Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
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Gloucestershire 16 for 2 trail Somerset 300 for 8 dec (Abell 132*) by 284 runs
Four years ago Tom Abell was made captain of Somerset and promptly lost form. Not for a couple of weeks, you understand, but for half a season. So bad did things get that Abell left himself out of the team to play Yorkshire at Scarborough. The response of the coaches at Taunton was predictably sympathetic but the encouragement offered by Jason Kerr was somewhat unusual: "You may not like me saying these words but I'm actually enjoying seeing you go through this."
Kerr's explanation was predictably thoughtful if uncompromising. It ran along the lines that cricketers who find the game relatively easy must also, at some stage in their careers, find it tough if they are to succeed. Before it can be easy again, it has to be hard, sometimes bloody hard. Abell was a naturally gifted cricketer who was going through a rite of passage that would enable him to be a better one.
And on this fine day in May 2021 Somerset's skipper played exactly the type of innings Kerr had in mind when his young charge didn't have a clue where his next streaky four was coming from. Behind the style there was technique; for every boundary there were perhaps 15 solid defensive shots; and behind it all was Abell's knowledge that he could battle through the tough overs. He had been here before.
And yet even when he has to work hard for every advantage there is still an elegance about Abell's batting. One notices it before he plays a stroke. The stance is balanced, poised, quiet. Abell holds the bat horizontally behind him, something that might appal the old coaches but which helps Somerset's captain set himself for any shot he might have to play. Of necessity many of those shots were cautious on the third day of this game but when he played the leg glance or his signature clip off the hip backward of square one was reminded how many stylish strokes are not played on the posh side.
Abell's achievement in becoming the first Somerset batsman to make a first-class century this season was all the more admirable because this had threatened to be Gloucestershire's day. Chris Dent's seamers had looked likely to claim almost all the laurels when they took four wickets in the hour after lunch, thus causing the visitors' decline to 143 for 6, and it was not until late in the evening that Abell batted with a freedom he had not previously been allowed, either by the bowlers or by his own self-discipline.
By then, though, he had been joined by Lewis Gregory in an eighth-wicket partnership of 116 that changed the nature of a contest which seems likely to become a tussle for bonus points. Even the new ball brought Gloucestershire no joy for they bowled poorly with it and the scoring rate gambolled along at around four runs an over. Abell reached his century with a cover drive off David Payne and next over Gregory got to a 77-ball fifty that had included two colossal leg-side sixes off Matt Taylor.
Gregory had his off bail trimmed by Taylor when he had made 57 but any revenge was trifling. Next over Abell hit successive boundaries off Dan Worrall and immediately declared on 300 for 8, thus ensuring that Gloucestershire collected two bonus points while Somerset had three. And the opportunity to make inroads on Gloucestershire's top order was seized in the first over by Craig Overton who hit Kraigg Braithwaite a fearsome blow in the box before having Dent caught at point by Lewis Goldsworthy for a first-ball duck. The long evening session got even better for Somerset when James Bracey's drive outside the off stump to a ball from Josh Davey only feathered a catch to Steve Davies. If the forecast is correct and we get no more than a session's cricket on the final day, the visitors now have a far better chance of adding bonus points than Gloucestershire and the precise value of such an advantage may not become clear until September.
So buoyant were Abell's players as they came off the field in the rich evening sunlight that it was important to recall that their position had only been achieved by virtue of their skipper's grim self-denial in the first half of the day. Having fought his way to 19 not out on a Thursday morning now of distant memory, Abell added 27 runs in an 85-minute first session and just 29 in nearly 32 overs during the afternoon.
But his survival was crucial given the mayhem he had to watch at the other end. Somerset had lost only Eddie Byrom in the morning but the afternoon was disastrous for them. James Hildreth was bowled for 15 by a fine inswinger from David Payne but Worrall replaced him at the Pavilion End and took three wickets in eight balls. George Bartlett was made to look inept when leg-before to a ball of full length that swung away very late; Goldsworthy fenced on the back foot at a delivery to which he should have come forward; and two balls later Davies was taken at third slip by Dent when he prodded at one that Worrall had angled across him.
That left Somerset with every chance of conceding three more bonus points to a team that has every chance of qualifying for Division One of this season's County Championship. Nor would the sight of Overton arriving at the crease have once offered travelling supporters much reassurance.
There was a time when seeing Overton restrain his attacking impulses was as tortuous as watching a drunk walk past a pub. These days, however, Instow's finest has become something of a sobersides, pushing singles and even letting the odd ball go on its way unmolested. Running between the wickets he is as difficult to stop as a super-tanker and may even have a comparable turning circle but batting at No. 8 in the order has helped him acquire greater responsibility this season. His 33-run stand with Abell lasted over an hour, thereby stopping a rot and setting up Gregory to take toll of a tiring attack.
Yet few could have expected the balance of the match to shift as quickly or firmly as it did after tea. Having hit eight fours in his first fifty Abell managed just three more in reaching a century and his entire innings lasted four minutes short of seven hours. It was a triumph of both simple concentration and complex judgement on a day that gave some delight to almost everyone at the County Ground.
The applause was discriminating but not narrowly partisan and the pleasure was shared with the folk sitting on the balconies of their flats at the Ashley Down End. Suddenly one wondered what it might have been like to live in those apartments only a year ago: to wake on a beautiful May morning and see the cricket field empty, the pitches unscarred, the players far away. Such thoughts prompted the further reflection that even someone with Tom Abell's regard for supporters does not quite appreciate the joy he brings to people he'll never meet.
Craig Overton takes timely four-for as Gloucestershire, Somerset draw
Both sides have a strong chance of qualifying for Division One
Tom Abell century lights way for Somerset in bonus-points scramble
Somerset captain's unbeaten 132 sets up declaration before visiting seamers strike
Bristol drizzle provides 1000s of reason to reflect on Gloucestershire spin heritage
No chance of play as covers stay on for day two of West Country derby