By Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid)
Last season no one gave Essex any chance of winning the Championship. In fact, most pundits had marked their cards with an imminent return to Division Two. Similarly, no one has given Somerset much hope this season, with most pundits foreseeing the drop for the Cider Boys. These two sides though have been the winners on a day of drama.
Let’s start at Taunton, if for no other reason than the fact that they have not won their opening Championship fixture since 2012. Not so long ago Taunton was known for pitches so flat that even the pigeons on the outfield fell asleep because the greatest excitement during games was watching the grass grow. The apogee of this was the Somerset v Middlesex game from 18th-21st April 2007, when Somerset replied to Middlesex’s 600-4d with 850-7d in a match that featured one triple century, seven other centuries and four fifties. Three seasons ago, Somerset realised that they would never add the County Championship pennant to their titles on such pitches. The result was to add some spice to the surface, leading sides to make bitter comments about “playing on the beach at Taunton”, although this policy has allowed them to develop two of the brightest spin prospects in a decade and a half in Jack Leach and Dom Bess. Somerset’s strategy has been to rely on a late-season charge on spinning tracks. It was noticeable that, in 2016, with Somerset bottom of the table in July, the Somerset Chief Executive stated that the weren’t thinking about relegation: they were planning to win the title. That campaign ended in controversial circumstances, with Somerset just missing-out, as they have done several times. The wise heads though have looked at the number of promising young players in the squad and warn that if Somerset are mid-table in July, that is the moment to put some money on them to win the title.
When you have just 14 games in the season, getting a fast start to the season is essential and Somerset were well on the way at the start this morning. Somerset were 255-9 at the start of play, 279 ahead and hoping to push the lead up closer to 300. However, the result of last night’s play was that James Hildreath was left at the non-striker’s end for the start of the day, watching Tim Groenewald trying to repel bullying, beastly Barnard, who was the massive Worcestershire thorn in the Somerset side in this match. Unfortunately for Somerset’s plans, it only took Barnard two deliveries to bowl a straight one. This left Barnard’s contribution to the first three innings of the match as: 5-52, 50 and 6-37. Spoiler alert! He wasn’t finished in this game.
Chasing 279, the Pears needed a decent start. Unfortunately, things went pear-shaped for them quickly. Before the shine had started to fade on the ball they were already 25-3 as Gregory and Davey combined to great effect, as they had in the first innings. Despite some resistance from Tom Fell, it really did not seem that the hearts of the Worcestershire batsmen were in the task of saving the match. At 85-6 the only hope for Worcestershire was either a sudden hurricane or, what would be similar, a quick century for Barnard. As in the first innings, the resistance stiffened when Barnard came in and became serious when he teamed-up with Josh Tongue at 121-8. Barnard deserved a second fifty in the match, but was left high and dry on 45* when Magoffin was run out. Somerset won by 83 runs and not a ball of spin was bowled by them until the closing moments of the match. One swallow does not a summer make (some idiot always uses that phrase to hide the fact that he can’t say anything perceptive) and one win does not make a Championship win, but if Somerset can follow this up, other sides should start to worry about those late-season games. For Worcestershire, this may turn out to be a long, hard season.
The other winner was Essex. They should have got over the line comfortably, but it turned out to be absolutely heart-stopping as Lancashire got far closer to their target than anyone had imagined. That the conditions had eased on Day 2 was evident as there were runs all down the Essex order until the last three wickets had fallen in a heap. A target of 320 in the fourth innings was always going to be tough, but it was a chance for Hameed and Jennings to make a big statement of intent thinking of the 1st Test in late May. In front they had Jamie Porter – tipped for an England cap in the near future – and Peter Siddle, an old warrior of Ashes battles, with the new ball. They knew that it would be a searching examination, but that a fifty against them would put big pressure on Mark Stoneman. Could they take the chance? Could they, hell! Hameed did not see out the third over, falling for a single. Jennings fought for over an hour, scoring 24 the 32 runs on the board before he guided Siddle to Varun Chopra. Hameed’s First Class scores this season are 5, 3, 19, 8 & 1. Jennings has 44, 11, 27, 2 & 24. Neither is making any kind of case to replace Stoneman.
