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The view from the commentary box 2021

It was another dramatic season for Somerset County Cricket Club.

One man was in place to see the majority of the triumphs and the disappointments.

BBC Somerset Commentator, Anthony Gibson.

Here is his review of the 2021 season:

When I look back on Somerset’s season from the commentary box of my mind, I see Tom Abell standing defiant; I see Craig Overton pounding in for over after relentless over; I see Ben Green leading out his young team in the One Day Cup; and I see all three of our captains explaining honestly, manfully and sometimes almost tearfully what, in the final analysis, went wrong.

It was a season that promised so much. Somerset may not have been favourites for the County Championship – that would have been Essex or Surrey -but by mid-May, with four wins in five games under our belts, including a spectacular coming-from behind triumph at Lord’s, and that grossly unfair eight point penalty wiped out, few would have bet against us. Yes, the top order batting was a worry, with Tom Banton struggling against the red ball on seamer-friendly pitches, Tom Lammonby showing only glimpses of the form which had carried him to three centuries in 2020 and James Hildreth out of both form and luck. 

But on the other hand, George Bartlett was coolness personified as he and a calculatedly aggressive Lewis Gregory knocked off the runs to beat Middlesex at Lord’s, Steve Davies was making important as well as elegant contributions, not least when he and young Lewis Goldsworthy saw us home against Middlesex at Taunton, Goldsworthy announcing himself with one of the shots of the season, a hook off his eyebrows from a Steven Finn bouncer which went like a bullet to the square leg boundary.

But the heart and soul of Somerset’s batting in those early Championship wins was Captain Tom. In innings after innings, he found himself walking to the wicket in the first few overs, to face a swinging, seaming new ball in the hands of bowlers with their tails up after an early wicket.  Only once in 14 innings, batting at three, was he at the crease with the number of overs in double figures, and even then (against Middlesex at Taunton) there were only 16 runs on the board.  Yet by the time the first run of four day games was completed, with a draw against Hampshire at Taunton, he had scored 635 runs at 63.5.  It was a remarkable performance, which prompted me to ask him if he had realistic hopes of an England place. With characteristic modesty, he said he’d had a fair bit of luck!

But the other ingredient in Somerset’s success was, of course, the bowlers.  Craig Overton, Josh Davey and Lewis Gregory picked up where they had left off in 2020, probing away remorselessly even after the pitches had lost their initial life and movement, which tended to be the pattern everywhere. I think of Overton’s  5/25 to bowl out Leicestershire on a flat pitch at Grace Road, or Davey’s persistence in winkling out the obdurate Hampshire tail-enders in the nick of time on a pitch that had died and gone to heaven at the Ageas Bowl.  Marchant de Lange had arrived from Glamorgan during the winter as a like for like replacement for Jamie Overton. He certainly looked the part of a big, fierce fast bowler, with his broad shoulders and Magnum PI moustache – “The Marchant of Menace”, as he was christened on Twitter by one of our listeners. But if truth be told, his most important contribution early on was with the bat, when he and Jack Leach added an absolutely crucial 83 for the last wicket in the first innings at Lord’s, after Somerset had looked dead and buried on 89/9, replying to Middlesex’s 313.

The Vitality Blast T20 qualifying campaign was a mixed bag, a string of rousing successes (Kent twice, Gloucestershire twice, Surrey at the Oval) being interrupted by the occasional defeat (Hampshire at the Ageas Bowl, Essex at Chelmsford).  Devon Conway was in the squad by now, contriving to score quick runs almost by stealth and the perfect foil for the uninhibited slash and burn stroke-play of Tom Banton.  Their unbroken partnership of 169 on a misty evening in Canterbury to carry Somerset to their first T20 win in Kent since 2011 will live long in the memory, for the contrast between the two batsmen, almost as much as for the brilliance of the batting. Will Smeed more than confirmed the promise he had shown in 2020, even if I am a bit worried about him being type-cast as a white ball specialist, when I’m sure he’s got the talent to succeed in all forms – preferably with Somerset!

