In early 2013, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the annual Wisden dinner, held at Lord's each April to celebrate the publication of the most famous annual publication in the sporting world.
I wrote about it here.
The people around my table in the Long Room that evening included Mike Selvey (who was frustratingly out of easy conversational reach) and the ageless Wisden Middlesex correspondent and sometime radio commentator Norman de Mesquita, who is now, sadly, no longer with us.
At the far end of the table was a young man from Taunton, sitting with his father. Tom Abell, who was there to receive the Schools' Cricketer of the Year award, was polite and quietly impressive company. After he'd received his leather-bound Wisden from David Gower the talk was of his degree at Exeter University, his ambitions for the future and anecdotes from his father's playing days, which coincided with various teams and players of my own acquaintance. At the end of the evening I advised him to savour the moment, as it was something which, in years to come, he would look back on with affection, even if it didn't seem such a big deal at the time.
Sixteen months later I am at the County Ground at Taunton as Tom Abell makes his debut in first-class cricket for Somerset against Warwickshire. This time there is more distance between us: I am in the Ian Botham Stand and he is on the pitch.
After winning the toss his Somerset team bowls and he fields. He takes two catches, one to remove the centurion Ian Westwood late on the first day, and another to end the Warwickshire first innings, early on the second morning. He performs these duties competently, but it is no more than we should expect from a professional cricketer. A sterner test seems certain to come when he is required to bat, and so it proves. Abell, in at 4, comes to the wicket after Johann Myburgh is dismissed, and Somerset are 55 for 2. As Myburgh is out to the last ball of an over from Richard Jones, Abell has the temporary sanctuary of the non-striker's end to collect his thoughts, but any reverie he experiences is abruptly shattered as Nick Compton edges the second ball of the next over, bowled by Oliver Hannon-Dalby, into his stumps. Somerset are 55 for 3, and both batsmen are yet to face a ball. One of them, Tom Abell himself, has still to face a ball in first-class cricket.
From here, assisted by the experience of James Hildreth (although, given Hildreth's shaky form, it is hard to discern which is the experienced man and which the rookie), Abell slowly finds his feet, picking up runs on either side of the wicket with nudges and glances and covering up when required, his bat as straight as a die. He receives his fair share of short stuff, but, unlike his senior partner, he is never drawn towards recklessness. He ducks, he weaves and he leaves with the maturity and patience of the old pro that he is not.
As wickets continue to fall, Abell silently and unspokenly mutates into the senior partner. As Alex Barrow, Peter Trego and Craig Overton come to the wicket, he is the one who does the talking, focusing on the uncertainties of the situation and emphasizing the way they should play. When they each depart, he is still there, defending the good balls with efficiency of technique and economy of effort, and dealing with the rare bad ones with the sort of timing which can surprise and unsettle even experienced fielders. An example of this comes when he forces Jeetan Patel towards Jonathan Trott, who is fielding at mid on. As the ball comes towards him, Trott moves slowly, feeling that he has it covered. However, as the ball reaches him it is clear that it has much more pace on it than he first thought and he is forced into a late, scrambling dive. It is too late, though, and the ball is past him and into the boards.
On another occasion, Patel bowls a rare long hop and Abell is quick to abandon his circumspection. His bat comes down somewhere in the hinterland between a square cut and a back foot drive and the ball races to the fence like a shot from a gun. The thought starts to intrude that not only is this uncommonly assured batting for an inexperienced player, it is, in its adaptability and recognition of opportunity, batting of quite high class.
When Lewis Gregory comes to the crease the tempo rises, and Abell finds himself drawn in. In part this is an unconscious effect of the freedom and aggression of Gregory's strokeplay, but also the fact that Abell has realized that making runs in professional cricket is something he can do. They put on 84 in an hour, saving the follow-on, before Gregory is caught in the deep attempting another pull into the crowd. Soon after, the players leave the field because of bad light with Abell on 73, but within a short time they are back and Abell, with the impassive maturity he has shown throughout his four hours at the crease, continues to collect runs, assisted by the flamboyance of Alphonso Thomas and George Dockrell.
Once Abell reaches the nineties it is possible to sense the tension among the crowd, which, as the autumnal evening closes in, barely numbers three figures. To the left of where we are sitting, in the Old Pavilion, which has just weeks to go before demolition, there is a hill named after Harold Gimblett, a local folk-hero and the last Somerset-born batsman to make a century in his first innings in the County Championship.
Just as people are starting to believe, Abell turns a ball from Patel into the hands of William Porterfield at short midwicket. Abell has spent the afternoon dealing easily with such deliveries, but perhaps this one has stopped a little on him, or perhaps he has gone a little hard at the ball as the tension of the approaching landmark starts to weigh on his mind.
We will never know. As Abell, the last man to be dismissed in Somerset's first innings, walks towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion with 95 to his name, several of the Warwickshire players shake his hand. Some of these men, like Rikki Clarke, have been around, and they know that they have seen something which speaks of high promise for the future.
Nothing, though, is ever assured. Should Abell think that it is, he need only ask his erstwhile partner James Hildreth, who knows all about the way in which early promise and recognition can slip through the fingers before you really know what has happened.
Like everyone else who has ever batted for a living, Abell faces an uncertain future. There will be many cheap dismissals at the hands of skilled bowlers and errant umpires, but there will also be times, such as yesterday, when almost everything goes right.
This was only the start.
Couch Talk 132 with Derek Pringle
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