Eight-and-a-half-hour 173 leaves group leaders with daunting task on wearing deck
Gloucestershire 45 for 1 (Brathwaite 27*, Hammond 4*) trail Surrey 473 (Amla 173, Clarke 65, Patel 62, Overton 50*) by 428 runs
On their two visits to the capital in this year’s LV= Insurance County Championship, Gloucestershire have had to face up to vastly differing challenges. At the start of May, victory in a seam-friendly dogfight at Lord’s confirmed their status as unlikely pace-setters in Group Two; here, after being pummelled for the best part of two days by Hashim Amla‘s velvet-gloved iron fist, they will face a trial by spin to see if they can depart from The Kia Oval with their credentials intact.
Having spent five sessions in the field, the majority of which involved the exquisite torture of watching Amla go about his business at close range on the way to 173 from 347 balls, Gloucestershire’s batters had to gird themselves for an uncomfortable examination under suddenly grouchy south London skies. Surrey had the platform they wanted, and the chance to see if this used pitch would start to break up and aid their attempts to break down the visitors.
Amar Virdi‘s offspin was introduced into the attack as early as the seventh over, and immediately had Kraigg Brathwaite chopping down on a sharply turning delivery that seemed to keep low. It was no surprise that the breakthrough for Surrey came via Virdi, though Chris Dent‘s disgust at pulling a short ball to midwicket was evident; not the example Gloucestershire’s captain was hoping to set.
Brathwaite might have been dismissed by that point, too, had Dan Moriarty held a straightforward return chance. This has been for the most part a benign surface, but the footmarks into which Virdi and Moriarty will aim to wheel away through the weekend had a foreboding look to them – even if the arrival of light rain at around 5.30pm brought an early close and some respite for the West Country men.
Early in the day, as Amla was bedding in once again, the sound of someone whistling the famously eerie refrain from Kill Bill – soundtrack to the scene when Daryl Hannah’s character arrives at the hospital intending to assassinate (again) Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo – could be heard drifting in through the press box window. Not that Amla was about to indulge in a Tarantino-esque bloodbath, far from it… but the omens for Gloucestershire nevertheless weren’t good.
If Kiddo’s codename, as part of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, was “Black Mamba” then Amla would have to be the “Boa Constrictor”, squeezing every ounce out of an innings or situation. He had Gloucestershire trussed up in his coils for almost eight-and-a-half hours, slowly tightening, tightening as Surrey set about making good on the attempt to bat once and bat big, before unleashing their spinners on a wearing surface.
Under Amla’s watchful guidance, Surrey produced partnerships worth 104, 61 and 82 for the sixth, seventh and eighth wickets, easing the home side away from potential difficulty at 181 for 5 on Thursday afternoon. Despite losing his overnight partner, Jamie Overton, to the first ball of the day, Amla was not to be diverted from his chosen course. He scored 33 out of 78 added during the morning session, largely through nudging into gaps and turning over the strike, happy to let Sean Abbott deal in more overt statements of aggression, such as when clumping Ryan Higgins into the JM Finn Stand over long-on.
Abbott, on his Surrey debut, made a good impression with the bat only to be trapped in front by the toiling Tom Smith shortly before lunch. Gloucestershire had by now decided to put the field out for Amla and concentrate on trying to take wickets at the other end, but there was barely any change in his tempo on the resumption; as if getting himself in the mood for Tokyo 2020, he had apparently resolved to go “slower, higher, stronger”. Dent was then made to rue not having a slip in when the persevering Dan Worrall located Amla’s outside edge only for it to fly wide of Jonny Tattersall for four.
An over later, Brathwaite was back in place for a nick that didn’t quite carry. RC Robertson-Glasgow once described Frank Woolley edging when set as “a sudden freak of fallibility, a whim of humanity”, but if there was anything deliberate about the act it was closer to taunting a downtrodden opponent.
In the end, it was Gloucestershire’s sixth bowler, Miles Hammond – sporting a combination of long hair, head band and aviator shades that made him look like a roadie for the Kings of Leon – who was the man to breach Amla’s bubble, finding big turn from wide of the stumps and an inside edge into the woodwork. Surrey won’t necessarily have been too perturbed by that sight, with the prospect of purchase for spin their best chance of backing the Group Two leaders into a corner.
With Amla gone, Rikki Clarke decided to open up his shoulders and finally deliver some of the staccato violence that Quentin Tarantino might have scripted, lashing Matt Taylor for four fours in a row and then clipping his next ball for one to bring up a 97-ball fifty. He was cheered with as much gusto by the crowd as any of Amla’s landmarks, then tucked into Hammond’s offspin to the tune of 4-6-4. Higgins eventually hit the stumps to account for Clarke and then Moriarty, but on another day of Surrey dominance his four-for was unlikely to make the director’s cut.
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick