County Championship Division One, Essex v Somerset, Chelmsford, Day 3 – Essex 216 (Cook 80, Leach 3-30, J Overton 3-43) and 183 (Cook 47, Groenewald 5-51, Gregory 3-37) beat Somerset 131 (Porter 5-51) and 117 (Porter 4-22, Beard 3-22) by 151 runs
Somerset suffered their first championship defeat of the season and in doing so saw their commanding lead at the top of division one eroded to just 13 points at the halfway point of the season.
Equally damaging is the fact that the rest of the division will see a chink in the armour of invincibility Tom Abell’s side had built up. It was notable on Monday afternoon that the Essex commentators were wary of Somerset being able to get the necessary fourth innings runs to snatch victory such is the impression they have made on the rest of the division.
The persistent failure of the batting to perform, which has been far too common so far this season, finally came home to roost in this game with the bowlers unable to dig the side out of the hole created by the first innings collapse on Monday morning. A look at the Somerset batting averages makes pretty sorry reading at the moment and needs to improve if this title challenge is to be sustained.
In total Somerset batted 80 overs in the two innings. The fact that Alistair Cook faced 280 balls (virtually 47 overs) on his own and his aggregate of 127 runs in the match could be seen as the difference between the two sides.
But Somerset’s inability to bat time in red-ball cricket is as much the difference at present between them and the three nearest challengers; Essex, Hampshire and Yorkshire. And it is something that will need to turn around quickly if Somerset are to remain in control of the division.
It is a measure of how nervous many Somerset fans are about our batting that we looked at the weather forecasts overnight with a little optimism that the predicted thunder storms would take time out of the game and increase Somerset’s chances of avoiding defeat.
Realistically, with a game that had moved on so quickly, and on a pitch that was providing ample assistance to the bowlers, it was going to need something pretty cataclysmic to prevent a result. The only cataclysm was Somerset’s second innings batting performance.
In the event play started on time when, as the BBC’s Stephen Lamb said on twitter, “Somerset need quick early wickets and a hefty top order partnership”.
Part one was duly accomplished; Essex’s last four wickets adding only 19 in 45 minutes setting Somerset 269 to win.
The improbability of part two increased dramatically with Jamie Porter, proving the value of his contract extension yesterday, removed Tom Abell and Azhar Ali in his first two overs. Azhar now has 133 runs in the Championship this season at an average of under 15 and a top score of 60 (in the first innings of the drawn home game with Surrey). But the issue isn’t just Azhar, just as it wasn’t just Marcus a few weeks ago.
This time the openers were both gone before the total reached double figures. There was a short period before lunch when James Hildreth and Tom Banton were together when it seemed the impossible might become improbable but that 39-run partnership was nowhere near what was required to sustain a meaningful fourth innings chase. The pair needed at the very least to bat mid-afternoon but perished before lunch, Hildreth to the last ball of the session to all but seal defeat. 46-2 became 67-6 in 8 overs either side of lunch.
There was a brief respite to the carnage when Lewis Gregory and Tim Groenewald added 37 in 6 overs for the 8th wicket but when they were parted it was all over very quickly. Essex are 4 from 4 at home this season and have dealt with Somerset and Hampshire in comprehensive fashion in the last two weeks. They are a real threat, with experienced and deep batting and some top red-ball bowlers.
This is not the time for visceral reaction. All of Somerset would have, at the start of the season, been very happy with such a position at the top of the championship at this stage. But after away wins at Guildford and Canterbury the chance to put a further dent in the rest of the division has been missed.
And, with another tough test starting on Sunday against Hampshire, Somerset need to have a real look at how they are going to put together some substantial batting performances in the rest of the season. The alternative is not particularly palatable.
I remain convinced that Somerset have the batting talent but to paraphrase Eric Morecambe, not necessarily in the right order. We are asking too much of Tom Abell to open, he needs to be restored to 5 allowing Hildreth to drop down to 4. Azhar will come good so we have to decide who fills slots 1 and 3.
For me Tom Banton takes the 3 spot. He may have yet to make the telling contribution in the Championship but he will and he is a class act with bags of potential. If Steven Davies is to keep the gloves he will have to open but I’m also going to give them to Banton, partly because he is the better long-term prospect and partly because I think keeping will help his batting. Yes it’s a big ask to keep and bat at 3 but Banton has the quality to do it. George Bartlett bats at 6.
So who opens? I know I will get shouted at but Tres for me is the man. His experience is worth as much as any runs he contributes. I can’t countenance such a great career ending like this, and there is the natural justice that sees Tres in the side that lifts the title. Now that would be a fitting ending.
The alternative (thanks Steve Jennings for the credit today on social media) is to give the job to Dom Bess. Again, like Banton I believe in him and want him to get a chance. It is a risk, but what is to lose? The established batsmen have hardly delivered so far.
If Bess isn’t given the chance to bat at the top of the order I want to see him at 8. There is every chance that we will lose Jack Leach to England call ups, Moeen and Rashid are doing him a huge favour at the moment albeit in the white ball stuff. So it makes sense to get Dom back in the side now, especially for the two home games coming up. That still leaves three seamers, Lewis, Jamie + 1 and Tom Abell.
Brave, foolish or wise? You decide.