbott at point and Davey lost his off stump to Abbott leaving Gregory not out on 34, scored in an hour and a half at the wicket. Abbott had returned the best bowling figures in Hampshire’s history and the best first-class match figures, 17 for 86, since Jim Laker took 19 for 90 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956, two years before I first saw Somerset play. The Hampshire team left the field by the steps used by the Somerset team during the match. They, and Abbott, carrying the ball and a stump, walked off to a standing ovation from both sets of supporters. It had been the performance of a lifetime and was probably the only time, in the lifetime of all those present, that they had or would see such a performance.
And so, Somerset supporters gathered their things and began to depart, mostly in conversation with one another. Most of the conversation I heard or was involved in was not focusing on what we had just seen, that was almost beyond conversation, but on what was to come and the prospects against Essex and the need to win that match if the Championship were to be won. There was though still a look in the eyes of many at what might have been. The ‘thousand-mile stare’ as one Somerset supporter put it to me. And so Somerset’s latest attempt to reach the end of that ‘thousand mile’ stare and win the Championship will, once more, come down to the need to win the last match of the season. This time no other match matters. The situation is simple. Barring some bizarre distribution of bonus points, if Somerset beat Essex, they will be County Champions. If they do not, they will be runners up for the fifth time in ten seasons and for the third time in the last four.
And something about this season. There is a certain symmetry to Somerset’s results. Against teams who were in the bottom four places all season until Kent defeated Yorkshire this week, Somerset won seven matches and drew one. Against the three teams which, with Somerset, have occupied the top four places, Somerset have lost heavily to Yorkshire and Hampshire away from home and beaten them both heavily at Taunton. Against the other team in the top four, Essex, Somerset lost heavily at Chelmsford and play them on Monday at Taunton. A symmetrical end to the season would suit Somersetmand its supporters in the ground and spread far and wide. But the symmetry will have to be fought for. Essex have lost only one match, their first of the season away to Hampshire. Somerset have now lost three and will have to redress some of that balance if they are to top Essex in the table. It has all the makings, if the weather holds, of a mighty match and whichever team comes out ahead will be worthy Champions.
Result. Hampshire 196 (L.A. Dawson 103, K.H.D. Barker 40) 226 (J.M. Vince 142, J.H. Davey 3-22, C. Overton 3-74) Somerset 142 (K.J. Abbott 9 for 40) and 144 (S.M. Davies 51, K.J. Abbott 7-46). Hampshire won by 136 runs. Hampshire 19 points. Somerset 3 points.