Taunton pitch under scrutiny as 22 wickets fall
Lancashire 99 (Leach 5-28) and 7 for 2 trail Somerset 192 (Gregory 64*, Maharaj 4-65, Onons 3-40) by 86 runs
The long-distance jurors reached their verdicts quickly on the first afternoon of this game. The motive was clear enough and although the evidence was circumstantial, the defendant had form. Well before the 22nd wicket of the day had fallen, the foremen on social media were declaring that Somerset had doctored this Taunton pitch and breached the terms of the probation imposed after the Middlesex match nearly a year ago.
Such views generally carry greater weight when based on empirical evidence rather than supposition. Those who actually attended the game may testify that any official enquiry might centre just as valuably on the techniques and temperaments of the certain top-order batsmen than on the eccentricities of the wicket. That judgement was supported in the final session of the game when Somerset's last two wickets added 88 runs, thereby extending their team's lead to 93. If Lancashire bat as ineptly as they did in the first innings - they were skittled for 99 in less than three hours - that will be a match-winning advantage.
However, suspicions increased when Jack Leach turned one sharply to bowl Alex Davies for 6 in the penultimate over of the evening session, thereby dismissing the Lancashire opener for the second time in a few hours. By the end of the day doubts were being cast anew on a surface on which 13 of 22 wickets had fallen to spin.
The officials may take a different view, of course. We await the verdict of the umpires, Paul Baldwin and Jeremy Lloyds, and that of the Match Liaison Officer, Dean Cosker. But the good sense shown by Lewis Gregory in making an unbeaten 64, his third successive championship fifty, certainly showed that proper innings could be built on this surface and Gregory's selective aggression threw the limitations of many other batsmen into sharp relief.
Those limitations were clear when barely half an hour's cricket had been played. Despite their memorable victory at Southport, Lancashire dropped both Haseeb Hameed and Rob Jones and opted to give Karl Brown a chance to open the batting. Brown's 137th long-form innings for Lancashire was also his first for nearly two years and it would have been familiar to anyone who had seen most of the previous 136. Three perfect off-side boundaries were followed by a careless pull to Ben Green at midwicket and a smile of embarrassment from Gregory who had bowled the long hop.
Perhaps that set some sort of standard for the rest of the top order. Steven Croft came down the wicket to Leach, who had come on in the 16th over, but missed the ball and was stumped. Next over Liam Livingstone's first innings since breaking his thumb in July lasted four balls before he drove Jamie Overton's half-volley to gully, where the substitute fielder, Roelof van der Merwe, took a good catch. The pièce de non-résistance, however, was left to Davies, whose batting this season has often been a very present help in trouble. Not this time, though. Offered a thigh-high full toss by Leach, Davies punched it straight to Craig Overton at mid-on. Dane Vilas, at the other end, placed his hand to his brow and then shook his head wearily.
On a day when Somerset were holding their second annual Farmers' Day, it may have seemed to Vilas that his colleagues were entering into the agrestic spirit established by their hosts; certainly one or two shots in the first session reminded one of the substance farmers are wont to find on their boots when labouring in cow pasture.
Things got no better for Lancashire either before or after tiffin. Josh Bohannon, one of the heroes of Southport, was tempted into fencing at a ball from Jamie Overton and Marcus Trescothick took the catch. And having limped to 72 for five at lunch Lancashire lost their last five wickets in adding another 27 runs after the resumption. Jamie Overton bowled well to take 3 for 23; Leach bowled indifferently to finish with 5 for 28. The pitch should not be the only story to emerge from this game.
Having seen Lancashire bat poorly, some of Somerset's cricketers followed their lead. Trescothick played on to Graham Onions, and so did Azhar Ali. Tom Bailey, who had been awarded his Lancashire cap before play began, straightened one sufficiently to bowl Ben Green, who was making his first-class debut. By far the classiest innings of the entire day was then played by James Hildreth, who hit six boundaries in his 32 runs before he edged a fine ball from Onions to Steve Davies. The thought passed through one's mind that if England ever selected Hildreth, Ian Bell and James Vince in the same eleven, a special edition of the The South Bank Show would be devoted to middle-order batting.
Such elevated notions were quickly dispelled by a further tumble of wickets. Maharaj's introduction from the River End was enough to account for Tom Abell, Dom Bess and Davies, and when Craig Overton was eighth out with the score on 104, a paltry lead seemed likely. But Jamie Overton whacked a couple of balls into the churchyard in his 24 and Gregory managed three more sixes in an innings which has altered the pattern of this match.
Whether it helps to decide how the points are awarded will be a matter for Cosker, Lloyds, Baldwin and the experts from the ECB. This game could well last less than two days but another contest may begin soon after its conclusion.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications