Wagner's six exploits messy batting to give Essex a chance
Essex 129 (Cook 52, van der Merwe 3-26) and 10 for 0 require 245 more runs to beat Somerset 209 and 174 (Wagner 6-48)
"I don't like things messy," said the girl in the refreshments outlet as she wiped down the surfaces with uncommon zeal. It is fortunate she did not have a view of the cricket. "Messy" barely begins to sum up a second day at Taunton in which 18 wickets fell and a succession of batsmen were in suicidal mood.
The upshot is that Essex, 10 for 0 at the close, need another 245 with all their second-wickets intact. It is by no means impossible, because this pitch is far better than the scores suggest, although an Essex victory would require no more of the batting tomfoolery that saw those 18 wickets tumble for 253 runs.
Neil Wagner, New Zealand's adopted South African, was the chief beneficiary of a haphazard day in which his persistent use of the short ball reaped more dividends than he could fairly expect even on a wicket which the batsmen had concluded was two-paced and did not trust as a result. But hell, if it keeps working, keep doing it. As he so often has for New Zealand.
Wagner has found little swing in Taunton with his new-ball spells, when he pitches the ball up, but his old-ball tactic of bashing the ball into the middle of the pitch has brought untold joy. His burst of 5 for 17 in 34 balls saw Somerset decline to 124 for 9 before a last-wicket stand of 50 between Craig Overton and Jack Leach restored at least a semblance of responsibility. Wagner returned to end that, drawing Overton into an uppercut to third man, and finished with 6 for 48.
Somerset's batting coach Chris Rogers said; "I think a lot of the batsman will feel they have left a lot of runs out there. However, I do think this wicket is playing tricks. It is two-paced and it has become a bit of a lottery. But still, we could have tried to have seen Wagner off and we will need to address. The last pair valued their wicket and that will be a big lesson for the other guys."
A more pressing question is why Somerset dealt with it in such a ham-fisted fashion. Wagner, as a skiddy left-armer, is difficult to leave when he hammers the ball into a somewhat unreliable surface because of the angle he bowls and the height - or lack of it - he generates, but that barely begins to build a defence.
Such tactics - as Wagner himself signalled afterwards - are exhausting and cannot be pursued with success before long. Five overs, 30 balls, 15 balls each, to see him off. Against an Essex side only fielding two frontline pace bowlers. Finally, it seems, the Internet age where nobody can concentrate for longer than two minutes has reached Taunton.
Wagner's assault began with Steve Davies, whose square drive off the back foot flew at catchable height to point. Peter Trego was strangled down the leg-side and, further down the scorecard, the shots got worse. Roelof van der Merwe attempted a one-legged whip and was caught at midwicket and Lewis Gregory top-edged a pull to long leg.
That left Jamie Overton. Before lunch, Overton had bounced out Wagner: fast bowler bouncing fast bowler to warn him that fire could be fought with fire. Wagner therefore stepped up his short-ball assault and removed Alastair Cook from slip to strengthen the leg-side with the same intent. Blow me, if Overton did not top-edge a hare-brained pull straight up in the air. Perhaps an early contender for the daftest shot of the season. Utterly self-indulgent. There again, these days there is a lot of it about.
Essex had not been much better. Resuming on their overnight total of 60 for 2, they lost eight wickets in barely doubling their score with only Cook providing any real resistance. Even Cook lacked his frolicsome approach of the first evening before he played on, 13 added in an hour to his overnight 39, pushing limply at Gregory.
Left-arm spin will play a major part in Somerset's attempt to win the game on the third day. Leach's solidity will persuade Somerset that his simplified action - following the ECB analysis that deemed his action as illegal - will gradually pose the same threat that was such a central part of their Championship challenge last season. He took two wickets in Essex's first innings, bowling Ravi Bopara behind his legs on the sweep in a solid introduction to the season. A simplified action looks as if little go wrong, but what he needs are the bowling figures to follow.
Van der Merwe, his fellow slow left-armer, bowled the best deliveries of all, none better than the delivery which turned to strike Adam Wheater's off stump. Perhaps he could have been further forward, but on a day of such batting inadequacies it would be harsh to complain too much.