Livingstone and Davies started to put the world to rights and, with Chanderpaul to come, Essex must have started to have doubts until Walter took wickets in consecutive overs to rock Lancashire back on their heels again. When Davies fell to Porter it was 139-5 and Lancashire were subsiding. %9 from Clarke kept Lancashire just about in the hunt but, when he and Onions fell quickly, Lancashire were 74 short with only Mennie and Parkinson left. What happened was pure theatre. The last pair survived for a few overs and the target came down slowly… 70, 60. The Mennie decided that if he could see the ball, he would hit it… as far as possible! Shielding Parkinson carefully, he took charge of bringing the target down. One towering six took it below 50, another brought up his own 50. The new ball came with 38 needed. Porter took it, Meenie whacked it. 33 needed. The tension was racking up with every run. Ball with Siddle. A single. Parkinson survived the last three balls. 32 wanted. Back to Meenie. Porter with the ball. First ball… a dot. Second ball straight and on a good length. Huge swing from Meenie. Stumps re-arranged. Essex have won by 31 and the crowd could breathe again. Amazing drama and, after the wash-out in the first round of matches, Essex are up and running in their title defence.
Drama of a different sort at Headingley. Yorkshire started at 189-4, with Ballance and Leaning approaching a century partnership. Trailing by 68 on first innings Nottinghamshire needed quick wickets. Within five overs they had both the overnight not out batsman. Hodd and Shaw fell quickly too. The ball was new, two genuine tail-enders were in their sights and Nottinghamshire must have thought that they would be batting quickly. However, Tim Bresnan was still there. It is five years since he last played a Test for England, but we forget that he is still only thirty-three and even with an elbow that looks like a Chinese puzzle after multiple operations, he is still a more than useful all-rounder at this level. He added 106 runs for the last two wickets with Brooks and Coad, 77 of them with the latter. Both hit sixes the impression was of a brutal mugging when Nottinghamshire thought that they had got themselves right back into the game. The final target was 403. The only question was: how deep into the final day Nottinghamshire could take the game?
Nottinghamshire needed someone to close up an end and give the rest of the batsmen someone to work around. What happened was the sort of mess that got them relegated in 2015. Four batsmen got past 20 and three more reached double figures, but no one passed 38. However, at 135-4, they should have at least seen out the day safely. When a little sense and a cool head was needed, the middle order fell apart. Ross Taylor, Luke Fletcher and Rikki Wessels all fell shortly before the scheduled Close. With the floodlights on and sunshine, despite some black clouds, Gary Ballance took the extra half hour. It looked as if the day would end quietly as Moores and Wood tried to ensure that at least the game went into it final scheduled day, but Ben Coad made one, final effort and dynamited Wood. This left 16 balls to survive, two wickets left and Adam Lyth floating down his occasional off-breaks along with Ben Coad. Moores and Ball survived, but they can expect to face a fired-up Coad, after a five-for in the morning and two batsmen without a First Class fifty between them. One assumes that the game will end quickly in the morning and Yorkshire will go top of the table, at least until the Surrey-Hampshire match ends.
So, we are left with the game that will decide who leads the Division 1 table on Monday night. A draw or a win for Hampshire and they will go top. If Surrey win, Yorkshire will be top of the table. A measure of just how much conditions have eased is that Surrey’s declared second innings was far in excess of the sum of the two first innings in this match.
Surrey started the day with Foakes and Pope batting confidently and already 281 ahead. Surrey just batted on and batted on and batted on. Ollie Pope went from 30* to 145 before Liam Dawson got him finally, by all accounts batting brilliantly and Surrey declared on 407-9, leaving Hants a mere 472 to win. Kyle Abbott came out of the slaughter best, with 3-72, but Fidel Edwards’ three wickets cost him 130 at not far short of 6-an-over. Much of the day it was Liam Dawson taking the heat, economical, but with little threat.
Bad light has helped Hants’ cause but, with Surrey off-spinner Amar Virdi, not yet 20 and in just his fourth First Class match, getting huge turn, their cause looks lost. Hampshire are 116-4 and Virdi has removed Vince and Amla, both LBW. It will be no surprise to anyone that Vince reached 33, looked good and got out. Hants should take the game into the afternoon session, but a win looks out of the question with 356 needed on the last day and only six wickets left and even a draw will take an almighty effort.
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