In our series Match From the Day, Paul Edwards revisits classic county games.
September 22nd 2016
Somerset 365 (Hildreth 135, Rogers 132, Ball 6-57) and 313 for 5 dec (Rogers 100*, Davies 59, Trego 55, Patel 3-95) beat Nottinghamshire 138 (Bess 5-43, Leach 3-42 and 215 (Root 66, Leach 4-69, van der Merwe 3-59) by 325 runs
September 23rd 2016
Middlesex 270 (Gubbins 125, Brooks 6-65, Bresnan 3-48) and 359 for 6 dec (Malan 116, Gubbins 93, Eskinazi 78*) beat Yorkshire 390 (Bresnan 142*, Rafiq 65, Hodd 64) and 178 (Bresnan 55, Roland-Jones 6-54) by 61 runs
Among the many photographs that were taken the day after Somerset had annihilated Nottinghamshire in September 2016 there is a picture of Chris Rogers turning to look at a television. The screen itself is out of shot but we can infer roughly what it shows from the player's grim and painfully alert expression. Officially Rogers is still Somerset's skipper but this is also his first day as a former professional cricketer. The previous afternoon he had become only the third player after William Lambert in 1817 and Len Baichan in 1982 to score two hundreds in his final first-class match.
But personal achievements are now far from Rogers' mind; instead, he is wondering if there is any way in which the game between Middlesex and Yorkshire might end in a draw or maybe even a tie. Either outcome would make Somerset champions for the first time in their history. Rogers is sitting in one of the hospitality suites in what is now the Marcus Trescothick Pavilion; he is surrounded by the team-mates with whom he has spent the previous six months. And they are watching their dreams being smashed.
The cricketers doing the smashing are playing at Lord's, an environment ill-suited to vandalism of any sort. But having overseen a three-and-a-half-day arm-wrestle in the game that will decide the title, Middlesex and Yorkshire's captains, James Franklin and Andrew Gale, have now set up a fourth-innings run-chase. Thus Adam Lyth and Alex Lees are deliberately bowling tripe so that their side will soon be chasing 240 in 40 overs with an agreement they will never halt their pursuit. It will prove too difficult a target on a fourth-day pitch of variable bounce but one can understand Gale's position. Yorkshire are trying to win a third successive title - it would have been the county's sixth hat-trick - and across the years there have been scores of skipper who have gambled similarly, especially in dull three-day matches on covered wickets.
And Gale's batsmen make respectable progress before Toby Roland-Jones straightens one up and Tim Bresnan is lbw for 55 when trying to clout the ball into the leg side. The visitors now need 87 off ten overs with five wickets in hand. Middlesex are very warm favourites but nothing prepares the spectators at Lord's or the viewers at Taunton for the final action of the season. Having dismissed Azeem Rafiq with the last delivery of his twelfth over, Roland-Jones bowls Andy Hodd and Ryan Sidebottom with the first two balls of his next. The summer has ended with a hat-trick very different from the one Yorkshire supporters had envisaged. The Middlesex players and the TV commentators go cheerfully berserk. Some of those watching at home may be thinking four-day county cricket is not supposed to be like this. However, it is possible that assumption has been formed by listening to those who spout about the first-class domestic game without going to the trouble of watching any of it. Such people are still about.
As it happened, 21,595 people thought that game at Lord's sufficiently important to attend in person, 7,408 of them on a final day when they saw perhaps the most gripping conclusion to a season in the Championship's 130-year history. Among those who watched the whole match was Duncan Hamilton, whose small book Kings of Summer chronicles the game in a style which marries the virtues of the journalist to those of the poet. "It is difficult to judge something when it is actually happening," Hamilton writes in the final pages. "We wait for Time and history to bring proportion and order and rank to events. But I'm certain this match will live beyond its period, the totality of the experience too durable ever to fade." It is one of those sentences to which one responds, as Philip Larkin did to the music of Sidney Bechet, with "an enormous yes". And the warmth of one's salute is deepened by the conviction it is shared with many other people, some of whom, like myself, were at Taunton that late September evening.
"It is always tempting to pickle the distant past in the aspic of nostalgia; to think they don't make them as they used to. The more persuasive argument is that they make them just as fine"
When I insist that one of the most memorable days of county cricket I have seen was one on which no cricket was played, friends shake their heads in glum acknowledgement that the last marbles have left the building. I had arrived at the County Ground early that fourth morning and watched Somerset supporters greet their friends in the Stragglers' Café or the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. Whatever was going to happen, they had decided to face it together. The players had a room to themselves but some chose to take a walk on the outfield and be alone with their knowledge of cricket's iron logic. Rogers later admitted that he would have struck exactly the same sort of deal had he been in Gale or Franklin's position.
And as is often the case in such situations one's thoughts went back to games earlier in the summer, games whose significance seemed great at the time and even greater at the end of the season. There was no doubt at all that Middlesex would be worthy champions, although that was an opinion I kept to myself. They had begun their campaign with six draws, three of them at Lord's, where the county pitches were often as lively as PhDs on drainage in Grimsby. But in July Middlesex played the finest cricket of the season. At Scarborough they trampled all over Yorkshire on the final day: first Roland-Jones and Tim Murtagh thrashed 107 off 56 deliveries, at one stage hitting half-a-dozen sixes in seven balls, to give their side a first-innings lead of 171; then their attack swept aside Yorkshire's stunned batsmen for 167. The following morning's Times labelled Franklin's team the best in the country. It was a fair call.
A week later Mike Selvey's "Middle Saxons" consolidated their reputation at Taunton of all places. They were challenged to score 302 in 46 overs and got home with two balls to spare when John Simpson whacked Jim Allenby over deep square leg for six. Each of those victories was worthy of champions and the fact that Middlesex ended the season unbeaten seemed secondary to the manner of their six wins.
All the same, another close-but-no-pennant year seemed hard on Somerset and their admirable captain. Hard, too, on James Hildreth, whose ankle had been broken by a delivery from Jake Ball early on the first morning of that final game but had gone to make 135 with the help of a runner. At the end of the day Hildreth showed the media his lower leg; it was black. Defeating demoralised and relegated Nottinghamshire was then the most facile of tasks on a Bunsen; but watching their spinners share 15 wickets was the joyful prelude to another disappointment for Somerset supporters. There have been so many near-misses this century that the club could have ties made, black ones with a mournful wyvern on each.
In sport it is always very tempting to pickle the distant past in the aspic of nostalgia; to think they don't make them as they used to in the candle-to-bed era. The more persuasive argument, perhaps, is that they make them just as fine or, at least, so different as to render comparisons hazardous. It is rather hard to think there has been a better Ashes series than 2005; or a more dramatic final day to any Test match than Headingley 2019; or a finer climax to a County Championship season than that we enjoyed in 2016. Have the debates started already? One hopes so. In the meantime let us take comfort from a slightly unlikely literary source. In the opening pages of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited Sebastian Flyte says this:
"I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."
Fortunately one does not have to be a vain, alcoholic younger son of dysfunctional Roman Catholic aristocracy to empathise with Flyte's emotions. During these early months of the first non-cricket season any of us have known we should take comfort from the privileges we have enjoyed; their richness seems even greater in these strange days. Four years have not elapsed since Middlesex won the title but matches like those at Taunton, Scarborough and Lord's are our buried crocks of gold.
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