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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Luke Fletcher plays part with ball and bat to put Nottinghamshire in control


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Patterson-White’s maiden Championship hundred sweeps Notts to commanding total before Fletcher’s 4-21

Somerset 87 for 7 (Fletcher 4-21) trail Nottinghamshire 448 (Patterson-White 101, Clarke 59, Fletcher 51) by 361 runs

Luke Fletcher has rarely been a cricketer to be bathed in the spotlight, but it was a bit much all the same that the very moment he reached 50 Championship wickets for the first time in his career – and galvanised Nottinghamshire’s Championship challenge in the process – the Taunton floodlights turned off and plunged the ground into gloom.

Macbeth might have done his best work in darkness, but Fletcher is one of the game’s honest toilers and darkness was the last thing he needed as he strained every sinew in search of a second Championship title to round off an excellent personal season. As the umpires decided upon a brief stoppage, while somebody checked out the fuse box, he trudged philosophically across the pitch, the first three wickets to his name, his face – shining red with effort – standing out in the gloom.

The floodlights recovered, and the sides returned, enabling Fletcher to pick up a fourth wicket by the close of the second day. Somerset then lost three more as the ball began to swing and finished in peril at 87 for 7, 30.1 overs of batting mayhem which left them still 361 behind. Their 10-point cushion against Notts could now be lost in the first of four Division One matches that will decide the destination of the Championship.

Before lunch, Liam Patterson-White had completed an enterprising maiden Championship hundred to sweep Notts to 448. It had been a long slog for the bowlers and as Fletcher tied up his boots, he might have anticipated a blister or two ahead. Instead, another indefatigable display brought him 4 for 21 in 11 overs – including two leg-side strangles to communicate that fortune was also on his side.

This was another grand day in Fletcher’s heartening summer. Not only is he the first bowler to reach 50 Championship wickets this season, his victims have come at 12.45 runs each. That is the sort of return that used to be the province of world-class, imported pace bowlers and, if the Conference system might have played a part, it should not be lightly dismissed.

Fletcher, at 32, has become a seam bowler of considerable nous. He has learned to respect the game without taking it too seriously. That balance communicates itself to the crowd and, if Championship cricket is to negotiate one of the most challenging periods in its history, when it often seems to be taking itself more seriously than those in control take it, his sort of attitude is a lesson to many.

He bagged his first wicket in his opening over – Steve Davies, lbw to one angled in from around the wicket, a touch-and-go decision which fell his way. Somerset negotiated their first 50 with no further alarms but he then barrelled in to take two wickets in one over. Tom Lammonby, who appears to have two gears – first and fifth – never got out of first and poked a catch to the wicketkeeper. Tom Abell missed sturdy straight drives with uncertainty around his front pad, particularly against Dane Paterson, before he became the first of Fletcher’s leg-side strangles. A second, after the floodlight failure – that of Lewis Goldsworthy – saw him raise his hands in embarrassed apology. He has passed the outside edge enough over the years to be allowed a few.

The only bowler with a comparable record is Craig Overton with 37 at 13.40. The Craig Overton called up by England, Somerset supporters would reflect with a mixture of pride and regret. Somerset Championship challenges fall away in September like apples from the trees and, without Overton and the injured Lewis Gregory, they face a considerable task to avoid the same fate.

Abell, Somerset’s skipper, was brutally honest in assessing his team. “We have been completely outplayed for two days, having had the better of conditions when bowling yesterday,” he said. “The fact that we are now so far behind suggests we didn’t apply ourselves well enough at all. It was a good pitch for batting on, although there was some swing. When you reply to a total of over 400 you are under the pump and we haven’t shown enough character or backbone to cope with that.”

Fletcher is the sort of cricketer that county cricket often misses out on. He grew up in Bulwell, to the north of Nottingham, where football dominates. He memorably told last month how he failed to make the academy cut at Nottinghamshire and turned to Sunday social cricket where his preparations after a couple of heavy nights amounted to “a couple of paracetamols and a double sausage and egg McMuffin”. Phil de Freitas, the former England allrounder, recognised his potential. That first Championship title came in 2010 when he took nine wickets at 56 and was probably the heaviest player on the circuit.

His day began not with wickets but with runs – the fifth half-century of his career. Runs have entirely eluded him this season, to the point where he began the match with more wickets (47) than runs (46). But he middled a few in Notts’ Vitality Blast quarter-final defeat against Hampshire and managed to ground Somerset into the dirt here. Five of the seven boundaries in his 51 came in two overs from Abell, whom he found a nice pace. There were delicate guides, consummate square drives and a couple of heaves, as if hauling a sack of coal off a lorry. He was last out, cowing Roelof van der Merwe, who might have bowled a little more.

Patterson-White took advantage of some nondescript Somerset bowling to extend his overnight 46 to 101. He played with striking assurance for a No. 8 and, at 22, appears to have the ability to bat a place or two higher in time, which is always useful for a finger-spinner trying to force his way into a side in England.

He survived a half-chance, at best, on 50, when he cut Josh Davey high to Abell’s right at second slip was rarely troubled in moving to three figures with a single off Jack Leach, punching the air in delight as he made his ground at the bowler’s end. He met every Somerset seamer fluently and moved from 94 to 99 with a cut boundary against Abell and a sloppy single allowed by Tom Banton, which summed up Somerset’s faltering mood. The eight dot balls he pushed back on 99 represented his only careworn period, released by a scampered single against Jack Leach into the off side. Leach dismissed him soon afterwards, pinned lbw on the back foot. But it’s Somerset who are on the back foot now.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

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