Gregory's calm head and whirring bat keeps Somerset on course
Imagine this if you will: you are captaining a side in a vital T20 match and your bowlers are under the pump. There's one right- and one left-hander batting and the umpires are saying you are on the way to a six-run penalty for bowling your overs too slowly. The least of your problems is that a capacity crowd is on your back.
Lewis Gregory doesn't need to imagine such things. He experienced precisely that when he skippered Somerset to a five-run defeat against Kent at Canterbury in his side's final match in the Vitality Blast South Group. The game was televised and every twist of fate received close attention. Fortunately for Somerset, they still scraped a home quarter-final and now find themselves at Finals Day.
Because they are so short, T20 games magnify the significance of a captain's decisions. Put a bowler on at the wrong end and before you know it you are explaining your mistake to the TV audience. The only benefit of such experiences is that they are probably good preparation for Finals Day on Saturday when Gregory's decisions will receive the close attention of the massed thousands in Edgbaston's Hollies Stand.
"It's tricky at times," he acknowledged. "Kent was the hardest game for me when you had bowlers being taken off for bowling high full tosses, the ball disappearing to all parts and then time being taken to dry it.
"We've found a good formula where people know when they will be doing things but you also have to trust your instinct and also trust that your snap judgement calls will be the right ones. We kind of stumbled across something that works but there have been times when we've gone outside the plan and made little changes. Fortunately we have a lot of experience in our squad. There are people I can consult and they have been helpful throughout the competition."
But when asked how much time there is to confer with lieutenants such as Johann Myburgh, Max Waller or Steve Davies, Gregory offers one of his favourite one-word replies.
"Limited," he said. "You're always trying to think a few steps ahead so that you're not making calls on a whim. But all hell was kicking loose in the Kent game and it became very tough, but then it was the same for both sides. You just have to make the calls."
In other words, when the analysts have done their work, Gregory will still need to make an old-fashioned tactical decision - and how much of that will be based on data? The additional pressure on Finals Day is that the destination of the trophy may depend on his choices. For example, in the run-chase at Canterbury Gregory sent in Tom Abell ahead of himself. Abell made 22 not out off 18 balls whereas Gregory, an accomplished hitter, later thumped an unbeaten 44 off 15. Should Gregory have batted above his four-day captain?
"Potentially," he replies. "But it's not just about winning matches, it's about developing cricketers as well. Tom has a brilliant game but there are things he's going to need to work on and that was a great opportunity for him to go and win a game of cricket. It didn't quite work out that way but he'll be a better cricketer because of it and I back that decision. I could have gone in and hit one straight up and the point wouldn't have arisen."
All the same, this strategy thing clearly gets even trickier when, as is the case with Gregory, you are a fully-fledged all-rounder. Somerset's captain is one of the five bowlers who have delivered the vast majority of their side's overs in this year's Blast and he has also made three fifties, the last of which, a 24-ball 60, did as much as anything to cook Nottinghamshire's goose in the quarter-final. He also has to be able to captain Lewis Gregory.
"I think I've been okay at that," he said. "But if you'd given me this job two years ago, it would have been a very different story. What I've gone through with injuries has helped me as a leader and it's enabled me to look at things differently. Two years ago I wouldn't have been the one trying to calm people down; I would be the one having to be calmed down. You have to be able to take a step back and see the overall picture."
Perhaps so, but earlier in the season it seemed Gregory was being attracted by a bigger canvas still. After appearing to stall on a signing a new contract, he was seriously courted by four counties before eventually putting his signature on a three-year deal with Somerset in July. Since resolving that issue his form has improved but he regards the suggestion of any connection between the two as a good example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy - because two events occurred in succession, the former event must have caused the latter.
"I don't think there's any link," he said. "I think it's probably just a bit of a coincidence. I had a contract for the previous three years and I don't see the new contract as being relevant at all. You can get in a bit of rhythm playing T20 and I just carried it on into the two Championship games we've played since."
That rhythm has enabled Gregory to notch two fifties and take six wickets in the defeat of Yorkshire before adding an unbeaten 64, the highest score of the match, in the tie against Lancashire. "A handsome innings by a handsome young man," observed a member of the local media who had clearly forgiven Gregory's earlier dalliance with other suitors.
But things like loyalty matter very much in Somerset, a county which still mourns Jos Buttler's move to Lancashire. Northamptonshire and Leicestershire may be almost reconciled to their best players being lured away by the prospect of First Division cricket and fatter salaries but folk in Taunton are puzzled as to why anyone would ever want to leave Somerset.
Stay awhile in the town and you can understand why they might feel such mystification. Taxi-drivers are not merely prepared to chat about cricket during a ride; they are very well-informed about the game and expect their passengers to be similarly knowledgeable. Gregory may be a Devonian - indeed, he was one of five who played against Lancashire - but the eastward paths to the County Ground are well beaten and Somerset is the team representing the West Country, an area of the country which remains very distant from England's metropoles.
When you take all this into account, you also begin to see why the anticipated coming of The Hundred is of no account when weighed against the possibility that Somerset may one day win their first County Championship. Hopes were high this year until Surrey hit form and depending how this week turns out Gregory's team may travel to Finals Day Edgbaston knowing their chance has finally gone.
Either way, finishing a four-day match against Hampshire less than 48 hours before their semi-final against Sussex hardly constitutes good preparation for a white-ball game that can be all but lost in a few overs. There must be a question as to how much time the rest of the squad will have to prepare for a big day.
"Limited" Gregory replies. "It's part of county cricket to be able to flick between formats but we're probably quite lucky in that we have four or five guys who are just playing white-ball cricket. But some people will have to prepare in their own time. We're going up to Birmingham on Thursday night, straight after the Hampshire match."
When Somerset take the field at Edgbaston Gregory will probably rely on the same bowlers he has deployed throughout the group stages. The runs, by slight contrast, have been distributed mainly between seven batsmen with only Corey Anderson scoring more than James Hildreth, who will be 34 when Finals Day takes place and is the only survivor from Somerset last T20 triumph in 20005.
"Hildy is probably the most talented player in our dressing room and you see that in some of the knocks he plays," said Gregory. "He's always putting himself down in this format but we are now seeing him clear the ropes more often than we used to. It shows his hunger and where he wants to get to. He still has the desire to pull on an England shirt."
Gregory does not want for desire or confidence either. However gnomic or qualified his other comments might be, he has no doubt about the potential of the side he will lead on Saturday.
"We believe we have the best team in the competition and we believe that if we perform anywhere near our best, we will win," he said. "It is the belief of every guy who will step onto that field."