It is the first anniversary of my first article for The Incider an association I have thoroughly enjoyed. To celebrate and hopefully start an annual tradition I ahve written a 2,500+ word preview of Division 1 of the County Championship.
This will be my 50th season of actively following Somerset. As with every one of the last 49 I enter the season with tremendous excitement, anticipation and desire for Somerset success.
This 2019 season is one of a handful in those 50 where Somerset enter it with more than reasonable anticipation of some silverware. From my debut at the County Ground in 1970 until the end of that decade Somerset had little prospect of championship success, and while the “glory years” that followed brought numerous one-day trophies, we never finished above third in the Championship.
The fallow period that followed, including some pretty rough times internally, reached a nadir in 2006 with Somerset finishing bottom of Division 2 but the following year, transformed and inspired by Justin Langer, Somerset were back in Division One and there they have stayed.
Since 2010, a season when Somerset managed to finish runners-up in all three competitions, we have accumulated second places without, even once, going on to claim a trophy. I am still haunted by the Sky graphic that was shown at the end of the 2016 season detailing our second-place finishes (and has been added to since).
Let’s start with my predicted final order for Division One:
I think that it is highly likely that, as in 2016 the title race will be very close, may involve the top three until the very end, and be decided by a matter of a couple of points. With a similarity to 2016 two of my top three play in the last game as Somerset host Essex.
The season has the earliest start I can remember to allow the 50-over competition to be completed before the end of May. This means that there are two rounds before the middle of April, before a big block from mid-May to mid-July before the T20 before resuming in mid-August. In a season when only one side gets relegated, I fully expect that issue to be decided before we reach September.
Trust me this isn’t just my heart ruling my head, I’ve thought about this long and hard over the winter and genuinely believe this could be the year. Primarily I think that Surrey will find it much harder to repeat, their championship last year was built on a long unbeaten run in which the template of batting big and just the once was oft repeated. They had virtually no injury issues last year and most of the luck always coming out on top in the close games.
Two games at the end of last season evidence this. The home 6-run win over Lancashire and the last game defeat by Essex also at the Oval, the former because it demonstrated that any division one team could beat Surrey with just a little good fortune, the second that when you break the “template” Surrey are just mere mortals.
That being said if Somerset are to fulfil my prediction they need, as an absolute necessity to significantly improve on their performances against Surrey last season. The games in mid-May and the start of June are absolutely pivotal for the destiny of the title. The batting performances at Guildford and Taunton cannot be repeated.
The second most significant threat to a successful campaign is the Taunton pitch. Somerset need to have the confidence to back their bowling attack to outperform their opponents and not allow any opportunity for the pitch inspectors to have an influence on the title race.
The addition of Jack Brooks, an experienced attacking wicket-taking bowler strengthens an already potent seam attack and allows Somerset to pick on a horses-for-courses basis while rotating. A repeat of Lewis Gregory’s 2018, a full season of Jamie Overton and the continued development of Craig would make Somerset an attack no batsman will relish facing. The trio of Brooks, Davey and Groenewald provide depth and variety which will be crucial. But Somerset, uniquely in the division are in a position of not depending on one or two bowlers for the majority of their wickets.
Somerset have two England spinners who, at the start of the 2019 season appear to be going in opposite directions. If as seems likely Jack Leach will feature in the Ashes given that it is played in late summer, Somerset need Dom Bess to be back to his best by then. If he doesn’t RvdM may well be Somerset’s surprise spinning hero in the late season.
Bess’ return to the form that saw him selected for England early last season needs to return, and he needs to be given the chance to do so. His early pre-season form with both bat and ball was encouraging but a chastening 1-159 in the Champion County match last week is a worry.
Somerset’s batting order in the game against Cardiff MCCU was intriguing. Was this the top order (with Tom Abell to return) that we will see against Kent or just something they were trying? Based on last season Somerset really need one of Banton, Bartlett and Byrom to deliver this season so perhaps this order is designed to give them the best opportunity to succeed.
This approach certainly sounds like the sort of thing Hurry and Kerr would do and it makes a lot of sense. Putting the three most experienced batsmen in the top three, and perhaps if Abell slots in at four, allows one of the three B’s to bat at 5 with the experience of Davies and Gregory to follow.
The Cardiff MCCU game clearly provided a platform for Bartlett and Byrom to shoot it out for that spot with Tom Banton, who finished last season at the head of the pecking order, currently injured. George Bartlett got a start in both innings but was unable to capitalise while Ed Byrom made an unbeaten 58 in the first innings and followed up with a maiden first class century for Somerset in the second for an aggregate 173 runs undefeated in the game.
James Hildreth had a stellar 2018 and has started the season pretty well with a first-class average of 178 already. While a repeat of last year may be asking too much anything close will add fuel to the “Hildy for England” fire. What James himself really thinks we do not know but it is clear that he remains hugely motivated to score runs for Somerset. Azhar’s presence for the whole season is a big plus proving continuity most of our rivals don’t have, if he and Tres can provide a solid base the opportunity to score big first innings runs will be significantly enhanced.
A final thought on Somerset. This outcome of the season may well be decided by the respective fitness records of the top counties, so it was good to hear Andrew Cornish last week praising the strength and conditioning work of the squad. And more interestingly his comparison to the other counties in Abu Dhabi. While such work goes under the radar for us fans it may make the difference come the fourth day of a crucial match.
Turning to the other counties.
