Hampshire 12 for 1 and 349 (Northeast 101, J Overton 5-70) need 409 runs to beat Somerset 408 (Hildreth 105, Abbott 6-84) and 358 for 8 declared (Ali 79, Banton 70, Abell 58)
Nine final-day wickets stand between Somerset and a sixth win in eight Championship games this season after they gradually turned the screw on Hampshire with a dominant batting display. Led by Azhar Ali, whose 79 marked only his second fifty of the season, and the impressive Tom Banton, Somerset racked up a lead of over 400, before Lewis Gregory’s late wicket confirmed their position of superiority.
The task facing Hampshire’s batting line-up, already missing James Vince and Liam Dawson due to England commitments, is to occupy the crease for a full day, and is made even harder by injuries to Joe Weatherley (ankle) and Tom Alsop (hamstring).
Taunton has become synonymous with short, spin-dominated games in recent years, but this pitch has played more like one of the tracks of old. It is flat and hard, and Somerset’s spinners Dom Bess and Jack Leach will rely on footholds tomorrow if they are to play the role expected of them.
After Gregory made short work of Hampshire’s tail, Tom Abell and Ali were dominant for the rest of the morning. Somerset’s highest opening partnership of the season had been just 30 – epitomising the struggles of Marcus Trescothick – but they faced no great difficulty seeing off the new ball on a placid pitch against a bowling attack that looked equally flat.
Keith Barker’s tight spell from round the wicket after lunch eventually delivered the breakthrough: he bowled Abell for an attractive fifty after cramping him for room, and nicked off James Hildreth for two.
The problem for Hampshire was that their double strike meant the arrival of Banton, whose star seems to rise every time he bats.
Banton’s most eye-catching shot is the straight drive, which he nails down the ground with a high front elbow and an exaggerated follow-through, but here he unfurled his full array of strokes as Somerset looked to build a commanding lead.
He started with a back-foot punch through the covers in the style of Shai Hope – crisp, clean, and controlled. Then there was the swivel pull nailed through backwards square off Abbott; the hold-the-pose steer through wide mid-on; and the full-blooded cover drive so easy on the eye you wanted to take it out to share a bottle of red and a mezze platter.
Banton’s ascent to higher honours is a matter of when, not if. His imposing style has already won him a plethora of high-profile admirers, and scores of 112, 59, and 69 in his three Royal London Cup knockout games – the last of them in a run chase in a Lord’s final, no less – betray an appetite for the big stage.
It took a freak dismissal to prevent him reaching a maiden first-class hundred that had looked like an inevitability for much of the afternoon. On 70, Banton went to sweep a ball from Mason Crane out the rough, which then looped up into the gloves of substitute wicket-keeper Lewis McManus. Replays showed it had hit him low on the forearm rather than on the glove, and Banton was visibly distraught as he trudged off.
Crane endured another rough day after a first-innings return of 0 for 88 in 12 overs. He repeatedly pulled out of his run-up and bowled several front-foot no-balls, and a handful of drag-downs and full tosses were given short shrift. He ended with three expensive wickets – although he was exasperated by a couple of caught-behind shouts that were turned down – and struggled to find his rhythm throughout.
Crane remains a bowler with plenty of promise, not least with a white-ball in hand, but a flat pitch and a game between Division One title contenders is a cruel place to be learning and developing; how Hampshire would have loved to have Liam Dawson available to tie down one end and let their legspinner attack from the other.
Fidel Edwards returned to snare a pair of late wickets, but his late spell only raised questions as to why he had bowled so sparingly throughout the day; in the age of player-on-player match-ups, it seemed like an oversight on the part of Northeast that Edwards bowled just three balls to Banton, with whom he had locked horns so memorably in the Lord’s final.
Increasingly, the game at Taunton between Somerset and Essex on September 23 looks like a title decider in the making; if both sides can force wins tomorrow, the Championship will begin to feel like a two-horse race.