Saturday, 24 September 2016

A thrilling finale

Saturday, 24 September 2016
At first, it all came down to 16 runs. 16 of the most tense runs I have witnessed, each one met with its own round of applause. And all this, merely to keep Yorkshire in the title race, never mind the result. 350 runs were needed to pick up that crucial batting bonus point, the one that meant Yorkshire would finish ahead of Somerset if they won the match, and here they were, nine wickets down. As if it wasn't drama enough, at 349/9, down came the rain.

But once they came out again and the sun began to shine, they got the job done. Ryan Sidebottom, an unlikely hero with the bat but a hero nonetheless, clipped the ball away to the boundary for four. The crowd roared. Sidebottom and his batting partner Tim Bresnan, who himself had played one of the great county innings for 142*, embraced. But this was only the end of act one.

Somerset had done all they needed to, their own heroes casting the die. Chris Rogers, who announced his retirement from first class cricket after the game, signing off in style with a century in each innings. Marcus Trescothick, evergreen at 40, going strong throughout the season. James Hildreth, fracturing his ankle early on in his innings but making 135 of the most crucial runs. They had their share of drama, too - a collapse from 302/2 to 322/9, including five wickets falling for no score on 322. Jack Leach and Dominic Bess came to the rescue, taking Somerset to a total of 365. They did their work with the ball too, taking eight wickets between them in Nottinghamshire's first innings before Leach picked up four in the second. The victory was by 325 runs, as comprehensive as they come. But both teams at Lord's knew a win would secure them the title. Somerset were left to wait, the hardest game of them all.

Back at Lord's, maybe the game was starting to drift. After an electric start where a wicket apiece for Sidebottom and Brooks left Middlesex 2-2, the recovery was taking place with first innings centurion Nick Gubbins (93) alongside Dawid Malan (116). Middlesex were 120 behind, and needed to dig in. And so they did, the partnership broken only on the eve of lunch the next day, when Gubbins fell just short of a second century. But a draw had started to look the most likely outcome. Somerset fans could dare to dream, but for the fact that a draw was in neither Middlesex nor Yorkshire's interests.

A spot of declaration bowling had to come. It wasn't great to watch, and certainly not for Somerset. But any team in that situation would have done the same; needs must. There was nothing to gain from either side in hanging around for a draw. 240 runs were needed then, with 40 overs to go. It offered enough time to dismiss a team, but with a score that would always keep Yorkshire interested even if a few wickets fell. One session then, stood between three teams for the title. The finale was upon us.

It might have looked a rather generous declaration at first; it turned out to be spot on. Yorkshire had gone in with just the four specialist batsmen, always having a risk of being exposed (much as they were in the first innings, when three of the top four fell for ducks). The pitch was the sort that a batsman could stay in on - but not necessarily one easy to score on. Tim Bresnan was the only man who ever really looked settled for Yorkshire, but - not for lack of trying - his second innings heroics weren't quite the match of his first. But there were still plenty of twists and turns for that last session. A fifty partnership between Bresnan and Ballance, when it looked like Yorkshire might make it. When it looked like Somerset could be the winners, with five wickets still needed from the last ten overs after Bresnan's dismissal. And then the final piece. A hat trick for Toby Roland-Jones, a wicket for Finn sandwiched between. Yorkshire were all out; Middlesex were champions.

Roland-Jones tore away, the hero of the hour. Middlesex players bundled to the ground in celebration. Somerset and Yorkshire were left heartbroken. Sixteen matches across six months, and it had all come down to the last five overs. As thrilling as it could be.

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