As for the bowlers, giving Craig Overton the new ball worked pretty well, with the irrepressible Roelof van der Merwe and the seemingly nerveless Goldsworthy effective in the middle overs. It even seemed as if Somerset had finally found the solution to their death bowling worries when Lewis Gregory mopped up the Glosters at Bristol. I’ve rarely seen him quite so happy as he was when I interviewed him at close of play. Little did we know then that that would be the last time we would see Gregory with ball in hand for Somerset for the rest of the season.

I tried to steer clear of all the controversy over the ECB’s Hundred. It is the cuckoo in the nest, both of the fixture list and, potentially, of county cricket itself. But, thanks to the BBC coverage, there’s no doubting that it has introduced a big new audience to the joys of cricket, and especially women’s cricket, and from the financial point of view, in the short term, counties cannot afford for it to fail. The other upside was the chance it provided to watch some of the coming generation of cricketers to strut their stuff on the big stage.

Somerset’s young fast bowlers in particular did not disappoint, and with a combination of the experience of Hildreth and Davies and the youth of Goldsworthy and George Thomas putting good runs on the board, a team with an average age of just 23 might even have qualified for the semis, but for the misfortune of losing Ben Green, who proved a tactically adept and inspirational captain, for three crucial games, courtesy of a Covid ping.

Two days stand out as the most memorable of Somerset’s season; or, to be more accurate, a morning and an evening.  The morning was that of June 3, when spectators returned to the Cooper Associates County Ground for the first time in 20 months. It may have been a restricted, socially-distanced crowd, but my goodness what a roar went up as the umpires Peter Hartley and Steve O’Shaughnessy strode out to the middle, followed by the Hampshire team and the Somerset batsmen on a gloriously sunny morning. In our makeshift commentary box in the Yeovil Suite,  Kevan James and I simply let the relief and joy of the crowd speak for itself.

The evening was of August 26, when Somerset took on Lancashire in the Blast quarter-finals under the floodlights at Taunton. The atmosphere was electric, the excitement at fever pitch and what a game we had:  van der Merwe getting Liam Livingstone and Alex Davies in successive balls to check Lancashire’s flying start, big Marchant superb at the death, Will Smeed’s massive six onto the roof of the retirement apartments, Tom Abell’s superb pacing of his innings and finally, the Lammonby slow-burning fuse and sudden glorious explosion as he swept, pulled and drove Somerset to victory.

Despite the absence of Craig Overton with England, and Lewis Gregory’s back injury, spirits could hardly have been higher as the four match run-in for the Championship began four days later. With 17 points carried forward from the qualifying stage, and Azhar Ali on his way to reinforce the batting, Somerset seemed to have every chance.  And, well, we all know what happened next.

Why?  What went wrong?  They were questions I was asked over and over again as September’s catalogue of defeat unfolded. The main reason, for my money, was the absence of big Craig, with bat as well as ball, compounded by Gregory’s injury which prevented him from bowling. It was a miserable month for Somerset commentators as well as players and spectators. Believe me, it is no fun conducting inquest after inquest with cast-down coaches, players and, most of all, a captain who wears his heart on his sleeve.

I was never very confident that Finals Day would provide a glorious triumph to compensate for the dashing of Championship hopes – Kent and Sussex both looked too strong for a Somerset side shorn of the captain’s bowling – and so, eventually, it proved. But not before a quite extraordinary semi-final. When Tom Abell was out for 50 in the 17th over, Somerset, seven down, still needed 48 in just 20 balls. Mark Davis, summarising for me, gave it up. “There’s no way back from here”, he said.  “Oh ye of little faith”, I replied. “With cricket, you never know. Where there’s life, there’s hope”. 

I’m not sure if I really believed it, but it didn’t take Ben Green, Craig Overton and, ultimately, Josh Davey very long to justify my shaky optimism.  What a comeback; what a finish!   I only wish that I could write that Somerset went on to ride the tide of fortune to a glorious victory in the final.  But it wasn’t to be, a crestfallen Lewis Gregory confessing that, in the end, “we weren’t quite good enough”.

 But if the season ended in disappointment, there had been much to enjoy and remember fondly along the way. As always, it was a huge pleasure and privilege to have been able to describe Somerset’s season from the commentary box, and warm thanks go to all those who have tuned in. Here’s to next year!

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09/07/2022 19:00 - The Cooper Associates County Ground