After much toil and little sweat – too cold for that – the Essex players could lay their hands on the Bob Willis Trophy. For the second year in succession they won a trophy by drawing their last game of the season against Somerset. Theirs was yet another gritty performance, heavily reliant on another mighty contribution from Alastair Cook, who scored 203 runs in the match.
Once more Somerset won nothing more than sympathy. At least the Championship pennant was not at stake so it is inappropriate to talk of 145 years of frustration. This was a one-off tournament, given greater standing by the association with the late Bob Willis, and it has been contested over two months with admirable intensity, no more so than in this final.
Both teams demonstrated why they have been the best in the country in red-ball cricket in recent times; they have talented cricketers in their teams but also an iron resolution not to give way. They have punched and counter-punched throughout the five days without delivering the knockout blow. In the end Essex won the trophy by virtue of their first-innings lead. By the end they were content to block out the final overs rather than pursue the target of 237 from 80 overs. In a sense this was an indication how important they regarded this success.
Somerset added 45 runs in the morning via Craig Overton and Josh Davey as Essex quickly withdrew their fielders. Tom Abell’s declaration, very generous in a normal game, was appropriate and Essex started with purpose with boundaries from the bat of Nick Browne and Cook but then two wickets fell swiftly. Browne was caught at third slip off the persistent Lewis Gregory, Tom Westley was lbw to Overton.
Essex were more wary now; the run rate slowed but crucially Cook was still there until the 24th over, when he eventually departed in an unusual manner.
Cook pushed forward against Gregory and there was a concerted appeal from behind the stumps. After some hesitation the umpire Russell Warren raised his finger and this was clearly a source of some consternation for the former England captain. He remained rooted to the crease, clearly convinced that he had not hit the ball, for quite a long time before he began a funereal walk back to the pavilion. This might have provoked the ire of the umpires but somehow it seems inappropriate to fine him for his tardy departure. It would be like imposing a speeding fine on Sir David Attenborough.
Cook’s dismissal doused Essex’s thoughts of trying to knock off the runs and there was relief from Paul Walter – on a pair – and their dressing room when a concerted lbw appeal in the same over was rejected by Warren.
Now Jack Leach, a spectator in the England bubble for so long this summer, took his first wickets of the season, on 27 September. His first delivery from the Nursery end turned sharply although little else did after that but he managed two wickets in the modern fashion for finger spinners, via lbws as batsmen propped forward defensively.
Dan Lawrence, standing erect in his stance with the bat almost tickling his left ear, batted pleasingly, timing his drives better than most, but then he pushed forward and was taken on the pad before being confronted by umpire Bailey’s raised finger. Walter hung in there for two hours of passive defence until he was dismissed in a similar fashion in the 53rd over of the innings.
This meant that Somerset had at least 27 overs to take the last five wickets. But as the ball softened the resolve of the Essex batsmen hardened. Ryan ten Doeschate, a dependable presence for so long at Chelmsford, dug in with typical resolution until the penultimate over when he skied a catch off Leach. Meanwhile Adam Wheater had been a rock-solid ally. Somerset kept striving with their best bowlers, Gregory, Overton and Leach, taking the majority of the overs. But there was no way through, which meant that they retained their reputation as cricketing Cinderellas, while Essex confirmed that they are the toughest team in the Championship.
This was an engrossing game for five days but don’t ask me to explain to a non-cricket lover how I have been consumed by a contest that lasted for five days, which finished as a draw and yet one of the teams, Essex, ended up winning the trophy. It has not been a normal summer of cricket, but I guess that we should be grateful that there has been any cricket at all.