Essex finished third last season and are potentially stronger this. Not only do they have Alistair Cook available for the whole of the season but a top order full of young batsmen with England hopes. Their bowling is also strong with seamers Sam Cook and Jamie Porter also on the England selectors’ radar supported by Peter Siddle and spinner Simon Harmer.
Siddle may, after a late-career resurgence in his international white-ball career be absent for May and June and his absence could possibly leave Essex too dependent on the other three. This and the nature of the Chelmsford pitches could make it hard for Essex to bowl opponents out twice.
Hampshire have lost both Jimmy Adams and Sean Ervine who have retired leaving their batting looking a little thin, even with the addition of Dimuth Karunaratne (SL) as their overseas player. His potential struggles to adjust to the demands of the county circuit might not impact as much on Hampshire’s fortunes as his recent alleged driving incident in Sri Lanka leaving the county heavily reliant on James Vince and Sam Northeast to provide the runs they need.
Hampshire have more all-rounders than any other county with the addition of Keith Barker from Warwickshire and will need runs and wickets from Liam Dawson to support their Kolpak bowling attack of Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards. The joker in the pack for them is Mason Crane who, more than Dom Bess, needs a turn-around in fortune.
One member of the Hampshire staff who will be warmly welcomed back to Taunton at the end of June is Alfonso Thomas who is now Hampshire’s bowling coach.
Kent’s captain Sam Billings described Kent’s performance in 2018, when they stormed to the top of Division Two and stayed there until the last game defeat to Warwickshire, as a “monumental effort”. They will require an even more monumental effort to retain their first division status. The loss of the wickets of Matt Henry and the IPL commitments of captain Sam Billings and Joe Denly severely weaken both batting and bowling.
Matt Renshaw has arrived at Canterbury, to the disappointment of many in Taunton, for the first half of the season. He will need to exceed his performance for Somerset last year if Kent are to make any impression.
Nottinghamshire, like their famous sheriff, continue to steal from the poor adding Joe Clarke, Ben Duckett, Ben Slater and Zak Chappell from their near neighbours. Like last season I expect their early season form to be good, especially with Stuart Broad available to support a bowling attack almost as deep as Somerset’s.
Despite the additions however I expect the same questions to hover over the boys from Trent Bridge as did last year; will they be able to make enough runs and will their bowlers stay fit and in form beyond mid-season? Notts only survived in division one by virtue of having one more win than Lancashire, a too-close-for-comfort performance that can’t be repeated. The loss of Harry Gurney to a white ball only contract and the decline in Samit Patel’s form last season add to the uncertainty that surrounds Notts ability to sustain a title challenge.
Surrey remain the team to beat and have added Liam Plunkett and Jordan Clark but questions beyond the impact of England call-ups exist. If, as I believe he deserves, Rory Burns starts in the Test side his leadership will be sorely missed. Can Morne Morkel stay fir and motivated for a second season to provide leadership to the bowling attack and will Ollie Pope, the Currans, Jason Roy, Ben Foakes and even Mark Stoneman join Burns in the international reckoning? The key to their season will undoubtedly be how they cope with these absences.
Warwickshire return as champions of division two and appear well placed to give a good account of themselves. The mid-table positions appear to be the most fluid and I would not be surprised if Warwickshire finished above either or both Notts and Yorkshire.
Their major off-season changes have been the retirement of Jonathon Trott and the recruitment of Liam Norwell and Craig Miles from Gloucestershire. The batting appears strong with the evergreen Ian Bell, Will Rhodes and Dominic Sibley at the top of the order. The last two will go into the season with huge confidence after their 190 run opening stand against Surrey in Dubai last week.
The speed of returns from another injury for Olly Stone’s which sent him home early from England’s winter tours and Harry Brookes who missed the second half of last season with a stress fracture of his spine would give Warwickshire a spearhead to rival the Overton twins and one which may surprise many first division top orders. But Warwickshire have depth in their seam attack which should stand them in good stead until these two return.
Yorkshire remain a post-Gillespie enigma. The loss of Jack Brooks has hit them hard and it remains to be seen if the signing of Duanne Olivier provides the spearhead they need. What isn’t in doubt is the depth of their young talent, Harry Brook and Ben Coad will I believe both make the England set up before long.
But with England absentees and questions over the decline of stalwarts Balance and the loyal Tim Bresnan Yorkshire desperately need the supporting cast to stand up this season if they are to achieve anything more than a mid-table finish.
Returning to Somerset, this is a season of opportunity but unlike last season, the wider cricket world expects Somerset to feature at the top of the table. With that expectation comes pressure and how Somerset deal with that will be crucial.
One of the side’s greatest strengths is that match-winning performances can come from throughout the squad while the “supporting cast” is very strong. Compiling this preview has made me realise that Somerset possess arguably the strongest and deepest squad in the competition on paper. Now all we need to do is translate that onto grass.
Let’s hope that this is a season of great cricket, close matches and where weather and injuries don’t have a significant impact on the final places.
With the news that Leicestershire are the latest county to enter discussions with the ECB over their financial state, following in the footsteps of Durham and Glamorgan there is a very real possibility that we will end the season with less than ten teams in division two. Dependent on the potential distortion such financial issues could have on the fixture list I expect last season’s relegated teams Lancashire and Worcestershire to bounce back with one of Sussex or Middlesex joining them.
Beyond these financial issues for many of the non-Test Match grounds there is a looming dread that the machinations of the ECB and their insistence on downgrading the three existing competitions and bulldozing through the much unloved “Competition that shall not be named”. But that is a debate for elsewhere and other times, for the present let’s just enjoy this season and hope come September all Somerset fans have some silverware to celebrate.