Lancashire 326 (Mitchell 105, Balderson 71, Overton 4-52, Henry 4-73) drew with Somerset 361 (Rew 105, Henry 50, Mitchell 3-32, Williams 3-71) and 398 for 5 (Rew 118*, Aldridge 101*, Lammonby 78)
It is one of history’s grimmer truths that since the founding fathers gave it large in 1776, challenging declarations have been hard to find. Even in cricket’s rich past, Stuart Surridge, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, Garry Sobers and Ben Stokes often corner a distinctly unadventurous market and only Stokes has played in the era when T20 shot palettes have made ten runs an over perfectly gettable in the closing stages of a match.
Rarely, though, does caution stray towards the marches of bloody-minded lunacy to the extent it did here at Emirates Old Trafford, when Somerset’s Tom Abell opted not to declare at all, instead choosing to amass a totally pointless lead, even when his side was safe. In the course of this charade, it is believed that 19-year-old James Rew might have become the youngest Somerset cricketer to score two hundreds in a first-class match and he is certainly the leading scorer in Division One. The problem was that some of his runs were scored off the bowling of George Bell and Dane Vilas. Rew is a fine player and his achievements deserve a nobler context. This was one-hand, one-bounce cricket.
It was only after luncheon that Abell’s tactics became very clear. In the morning session Somerset’s batsmen had proceeded much like the Trumpton clock: “steadily, sensibly, never too quickly, never too slowly.” Tom Kohler-Cadmore, who can shred an attack in half-an-hour, was bowled for 11 when he played inside a ball from Will Williams, and Tom Lammonby then had a giddy two minutes in which he gave one stumping chance to Bell, who fumbled it, and another the next ball, which the keeper didn’t take cleanly but still removed the bails before Lammonby had regained his ground. By then, though, the Somerset opener had made 78 and had set his side up for an onslaught, should they opt to launch one.
They didn’t. They absolutely didn’t.
Just before 2.45pm Lancashire’s view of Somerset’s tactics were made plain when Steven Croft and Vilas started bowling seam up in tandem. Neither was remotely threatening but the point had been made. Cricket had been replaced by a game of silly buggers. Then Josh Bohannon took the gloves and pads in order that Bell should have his first bowl for Lancashire. Right arm offspin, in case you were wondering but don’t expect to see it again. Bell bowling could be county cricket’s answer to sightings of the great bustard.
Eventually, Rew reached his century with a pull through midwicket off Vilas. There were cheers from the Somerset balcony but no celebration whatever from the batsman. Rew is clearly an intelligent cricketer as well as a very talented one. And all this was watched by the members in the pavilion and the paying spectators under The Point. Hardly anyone moved although it’s possible in one or two cases that rigor had set in.
One had sympathy for the umpires, Nigel Llong and Tom Lungley, who were required to officiate as conscientiously as they might in a Test match. They did well and one wishes they stood together more often, not least because their surnames are so gloriously complementary. Llong and Lungley: Charles Dickens, who was partial to a dollop of alliteration, would have loved it.
We got to tea and realised we only had 50 more minutes of this stuff to endure. Kasey Aldridge pulled Vilas for six to reach his maiden first-class century. This should be a major event in a young cricketer’s career, just as it was for Rew 10 months ago at Chelmsford. Instead, Aldridge reached his landmark in an atmosphere that varied between tedium and farce.
But let us see what defence can be offered for Somerset opting to bat throughout this final day to achieve the draw that has left them in eighth place, one place and two points behind Lancashire Some might point out that Abell’s team had played their best cricket of a mediocre season in the previous three days of this match. Was it fair to ask them to risk defeat in such circumstances? To which the answer might be “Yes”, especially when the draw leaves Somerset just above the relegation zone.
What’s more, it is becoming increasingly clear that this season’s reduction in points for the draw from eight to five is having a considerable impact on the league tables. Lancashire would have been fourth in the table rather than seventh when this game began had the original allocation been in place. Now, they remain seventh, unbeaten and winless, whereas Somerset are two points further behind before their game against Middlesex at Lord’s on Thursday.
“We went to Lancashire yesterday afternoon before the second new ball about the possibility of making a game,” Abell explained. “We felt we needed the best part of 96 overs to bowl a side out and it wasn’t right for them at the time, which is fair enough.
“A chase of only 50 or 60 overs only plays into their hands. We wanted to set up a game where both teams would have a chance of winning but ultimately it didn’t feel right. Fifty or sixty overs on that surface wasn’t going to be enough. So it turned into a bit of a damp squib but I don’t want to take that away from the efforts over the four days.”
But declarations have frequently been about far more than agreed targets and buffet bowling. The best of them surprise opponents by taking a match out if its expected pattern. If Somerset could not have 80 overs, could they not have tried to set Lancashire a much tougher target in say 60 and then seen how Vilas’s batsmen responded to Craig Overton and Matt Henry with the new ball? Championship cricket is more open to original thinking than Abell’s comments suggest. Very often, it’s not about pow-wows and “what will you chase?” It’s about doing what your opponent least expects and profiting from their discomfort. Spectators enjoy such battles.
Of course, this is by no means the first game to end in such a fashion this season. Sometimes there is no option but to block out; the problem was that plenty of more creative choices were available on this final day and at a time when four-day cricket constantly needs to prove its worth to the cynics and one-eyed reformists, it is incumbent on captains to explore them. But maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh on current skippers. Even in 1776, the cold truths of history were fighting to repel the comfort blanket of nostalgia. Rumour even has it that the Georgia delegate wanted to chat on for another hour.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications