When Charl Willoughby removed Phil Mustard in mid-afternoon at Chester-le-Street, Somerset went top of the Championship table but it is still far too early to tell who will finish in that prized position
When Charl Willoughby removed Phil Mustard in mid-afternoon at Chester-le-Street, Somerset went top of the Championship table but it is still far too early to tell who will finish in that prized position. The visitors, though, aren't going to die wondering with Marcus Trescothick's free-flowing 75 leading a quick-scoring reply as Somerset reached 226 for 4 at the close and within sight of a useful advantage.
With Nottinghamshire having lost so much time at Old Trafford they are facing an uphill task to secure the 22-point win that gives them the title regardless, so Somerset may not need a maximum bonus-point victory here, either. Their best chance is to bat positively, following Trescothick's lead, and then hope that Durham's fight diminishes as the season draws to a close. The scoring rate of 4.77 shows that is their plan as James Hildreth and Peter Trego continued to unfurl their shots despite three quick wickets falling for 48 in seven overs.
Trescothick's fifty came from 65 balls and he was doing as he pleased with some friendly bowling, although the West Indian Ruel Brathwaite bowled an energetic spell on his Durham debut. It was Trescothick's attacking instincts that brought his downfall as he drove at Ben Harmison - the brother of Steve who, like a host of Durham bowlers, is injured - and edged through to the keeper.
Arul Suppiah had pushed a return catch to Liam Plunkett to end an opening stand of 48, but Nick Compton added 84 with Trescothick for the second wicket. Compton played some superb off-side shots, but immediately after hitting his ninth boundary was given lbw against Harmison. Somerset continued to lose their way when Craig Kieswetter played a horrid shot across the line at Chris Rushworth to leave them 180 for 4. There is a fine line between aggression and recklessness, but neither Hildreth or Trego went into their shells. It made for compelling cricket.
Yet, this title race could still come down to the autumn weather. The North East was certainly the place to be on Tuesday as a bright and breezy September day meant valuable playing time, with only a brief shower during the evening session. The irony probably wasn't lost on Somerset, either, that Nottinghamshire walked off at Old Trafford with the sun shining.
On a flat pitch it was a commendable effort from Somerset's attack as their seam bowling is in the workmanlike rather than fearsome bracket. Steve Kirby's arrival from Gloucestershire for next season will boost their resources considerably. Here, though, Ben Phillips collected four, Willoughby three and Trego a important brace shortly before lunch.
Alfonso Thomas bowled without any luck on the opening day but claimed a deserved wicket in the third over of the morning when Dale Benkenstein's fine innings ended as he pushed away from his body and edged low to Trescothick at first slip. It gave Somerset their first bonus point and closed the gap on Nottinghamshire to just one.
Gordon Muchall's almost three-hour vigil ended with a thin edge to the wicketkeeper off Phillips. Harmison continued his promising finish to the season with an obdurate innings as he and Ian Blackwell added 57 in 16 overs for the fifth wicket. Blackwell, whose average this summer is a modest 32, lived dangerously with a wild, end-of-season, swipe against Willoughby and also drove short of cover before playing around one from Trego to depart lbw.
Trego, a valuable cricketer who could find himself on the Lions tours this winter, then delivered Somerset their second bonus point, lifting them level with Nottinghamshire, when Harmison's resistance ended with a weak pull that looped to square leg.
Trescothick employed the twin spin attack of Suppiah and Murali Kartik to reach the second new-ball quickly and the move paid off when Scott Borthwick edged low to first slip against Phillips' first ball back. Plunkett was lucky to make 11 as Willoughby beat him three times in a row before an edge flew to second slip, then the Championship lead was secured when Mustard inside-edge into his stumps. It was still Somerset's advantage at the close, but it remains a three-way fight for the trophy.