Who will ever forget that day back in late May at Lord’s when Somerset comprehensively beat Hampshire to win the One Day Cup? A repeat of that outcome would be most welcome and may be necessary to maintain the lead Somerset currently have at the top of the table with Essex likely to be too good for Surrey at Chelmsford.
After last week’s comprehensive defeat of Yorkshire confidence is justifiably high and the inevitable talk of a first championship in understandable, especially as rivals Essex could only draw at Edgbaston.
But before we get too carried away, a little dose of caution. Somerset have a poor record at Southampton in the last few years. Having won only once, by 9 wickets in 2015 they drew in 2016 and 2017 before losing last year.
In 2016 a fourth day wash out thwarted Somerset’s progress toward an almost inevitable victory. No Somerset fan needs reminding that draw was hugely significant in deciding that the Championship went to Lord’s that year.
2017’s game in Southampton was one of the trial day-night games which, for a number of reasons turned into a farce with Somerset hanging on at 88-8 having been set a target of 161.
Last year, in the third last game of the season, Somerset’s Championship hopes, which were hanging by a thread after the previous week’s tie with Lancashire, were dealt a mortal blow by a two-day, 6 wicket defeat.
Memories of that defeat lead inevitably to questions of what sort of surface can we expect? BBC Solent’s cricket commentator and former Hampshire and Middlesex payer Kevan James anticipates a better surface than last year a surface which he called “very unusual” in its extreme variable bounce.
Last week, for the game against Surrey the pitch didn’t, according to James, do a lot after the first session. The home side’s victory on the third day owing as much to the abject performance of Surrey (one which led Surrey coach Michael Di Venuto to say some pretty harsh things about his side’s display). While that may be unfair there is no doubt that Somerset will present a stiffer challenge than the soon to be deposed Champions.
James believes the pitch last week was still not want the home side wanted but believes that if Hampshire do get that surface the game will move more slowly than the slightly frenetic pace of last week and should last into the fourth day.
When I asked James about the spin/seam balance he was adamant that this will not be a game where two spinners should play. Felix Organ’s occasional off spin accounted for 5 Surrey wickets on Thursday afternoon but that was more an indication of Surrey’s mindset in that game rather than any serious turn.
While Tom clearly preferred Roleof to Dom at Taunton last week, I’d be surprised if the off spinner doesn’t play in Southampton. James suggests that Dom’s usual line is likely to be the more threatening option at the Rose Bowl and would fear Bess more than van der Merwe.
Such a selection would be incredibly harsh on van der Merwe especially as Jack Leach will almost certainly be available for the Essex game but we are at that stage of the season where tough decisions have to be taken.
And that is not the only tough selection decision facing the Somerset brains trust on Monday morning. If we assume that Joe Root’s reference to Craig Overton’s back spasm before the final test began was designed more to Soften Craig’s omission than impart a realistic medical update.
Josh Davey and Jamie Overton were both instrumental in the win over Yorkshire and deserve their places at Southampton. While Lewis Gregory looked to be a little below his best can be excused as he was easing himself back into match fitness last week. He is a must for the side to play Hampshire.
My side would see just one change from last week with Craig replacing Roleof. Having advocated moving Hildy back to 4 for most of the season, I’m pleased to see it work pretty well last week. Abell seems happier batting at 3 and while neither opener contributed last week it is reasonable to expect at least on decent start from Davies and Vijay, allowing Tom and James a little more freedom and a little less pressure, when their turns come.
It is easy to forget that Hampshire were at the top of table early in the season. They began the season with a thumping innings win over Essex before being thumped by Yorkshire by an equally wide margin. They then beat Warwickshire and Notts in May. But that was it in terms of victories in the championship before last week, a period which coincided with James Vince and Liam Dawson being away on world Cup duty. With Yorkshire’s defeat at Taunton Hampshire are now only five points behind third place.
With James Vince back in form and Sam Northeast (930 championship runs) Hampshire have two strong candidates for the winter tours. The formidable and experienced bowling attack of Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards have 97 wickets between them this year still provide plenty of threat.
But Tom Abell will take great heart from his side’s performance in the reverse fixture at Taunton in mid-Summer which Somerset won by 313 runs before lunch on the last day. A performance as dominant as that we saw last week against Yorkshire. Abell will also be confident that Somerset are better prepared this season than last to deal with the challenge of the Rose Bowl.
The task for Somerset this week is to match or better Essex’s result at Chelmsford. With an 8-point lead after last week’s 10-point swing Somerset require a maximum points victory and Essex to pick up only 7 points to clinch this week. That is pretty unlikely although exciting prospect – can you imagine the number of Somerset fans who would be in their cars heading to Southampton on Thursday if that becomes a possibility?, We can though, slightly more realistically, dare to dream that after Thursday Somerset will need only bonus points next week. Now there’s a thought!