Somerset 119 for 4 (Byrom 51*, Davies 19*) v Essex
It’s one of the great ironies of the season that the first-class competition should be named in honour of Bob Willis.
While Willis was, without doubt, a passionate supporter of the game in England, he wasn’t necessarily a supporter of the county game. There were, he thought, too many first-class counties, playing too many games. He had long recommended a significant restructuring.
So it may prove a fitting legacy if this year’s competition provides the precedent for change. Certainly it appears as if next year’s competition, which will be recognised as a county championship, is set to feature three conferences instead of the two divisions to which we have become accustomed over the last couple of decades. This final, and the Bob Willis Trophy, may well become a fixture of the summer.
You suspect, however, that Willis would think such change did not go far enough. And as his face smiled down on Lord’s throughout much of the first day of this match – the scoreboards here featured a picture of him whenever rain intervened – you could almost imagine him passing judgement on what he saw. “Unacceptable, Charles. Of course it’s raining. It’s winter.”
This was not, it must be admitted, a vintage day of cricket. Rain flirted throughout and the temperature was so low a polar bear wouldn’t go out without a muffler. And while this season of all seasons, it is hard to criticise – this competition has been an elegant solution to a horrendous challenge – the game has some thinking to do if it continues to plan for showpiece events at this time of year. We are, it might be remembered, still 10 days away from Finals Day at Edgbaston.
That Somerset have a foothold in the game is largely due to Eddie Byrom. Perhaps, had the likes of James Hildreth been fit and Tom Banton available, Byrom might have missed out. He went into this match averaging 17 in the competition this season, after all, and with a top score of 30. He had not made a Championship half-century since June 2018.
But here he looked compact, patient and, having played himself in, surprisingly fluent. After taking 25 balls to make his first 11 runs, he hit six fours in 17 balls as Aaron Beard, in particular, strayed just a little full and just a little towards the leg stump. His ninth four, the one which brought up his half-century – a glorious straight drive that flew back past Sam Cook – was the shot of the day. He resumes on day two just five short of career-best score against a first-class county; his two centuries have come against Cardiff MCCU and Bulawayo Metropolitan Tuskers.
Essex will be the happier of the sides, though. While there was just a little assistance from the overcast conditions and this fresh surface – they are playing on the pitch last used for the 2019 Ashes Test; the one where Steve Smith sustained the blow to the neck from a Jofra Archer bouncer – it was relatively benign by comparison with many of the tracks used in the competition this season.
Against an attack featuring Sam Cook and Jamie Porter, Somerset’s challenge will be no easier on day two. While neither are blessed with great pace, they bowl an immaculate line and length and, in conditions offering just a fraction of assistance, test the technique and temperament of any batsman. Here both men delivered six maidens each and conceded just over two an over. The pressure on the batsmen rarely relents.
The best example of this came with the wicket of George Bartlett. Five maidens in succession saw Bartlett, with 12 runs from his first 46 balls, tempted by one outside off stump which he might have been best to let go. Instead he attempted a drive which resulted in an edge to first slip; Sir Alastair Cook made no mistake.
By then, Sam Cook had already dismissed both openers. Tom Lammonby, playing across a full one which may have swung a fraction, fell to Cook’s third ball before Ben Green was bowled through the gate by one that may have come down the slope a little.
That left Somerset in some trouble at 52 for 3, with Tom Abell’s promising innings ended by an outstanding catch by Essex keeper, Adam Wheater. Diving down the leg-side, Wheater clung on to the ball millimetres above the grass after it appeared to brush Abell’s glove and thigh on its way.
“When me and Porter bowl in tandem we like to keep it tight,” Cook, who took his 100th first-class wicket with the dismissal of Lammonby, said later. “Especially on days where there might not be much assistance in the pitch.
“It is important to build pressure through the run-rate and force the batter to make false shots. We set out to keep the run rate below 2.7 an over and we did that well.”
Earlier Somerset had stuck with the side that secured their place in the final with victory at New Road, which meant no place for Dom Bess in his final match before departing for Yorkshire. Essex, meanwhile, recalled Nick Browne in place of Feroze Khushi. Bowling first was the obvious choice for either side winning the toss, with Tom Westley the lucky captain.
After play, Ben Green reasoned that 250 was probably a par score. But you suspect that Essex batting line-up may think it is somewhere higher. Seven of this Essex side average in excess of 35 in first-class cricket; only one of those to have played more than 10 first-class games in the Somerset side averages even 33. Byrom has kept his side in the game, but they have some batting ahead of them if they are to give their admirable bowling attack a fighting chance.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo