Somerset 236 and 159 for 3 (Hildreth 82*) lead Middlesex 142 (Stirling 41, Leach 4-54, C Overton 3-7) by 253 runs
St Paul probably wasn’t thinking about the pitch at Taunton when he wrote to the Corinthians that all old things become new again but, as this match progresses, he might as well have been.
After all the talk of the worn surface on day one, after all the chuntering from Middlesex and suggestions that the ECB could impose sanctions, the pitch appeared to improve on the second day. Perhaps it was the quality of the bowling, perhaps it was the quality of the batting but, as Somerset stretched their lead beyond 250 and Middlesex were reduced to employing seamers with no slips in place, it made some of the moaning about conditions on the previous day appear pretty foolish.
In truth, the pitch continued to spin, but it did so more slowly. As a consequence, batsmen had time to adjust and bowlers became more impatient. Equally, after some poor batting on day one – and the start of day two – batsmen showed a little more composure to negate the turning ball. And, if Middlesex had their time again, you suspect they might have included another specialist spinner in their team; Nathan Sowter, the legspinner, was named in their original squad but left out of the XI. Adam Voges might have found more assistance in the surface if he had landed the ball on it more often.
In the absence of the injured Ollie Rayner, too much was probably required of Ravi Patel. He harnessed conditions nicely in the first innings but, with Somerset’s batsmen demonstrating greater application, his inexperience began to show on day two. He didn’t bowl poorly by any means but, delivering over the wicket and pitching down the leg side, he often asked the ball to do too much. It might have been relevant, as James Harris noted after play, that the brevity of Middlesex’s innings – they batted for just 50.3 overs – didn’t allow the bowlers the time to recover before taking the field once more.
And, in James Hildreth, they found a stubborn foe. The time when Hildreth might have hoped to see his name in an Ashes squad has passed – he would be the first to admit he has lacked the consistency required to demand selection – but on days like this, when others can barely connect with the ball, he is still capable of showing his class with the bat. In a match where only one other man has passed 41, he is within sight of a chanceless century and demonstrated, once again, the ageless virtues of patience, composure and a sound defensive technique.
This is Hildreth’s benefit season and it has not been easy for him or the team. He has scored just one Championship century and only in this innings did he take his average above 30. But for a man steeped in Somerset cricket to produce the contribution that may well save them from relegation will mean a great deal, while it was further evidence that his reputation as something of a flat-track bully is not entirely fair.
Afterwards he hinted both that Middlesex hadn’t bowled especially well and that their batsmen had allowed their fears over the pitch to cloud their judgement.
“I don’t think the pitch has eased,” Hildreth said. “If the spinners put it in the right area, it is still tough. Half the battle as a batter is in your head. If you come on to this sort of wicket and think it’s really hard work, you’ve probably shot yourself in the foot. Guys who have applied themselves in both innings have shown there are runs to be had out there.
“I believe you have always got to be positive rather than worrying about surfaces. I think that Malan and Stirling were proactive and got runs that they deserved. There is spin there and it is a result wicket, but then if you play on a green wicket with seamers its hard work as well.
“I have played better and got a hundred on a juicy wicket at Scarborough. But in the context of the season and for the team this is easily my best innings.”
The upshot is that it is unthinkable that Somerset will suffer any points penalty for this pitch. While Wayne Noon, the ECB’s Cricket Liaison Officer at this match, declined to make his views public – meaning a shadow will linger over the rest of this match – it would be absurd for him to punish Somerset. Still, it seems a shame he is not prepared to confirm that now and allow the game to progress unencumbered by off-field concerns.
Realistically, though, the relegation battle will be decided by events on the pitch. And, as things stand, that bodes much better for Somerset than Middlesex. With two good-quality spinners in their side and the prospect of setting a target will in excess of 300, they have an opportunity to pull off the great escape with their third win in their final four Championship games of the season.
Middlesex could survive even if they lose this match but it will leave them in the uncomfortable position of relying on Warwickshire. If Hampshire lose at Edgbaston, though, and Somerset win in Taunton, it is Hampshire who will join Warwickshire in Division Two in 2018. As things stand, it looks highly likely that three teams from the so-called ‘bigger’ counties – Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Hampshire or Middlesex – will be playing in the lower division.
Middlesex endured an awful start to the day. In the opening minutes, Voges skipped down the pitch and attempted to loft Dom Bess into Taunton town centre. Instead he found midwicket. Meanwhile Dawid Malan called John Simpson through for a sharp single only to see Bess pounce on the ball at cover the throw down the stumps with a direct hit. It’s hard to blame the pitch for a run-out.
Paul Stirling and Malan, taking a positive approach, added 73 for the sixth wicket. But when Stirling was stumped – a brave and, as photographs proved, excellent decision by the square-leg umpire Michael Burns – as he dozily allowed his back foot to lift and Malan was beaten by a beauty from Jack Leach that turned past his edge, Middlesex’s slim hopes of gaining the 250 they required to guarantee Division One survival ebbed away.
Craig Overton, who has bowled far better than Steve Finn in this match, returned to bowl James Harris with one that found its way through the gate, before Finn missed a sweep and Patel carved to cover. It left Somerset with a first-innings lead of 94.
While Eddie Byrom, lofting to mid-off, and George Bartlett, missing a premediated sweep, fell quickly Hildreth and Trescothick showed their experience. Although Trescothick, who passed 19,000 first-class runs for Somerset during the course of the innings, could not capitalise, punished for lingering on the back foot during a good spell from Harris, Tom Abell provided fine support for Hildreth.
If the most eye-catching moment of Abell’s innings was a six driven over extra-cover off Voges, the most impressive was his maturity. While far more experienced played in this match have perished as they tried to hit their way out of trouble, Abell had the sense to take his time. As ever in red-ball batting, it is the shots you don’t play that are as valuable as those you do. It’s been a tough year as captain, but if he finishes it having saved his side from relegation, he might feel it was a fight worth taking.