September ’18: The Dashing of Dreams

Somerset knew as August turned into September that, at Headingley, nothing short of perfection was required if they were to complete a Championship and T20 double. While the former seemed an increasingly distant possibility the latter was very much on the cards as three second division teams filled the other semi-final places on Finals Day.

Somerset’s first championship game of September started on August 29th but by virtue of it running the full four days, and being decided on the first of September, I’ve included it here. Somerset have had a productive time in Yorkshire in the last two years; winning at Headingley in 2016 against another title chaser to keep that race alive until that agonising last day, and then in 2017 starting the turn in fortunes which saw relegation avoided.

I wonder if Tom Abell, as he made his way out to toss on the first morning, reflected on how both his and his side’s fortunes had changed in the last year and a bit. It was the game at Scarborough which saw Abell drop himself as doubts about his batting crowded in on him. No doubt the change in management has helped him greatly but huge credit must go to the man himself. His 2018 season is a credit to him and reward for all the long hours and hard work he has put in.

Abell won the toss but was soon joined in the away dressing room by both openers with the score still in single figures. Reassuringly Azhar Ali and James Hildreth both made the 80s in adding 137 for the third wicket to restore some control but the real story of the first innings was the stand between Lewis Gregory and Steven Davies who added 114 in 18 overs after tea. Gregory continuing where he had left off against Notts in the Blast quarter-final 3 days earlier.

Somerset closed on 374-8 but were unable to add any more batting bonus points as the innings finished on 399. After Lewis Gregory had taken a wicket with the first ball of his second over, Somerset were made to work hard on a good batting pitch in very un-Headingley like conditions. They must have been delighted to reduce Yorkshire to 119-5 but then were unable to break a sixth-wicket partnership that was eventually ended by Josh Davey removing Kohler-Cadmore for 81 and then in his next over getting Fisher for a duck.

At 292-7 Somerset had wrestled back the initiative but hopes of a significant first-innings lead had evaporated.

The story of the third morning was Andy Hodd. The soon-to-be-retiring wicketkeeper was 84 not out and the majority of cricket lovers were hoping for a farewell hundred. This cricket lover wasn’t and, when James Hildreth pouched a smart slip catch off Gregory, Hodd had only added one to his overnight total. There’s no place for sentimentality when the prospect of a Somerset title still exists!

Yorkshire were eventually all out for 320, a deficit of 79. The hope of quickly building a decisive lead didn’t exactly go to plan as the top three were all dismissed before the total reached 30 before lunch. James Hildreth was in no mood to allow the bowlers to dictate to him. When he departed for a beautiful 72 (another one of those Hildreth innings where the scorecard does not reflect his mastery) Somerset’s lead was 243 and Tom Abell was in cruise control. The skipper went to his first ton of the season ending on 132* adding a scarcely believable 93 in 13 overs with Lewis (57 off 41 balls with 3 sixes and 6 fours) and 62 in 7 with Craig (27 off 18 balls with 2 fours and a six).

Abell declared on Overton’s dismissal setting Yorkshire 419 to win in a day and 9 overs. Those 9 overs swung the game emphatically Somerset’s way as both openers were dismissed by Gregory for 4.

The final day was another gorgeous one. As I made my way over the Pennines confidence was high of seeing my third win on Yorkshire soil in three years. But Kane Williamson and nightwatchman Josh Shaw had other ideas. They added 90 but when they were parted the Somerset bowlers, with the Overton twins both bowling with great hostility, reduced the White Rose to 143-8.

By this time the Yorkshire crowd were showing more interest in the Leeds Rhinos Rugby League game that was starting on the other side of the grandstand. Even more surreal was the fact that, as a result of the rebuilding work going on at the ground, you could actually see the game in progress! I’m pretty sure that the roars from the crowd weren’t signalling approval of the Somerset bowlers efforts!

David Willey and Matthew Fisher kept the contest alive until after tea with a stand of 45 but Jamie Overton returned to blow Fisher away. The Somerset-bound Jack Brooks became Jamie’s’ fourth victim (4-25 in 14.3) as Somerset prevailed by 224 runs and garnered 23 points.

Surrey had demolished a rapidly fading Nottinghamshire, another innings victory and another 23-point haul so they headed to Worcester knowing that a victory there would almost certainly clinch the title whatever Somerset did.

Somerset returned to Taunton hoping that they could repeat the treatment of the White Rose on the Red Rose. The events of the next 2 days had to be seen to be believed, the return of Ciderabad was evident from the first session. Jack Leach (5-28) dismissed Lancashire for 99 but Somerset were unable to bat out the day and were indebted, again, to Lewis Gregory for his 64* as they were dismissed for 192. By the close Lancashire were 7-2 with Leach, who opened the bowling, having added another 2 to his day’s haul.

As you would expect the cricket press were having a field day, pitch inspectors and cricket correspondents were fighting their way down the M5 to see for themselves as Somerset were left facing further accusations of preparing a spinning pitch to suit themselves.

