Somerset enter this 50-over campaign off the back of a mixed white ball season in 2018. A dominant group T20 campaign ending in real disappointment on finals day. In the 50-over format failure to qualify for the knock out, despite beating eventual winners Hampshire away in the last group game, was a big disappointment. With the experience of last year Somerset should be aiming for, at the very least, a home play-off spot that a second place finish would give them.
I am old enough to remember the introduction of the Benson and Hedges Cup in the early seventies. The group stages were played before the championship got underway in late April. My recollections seem to be of these games being played in cold dreary conditions and that Somerset would fail to qualify for the quarter finals because they always lost to “Proctershire”.
The competition was 55 overs with four groups, the top two qualified for the quarter finals and the final was played at Lords in July. To make up 5 teams in each group the combined universities and minor counties north and south were included. I certainly recall watching Somerset play Minor counties at Torquay and am pretty sure on at least one occasion that was deemed a home game for Somerset! The Benson & Hedges Cup was seen as the fourth competition in those days partly because of it being the newest and partly because 60 overs was seen as the standard one-day format.
I say all this as a prelude to this year’s Royal London One Day Cup competition as, if the ECB have their way, this will be the last season where this competition will have real relevance for the counties. But it promises to be a great competition this year partly because of its unpredictability and partly because I expect some of the England World Cup squad to play at least some part.
The format is the same as last year with teams in each group (north and south) playing each other once. The winners of the group will qualify directly for the semi-final while the second and third placed teams will face off in north v south play-offs to decide the other semi-finalists. The group stages will be completed by the end of the first week of May with the finalists decided the following week.
The format places a significant premium on winning the group which should ensure games right up to the end of the group stage have relevance although, in the last couple of years, the group winners have not had a good record of reaching the final. While red ball status is not wholly relevant the fact that the south group contains five division one teams and both last year’s finalists makes it significantly stronger than its northern counterpart.
Nottinghamshire are everyone’s favourites to come out on top of the north division but I expect Lancashire, Worcestershire and Yorkshire to run them close. Lancashire with Glen Maxwell available for at least the group stage should be particularly strong.
In the south I wonder if last year’s Lord’s pair of Hampshire and Kent will be as strong as in 2018. Hampshire are in transition and their batting looks a little frail while Kent will miss Denly, Billings and Henry. Expect both sides to be significantly different from last season’s final line-ups. Surrey have underperformed in white ball cricket in the last couple of seasons and it seems to me that the off-season signings are aimed as much at improving that record as strengthening to retain the Championship.
Somerset have a large number of imponderables which will make the first selection very interesting. They will be a forced change at the top of the order with Mybs retirement and the assumption seems to be that Azhar will open, but will Somerset persist with Steven Davies at the top of the order given his relatively poor returns over the last two years? Other likely openers are Peter Trego and Tom Banton.
The spinners are also a bit of a conundrum. If we assume that Roela is an automatic choice where does that leave Dom Bess and Jack Leach? Will either of them play? And if not will they seek a loan move just for this competition?
Jack Brooks is also interesting. He has openly said that he has come to Taunton hoping to play all formats but we know he is an attacking bowler and can “go for a few”. With Lewis and Jamie Overton likely to start and potentially two spinners that leaves one place between the “ferret” Timmy G, Josh Davey and Craig Overton with Tom Abell as the extra bowling option all good sides need.
Of the Division 2 sides Gloucs, Glamorgan and Middlesex may struggle but Sussex are a formidable one day side and will, I think, be challenging for top spot. Essex also look like a potential force in the white ball this year so I anticipate three from four of Somerset, Sussex, Surrey and Essex.
The weather could also be a factor, last season’s competition was blessed with the start of the hot late spring early summer but this year we are starting a couple of weeks earlier and even with the forecast for the next week we can’t take anything for granted. Some games are likely to be decided by the toss and there is every chance qualification becomes a bit of a lottery!
So in summary, Somerset are more than capable of progressing to the knock out, but hoping to top the group may be a little optimistic. I am going to set the target of second or better in the group as par. And of course we have Kent in the opener on Friday and you know how that goes when a white ball is involved!