Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker reports on the opening day of the Bob Willis Trophy final between Somerset and Essex at Lord’s, the red-ball conclusion to the strangest of summers.
Look, it’s weird. No point pretending otherwise. A game in whites, a first of the year for the old place, falling a few hours shy of autumn. There’s no way around it. No way to swerve the strangeness. It’s everywhere.
It was one of those days that starts dark and stays dark. A day for seamers to run in cool, and swing it round the floodlights. A day for stifled appeals and cries of praise. A day where the only sound resembling a buzz emanates from the players’ balcony. A day where, for all the presence of hacks and cameras and much-lauded digi-streams and Vic Marks trained on his beloveds and Ravi Bopara kicking around in a Sussex trackie (ill-fitting, not his colour) – the sense, nonetheless, that we’re at the end of something before it’s really begun is harder to shake than the drilling from the out-of-bounds Nursery End. The expanded stands down that way, adding extra padding around the Media Centre’s shoulders, are vast and towering and as empty as a promise. This is not how Lord’s is meant to be.
Still, it’s something to see anything, and all the more so this week, as we lurch backwards to those days when hope itself felt audacious. Red-ball cricket? What, this year? With four-fifths of players furloughed and clubs on their knees? Do us a favour, there’s more chance of a vaccine by Christmas. And yet here we are, among these foremen of the four-dayer, the two best teams around, small clubs punching hard. We counted 17 homegrown cricketers out there, taking a knee before we got going. “It’s not the size of your dressing room that counts,” Tom Westley said to me last spring, before the collapse, “but the quality of your players.”
Westley won the toss and asked Somerset to strap them on. No surprises there. Perhaps, if his spinner wasn’t so brilliant every day, if Simon Harmer wasn’t just as strangulating on the first morning as he is on the fourth evening, if he didn’t suffocate you from the moment he lands that first fizzer and demand everything of you just to wrestle his stock ball to the floor, if he didn’t possess the kind of aura that only the most dominant one-man shows can get away with and if he wasn’t the best finger-spinner on Earth who’ll get you on any day in any innings in any conditions, then perhaps he might have batted.
Harmer has only bowled six overs so far, a cold, unrelenting spell before lunch. There will be more. He stands above all else in this match. In his chest-on gather, as he unfurls that frame, he briefly throws his arms wide, goading the poor schmuck at the other end to widen his pincers to the untapped corners of those forbidden expanses beyond the infield. Have a go, those arms are saying, if you think you’re good enough. And every so often, a shot will break out, a drive considered, though it’s rarely up to much. Three times he was driven today, nothing doing. Attack him, and you get out. Defend him, and you suspend the inevitable.
With Harmer unshakeable, Essex only need play three seamers, and have barely gone round the houses for this lot: to Leytonstone for Porter (brisk, at you, professionally wronged), and to Chelmsford, for Cook (nagging, England potential) and Beard (sharp, uppity). Between them they shared four wickets, with Cook shaving the top of Ben Green’s off pole with the ball of the day: an inducker that ambled down the hill and through the gate. He has 95 first-class wickets at 22.
Until Steven Davies (Bromsgrove, Worcs) walked down the steps to join Eddie Byrom, Somerset’s batting had been an entirely homespun affair. (OK, Byrom’s Zimbabwe-born, but he came up through the ranks.) It’s one of the more savage ironies from a summer laden with them that the post-virus carve-up of the county game could yet see the smaller clubs squeezed and yanked into unrecognisable shape. And yet look out there: England options everywhere – every cricketer a force for good.
A battling half-century for Eddie Byrom!
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) September 23, 2020
Byrom had already played the knock of the day, upstaging Tom Lammonby and Bartlett, Somerset’s vaunted next-in-lines, when Davies joined him. Four down, black skies, no one here, the day soon fell away with barely a whimper. Byrom punched down the ground to bring up his fifty. Neither team seemed especially determined to stay out there. This game, you can guarantee, will finish in high tension some time on Friday evening or Saturday. It will be tight and taut and if Somerset can get, what, 200, 235, they will fancy it. They are, like Essex, a bowling team. Essex, though, have the wood over the whole of English cricket.
Every now and then, through the somnambulant drift of late afternoon, as the rain forgot to stop and the players huddled in hoodies, one of TMS’s commentators (neither Vic nor Ravi; I’m sure you can guess who), in homage to cricket crowds in absentia, took to his balcony and cried out ‘GET ON WITH IT!’ from his box just down the way. I don’t think he really meant it. He was just mucking about, spanning time. After all, the game, strangely, is on. This most melancholy summer has had more cricket than it dared to imagine. And there are still a few days left.