It says something for this whole narrative that the fact that it was the first tie in the championship since 2003, Somerset’s first since 1939 and only the 8th time out of 1,968 opportunities that a side had failed to chase 78 or fewer, was lost by the wider cricket world.

This was a game that brought county cricket into the media spotlight; newspapers, websites, TV and radio were all commenting about the events at Taunton. The shame as ever is that there is a myopia when it comes to the majority of this media cohort that a wicket that takes spin from day 1 is a bad thing whereas one which seams or swings around corners is fine.

We Somerset supporters have developed a siege mentality, and understandably so, but two things need to be borne in mind. Firstly the respected cricket writers, Dobell, Hopps et al -who love county cricket and understand it better than the “TMS/Sky” breed of journalists – saw nothing wrong in the pitch, and ultimately neither did the ECB. The second is that Somerset need to realise that they are now in jeopardy of a points deduction if the situation repeats. This situation is one that need never have occurred and that is my biggest frustration. With a bowling attack in that game of the Overton twins, Lewis Gregory and two of England’s top 4 spinners we should back ourselves to out bowl anyone.

Many were quick to blame Dom and Jack for the manner of their dismissals when only one run was needed. I still believe that if we had prevailed in that game a points deduction would have followed. Their failure to secure the win would not have changed the destiny of the title, even without the events of the last day of the Surrey game.

Somerset’s failure to win, and Surrey’s subsequent victory at Chelmsford, all but confirmed what we had all feared; that Somerset’s pursuit of the leaders after the events of the last 2 weeks of June was one in vain.

Somerset went to Hampshire the next week and on a seaming wicket lost in 2 days. Read that again! Hampshire prepared a pitch that took Somerset’s spinners out of the game and suited their seam attack. But was there any media outcry? Were the ECB picking over the embers of that game? No, of course not. Surrey’s 3 wicket win the following day at Worcester mathematically confirmed the destiny of the title although Worcestershire, who were relegated with this result, showed far more fight than a supine Essex of the week before.

Somerset had an extra two days to prepare for that weekend’s T20 finals day. My thoughts in that period were of foreboding that it was going to be really difficult to get the side ready for Edgbaston. But by the morning of finals day my optimism had returned. That was misplaced. In one of the most dispiriting performances from Somerset for a long while we were beaten by 35 runs by Sussex.

That defeat was almost entirely down to the bowlers who, for some inexplicable reason, were way below par, like a Rolls Royce with a bad misfire we were helpless as Sussex reached 202-8. A total that might be chase able at Taunton but at Edgbaston in mid-September was virtually impossible. From 33-3 even the heroics of Tom Abell and Corey Anderson never got us close. I was that evening as desolate as I was 41 years earlier at Lords when the same opponents beat us in the Gillette Cup final.

So, in the space of 6 days the season was effectively over. All that was left was pride, the opportunity to put a dent in the champions at Taunton. We all know how that went; forced to follow on after a dismal first inning any chance of a confidence-boosting rear-guard on the last day was blown away, literally by the storm damage on the third evening.

Many would accuse me of wild optimism but from 168-3 I had genuinely hoped that Azhar Ali and Tom Abell, the overnight pair, would have led a fightback. The overhead conditions on that last day were certainly more conducive to batting than those Somerset had experienced on the previous two and Surrey’s bowlers must have been tiring. We will never know.

But, as we have heard on so many occasions throughout the season, this is a Somerset side well led and with bags of character. With absolutely nothing to play for they went to Trent Bridge and completed an innings and 146 run victory. With Surrey losing by 1 wicket to Essex it was a case of what might have been. Imagine if it had gone down to Surrey needing to win that last game…..?

But this was a wonderful season. Trophyless. But wonderful.  This season and this review needed to end on a positive note. And Trent Bridge gave us that.

A Somerset first innings of 453 was built around 71 from Tres, another hundred from Hildy, and fifties from Steven Davies and Jamie Overton. Having reached 353-7 on the first day (Davies out to the last ball of the day again) Somerset turned the screw on the second morning adding 110 in just under 18 overs.

The importance of such late innings mayhem is often ignored. The fielding side, already dispirited, are given the run around when they anticipate a quick end to the innings and to start batting. Notts lost a wicket to the second ball of the innings with Lewis Gregory removing Jake Libby for his 200th first class victim, and from there it was a procession as Notts were rolled for 133. Abell wrapping up the innings with a hat-trick to finish with figures of 1.3-1-0-3!

Second time around wasn’t much better for the hosts. Having reached 114-1 they lost 2 wickets for 1 run to close on 115-3. The second over of the day, Craig Overton’s first, reduced Notts to 119-6, a hat-trick all caught by Trescothick. And, despite a semblance of resistance that was that, before lunch, job done.

As a final thought Somerset’s players may have reflected on the plight of their opponents. Notts secured first division status despite finishing on the same points as Lancashire by virtue of one more victory. At the exact same time last season Somerset were in a very similar position. While some may see this as a season of disappointment it is worth remembering how far this group has come and imagine how far they could go in the next few years.