County Championship – day two (close)

Somerset 203 v Essex 25-0

WITH Somerset needing victory to become champions and rain in the air, this game needed to move quickly.

Fortunately, in Roelof van der Merwe, Somerset have a player who simply knows no other way.

“I like to take risks,” he said with a smile at the close of play, and it was an approach which paid dividends in style on day two of this title decider.

Blessed with a bulldog spirit, a fantastic eye and an ability to score runs in the most unusual of methods, van der Merwe is – and, in nigh-on other team in the Championship, would be – far too good to be strolling in at number 10.

He is a maverick with the bat who is difficult to pigeon-hole and, as a result, has batted everywhere except opening and number 11 in his First Class career.

But at 10 he was today – and how grateful Somerset were to have a player of his ability entering the fray at 130-8.

At that point, most thoughts inside the County Ground centred around scraping to 150 and setting about the task at hand with the ball.

Van der Merwe had other ideas.

Simon Harmer, five wickets behind him, turning the ball prodigiously from the River End? No problem. Slog-sweep for six. He’s switched to around the wicket? OK – reverse sweep for six more.

With Jack Leach at the other end displaying all the defiance which has made him a national treasure in recent weeks, van der Merwe had the licence to keep going.

His third six, straight down the ground off Aron Nijjar, brought him to a 42-ball half century; his fourth, in the next over, took Somerset to 200 and an unexpected batting point.

Though he fell attempting another reverse sweep, his innings of 60 was his most important for Somerset since that infamous 165* against Surrey in 2017 and breathed fresh life into Somerset after a flurry of wickets had fallen in the play available following a delayed start.

George Bartlett was caught at leg-slip in Harmer’s first over of the day and Lewis Gregory, who took 16 from the spinner’s next over, chose a bad time to leave a straight one from Sam Cook and was trapped lbw.

Only Tom Abell looked comfortable in the morning session, defending stoutly and picking his moments to score wisely, but Somerset’s captain fell shortly after lunch for a well-made 45 when he played back to Harmer and was wrapped on the pads.

Craig Overton fell two balls later in identical fashion, handing Harmer his five-fer, and Dom Bess was clean bowled by a shooter from Cook which came back in between the Devonian’s bat and pad.

Then came the fireworks from van der Merwe but the momentum built up with the bat was not immediately taken into Somerset’s bowling performance.

The new-ball bowlers, Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton, kept to a probing line and length but could not force errors from the patient Nick Browne and Alastair Cook; neither, in an over a piece before tea, could the spin of Leach and Bess.

Essex’s experienced opening pair safely negotiated a potentially tricky 11-over period before tea, during which the heavens opened once more and ruled out any further play on the second day.

The forecast looks promising for the remaining two days and a result is still more than possible with overs to be made up.

Van der Merwe, meanwhile, will be hoping his contribution to this match has only just begun; he is part of a three-man spin attack who will be tasked with taking the bulk of the 20 wickets required if Somerset are to become champions.

“There is some turn out there but we have to be patient and not worry too much about the scoreboard,” he said.

“If we can contain them and get a few quick wickets tomorrow you never know.

“I’ve always loved playing the longer form of the game.

“I love four-day cricket, the grind of it, and to get back in the team is special.

And as for batting at 10?

“I’ve had a chat with the coach about that but he won’t budge,” he laughed.

“It’s where I’m batting. I will just look to contribute wherever I come in.”

If Somerset do go on to win this game, today’s innings will be a contribution not to be overlooked in the years to come.