Gloucestershire 13 for 0 trail Somerset 312 (Davies 87, Overton 54) by 299 runs
Dystopian science-fiction novels have never been shy of depicting an isolated and fearful society in which debilitated human beings become over-reliant on technology and are force-fed propaganda in a sad and meaningless existence.
It’s more than a little unfair to describe county cricket’s digital revolution during the time of Covid like that but you get the picture.
County cricket’s in-house streaming service has been quietly advancing for several years, and as lockdown is eased it remains indispensable for spectators still shut out of grounds until May 20 and, even then, only likely to be allowed back in reduced numbers.
So while it would have been considerably nicer to be at Taunton to watch the first West Country derby in the Championship for 14 years, in the interests of science it was time to experience what everyone was going through.
A quick vox pop on the Facebook group County Cricket Matters confirmed that most county followers have developed a real affinity for the coverage of their county, even if they fear the eventual introduction of paywalls and even if there will always be someone who thinks the game should be broadcast live on BBC 1 with a lengthy run-of-play report in the Daily Telegraph.
But at a time when the Hundred is fast approaching, and is often justified by grave warnings that “the game is dying”, it will be an eye-opener to the naysayers to discover this dying game covered by multiple cameras, action replays and, in the majority of cases, commentary synched with BBC online coverage, although Middlesex and Gloucestershire now have their own commentary teams. It feels more like a Golden Age.
“In time,” E.M. Forster warns of technological advancement in The Machine Stops “there will come a generation that had got beyond facts.” Nobody would ever accuse Somerset’s much-valued commentator, Anthony Gibson, of a tendency to inaccuracy, even if he does have a healthy regard for the talents of an entertaining Somerset side striving once again to win a first Championship title. A sprinkling of local pride is no bad thing. And pride was in abundance after Somerset lost the toss on a difficult batting morning, then lost half their side for 110, but fought back to be dismissed late in the day for 312.
County cricket’s cultural shift – perhaps even cultural confusion – does have a peculiar aspect for such an erudite individual. This authentic West Country man, writer of several books celebrating the connection between authors and their landscape, now occasionally breaks off from commentary, as he must, to read the latest social media offering from Grumpy Git. He seemed to know who it was, too, which was quite a feat as in county cricket it could be pretty much anyone.
Professional commentators rightly point out the distinctive styles of TV and radio cricket commentary which make county cricket’s hybrid streaming service a slightly uncomfortable compromise. Radio commentators paint a picture whereas TV commentators interpret it, in far fewer words yet here the two go side by side. While that is true, it should not deflect from an offering fast approaching broadcast quality, and backed up by videos of every wicket and boundary. County cricket is used to compromises.
As for the cricketers themselves, they might no longer face the level of independent, and critical, coverage that they did a generation ago, but their techniques have never been more on show. Tom Banton was a case in point – one of the most dangerous T20 players in the world was ill at ease in making 29 as Ryan Higgins and David Payne found swing and seam with the new ball, ample to justify a decision to bowl first. He played on, an indeterminate prod at Payne’s inswinger. Holding down the opening spot in the Championship will aid Banton’s all-round development, although it will demand reassessment if he is to succeed.
Danger increased whenever Higgins and Payne had the ball, but there was also a promising seam-bowling debut from Dominic Goodman, a 20-year-old student at Exeter University, who looked a dependable sort, found a bit of bounce at times and deserved his reward when he swung the second new ball to have Josh Davey caught at slip. “A big lad who makes good use of his height,” said Higgins, and so he was.
There are some county batting line-ups where watching on the TV would have made it tempting to channel hop after lunch, although BBC 2 had kindly scheduled something called 800 Words in the post-prandial slot which was a useful reminder for any journalists watching on TV where their priorities lay.
Somerset, in any case, are highly entertaining, worthy of a close watch, and this time it was Steve Davies and Craig Overton who rallied them from 110 for 5 with a stand of 116 in 30 overs. Overton, promoted to No. 7, which will please England, remained naturally bullish, while Davies, happily feasting on anything short and wide, was as crisp and clean as a sanitised kitchen. Overton fell to a fine delivery from Higgins; Davies fell more disappointingly, hanging out his bat so markedly that he chopped on an outswinger from Payne.
Back in 2007, in the last West Country Championship derbies, Somerset won both matches handsomely, with Andy Caddick proving to be Gloucestershire’s nemesis on both occasions. This time, Somerset’s advantage is slighter, but if conditions remain the same they have the edge.
Somerset have always been one of the forerunners of online streaming, their offering marshalled by the impressive Ben Warren, a master of chilled-out commitment. Their YouTube and Facebook sessions totalled combined figures of more than 80,000 on the first day with the average session time more than 15 minutes.
As impressive as county cricket’s commitment to online streaming is, as vital a lifeline as it may prove to be, it cannot match the real thing. County clubs are communal or they are nothing. Forster’s message in The Machine Stops was that the move to a globalised, technological-driven society must not be allowed to destroy our humanity and our connection with the natural world; that progress must be tempered with such community, with human relationships and a beating heart.
For those who retain an affinity to England’s professional circuit, the need to protect the game’s soul need not be explained. Somerset supporters watching online will have missed, as many of us do, a coffee in the Stragglers, the renewal of acquaintances by the pavilion and the ear-shattering wisdom of Tractor Driver in front of the scoreboard. It is those who question the circuit’s continued existence who need to learn the lessons provided by a dystopian novel or two.
David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps