Roelof van der Merwe provides the impetus to keep Somerset's title hopes alive

ESPN Cricinfo

ESPN Cricinfo

Author 2019-09-25 02:18:21

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Essex 25 for 0 trail Somerset 203 (van der Merwe 60, Abell 45, Harmer 5-105, S Cook 4-26) by 178 runs

As John Cleese ate his lunch at the County Ground on Tuesday, he could have been forgiven for concluding that Somerset's title hopes were no more; ceased to be; expired and gone to meet their maker.

Around that time, Somerset had subsided to 144 for 9. On this dry surface offering substantial assistance to the bowlers that was not, perhaps, quite as bad as it may seem at first glance. But neither was it a commanding position in a game they must win if they are to overhaul Essex. As a lifelong Somerset supporter, it may have been enough to put Cleese (and Jeffrey Archer, who has also had a long affiliation with the club and has been at this match) off his Colditz salad.

But if we have learned anything from this summer, it is that Jack Leach is not a man to be underestimated.

And here, once again, he batted as if nailed to the crease in helping his side add 59 crucial runs or the final wicket. It was easily the highest stand of the Somerset innings and one of only two that extended beyond 30. And while it would be an exaggeration to suggest it has put Somerset on top in this contest - the weather is probably winning so far and every gamble has to come off if Somerset are defeat it and Essex - it has, at least, extended their hopes of a maiden Championship title into the penultimate day of the season.

Leach is becoming something of an expert in such last-wicket heroics. He was given a rousing reception by proud supporters as he made his way to the crease and rapturous applause after he hit - guided might be a more appropriate word - his first two deliveries for four through third-man off the previously frugal Sam Cook. From then on, however, he adopted a more familiar holding role - leech-like, if you will - with just two more scoring strokes from the other 34 balls of his innings.

To see Roelof van der Merwe as low as No. 10 is surprising, though. This is a man with a first-class double-century to his name, after all, who has batted at No. 3 in both first-class and limited-overs cricket. But, reasoning that attack may be the best form of defence on such a pitch, he registered his first first-class 50 since 2017 slog-sweeping his first ball for six and following it, moments later, with a reverse-sweep for six more. In all there were four sixes and three fours.

Simon Harmer bore the brunt of the punishment. Until that point, Somerset had struggled to negate his turn and control as he claimed the tenth five-wicket haul of a wonderful campaign that has now brought him 83 wickets. But van der Merwe took him for 45 runs from 35 balls and took Somerset to a total that may well prove somewhat better than par by the time this match ends. He later rated it both a "good score" on such a surface and a "good wicket" which may well be a somewhat contradictory stance.

It was a stand which may carry significance beyond its numbers. For by demonstrating the pitch was not as unplayable as one or two Somerset batsmen had made it appear, Leach and van der Merwe have also earned their side a decent chance of avoiding serious sanction.

Somerset have walked a narrow path in this area for some time. Just over a year ago, they escaped a penalty for their surface in a Championship match against Lancashire which finished in two days and was found to have "demonstrated excessive turn". But while the ECB's Cricket Discipline Commission did not penalise Somerset, they did warn that "the club should expect any proven breach of ECB's pitch regulations in future to result in a points deduction".

The key point here is that game was just over a year ago. And the ECB's regulations state that "penalties can only be applied if a pitch has been marked poor or unfit, or is a second case, in the same competition, of a below-average pitch for that county in a 12-month period.

And with ECB regulations deeming a pitch unfit "only if it is dangerous" and poor only if there is "excessive unevenness of bounce" or "excessive seam movement" there seems little scope for either conclusion. There is turn here, certainly, and there is some uneven bounce. But it really does seem as if Somerset have studied the regulations and taken a calculated gamble. If it comes off and they win the Championship, they will brush off the indignity of another 'below average' condemnation with a cheery smile. It would be a remarkable effort for a club currently searching for a new chairman, chief executive, chief operating officer and groundsman.

There are also various extenuating factors the ECB's pitch liaison officer, Phil Whitticase, will take into consideration. It is, for example, a televised game. And that means it has to be played close to the centre of the square in line with the position of the camera gantries. And, at the end of a long summer, all such surfaces have been used - this one for both the Ashes Test and the Afghanistan v New Zealand World Cup match.

Either way, nobody wants this thrilling title race to be decided in a meeting room in the weeks after the season has been completed. So while the Essex coach, Anthony McGrath, did suggest "the pitch has turned from ball one and some deliveries have gone through the surface" he also conceded such matters were "nothing to do with me" and urged his side to "play the conditions in front of them."

For a moment, as van der Merwe counterattacked, Essex did seem a little rattled. Harmer appeared irritated when Jamie Porter, on the deep point boundary, came off the rope only to see a six pass just over where he had been and, with Ryan ten Doeschate pushing men out to protect the boundaries, the gaps for singles increased. Aron Nijjar, the left-arm spinner, was also largely ineffective.

But Essex's nerves were calmed with the relative ease with which Alastair Cook and Nick Browne negotiated the new ball. They were beaten occasionally, but they also established a decent platform and arrested whatever momentum shift may have been achieved in the latter stages of the Somerset innings. And with just 27.5 overs possible on day one and 45.5 on day two, time is running out for Somerset.

The forecast for the third day, at least, is better. And while Somerset have a great deal of work ahead of them to claim 20 Essex wickets and squeeze in a second innings of their own, they have a huge amount of faith in the ability of Leach to exploit a pitch that really might have been tailor-made for him.

Their Championship bid hasn't kicked the bucket and shuffled off its mortal coil just yet.

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