Yesterday was a day of pretty raw emotion for Somerset fans. Hopefully most of us will be a little less edgy today and able to take a more balanced look at where Somerset’s season sits.
I am a self-confessed cricket obsessive, the sort of person who, when visiting Trinity College in Dublin while there for a weekend with friends a couple years ago, saw a game about to start and sat down to watch, oblivious of the other three in the group. It was cricket. I love cricket. I watch cricket!
So this morning I tuned in to the commentary of Yorkshire v Kent from Headingley just to get my fix of the county game before the season ends. What I didn’t expect was it would turn into a self-help session. Jonathan Doidge, Charlie Taylor and Matt Coles were discussing the relative merits of Yorkshire and Kent’s championship seasons.
There was considerable “traffic” from Yorkshire fans bemoaning their “capitulation” over the last two games, questioning the teams “bottle”, “fight” and the coaching and management structure. Where have we heard that before?
All three were emphatic that Somerset and Essex are far and away the best sides in the table. Both have 9 wins, Hampshire, Yorkshire and Kent all have 5, Surrey, Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire 4 between them. Note that last point. Surrey last year’s champions have only two wins this season, if this was a normal season with two teams relegated Surrey would be heading to the last week of the season contemplating relegation.
Doidge and co went on to mention how we all, as supporters, see the performances of our sides through an often-distorted lens. That applies to every team in the country, but I think it is fair to say Somerset fans are at the extreme end of that spectrum. Why?
Firstly it means so much. Cricket is the national sport of Somerset. We do not have the alternatives of football and rugby that most other counties possess, but more than that cricket as a game fits into the way of life in the county of Somerset better than any other.
Many of us grew up in an age when Somerset regularly played all across the county and that added to the reach of and connection to the county club. Secondly, the quest for a first-ever championship, exacerbated by the repeated recent second-placed finishes, has become such a thing that emotions and opinions are stretched to their extremes.
Despite every effort of the ECB to marginalise the County Championship the competition flourishes and the standard and intensity of the cricket in Division One is very high. Just look at the talent in a Nottinghamshire side that is a distant bottom in the table but which you wouldn’t have been surprised at the start of the season if they were in contention at the other end of the table and you realise how strong the division is.
Somerset came up against three high class performances at Southampton from three very fine cricketers. To be defeated as a result of two centuries by England fringe players and the best match analysis in a first-class game in this country since Jim Laker in 1956 by a bowler who would lead his international attack if he had chosen that path is no disgrace. Kyle Abbott’s 18-86 is the fourth best analysis in the history of the Championship. Not many sides would overcome that.
Such stats add weight to arguments that the strength of the division is as good as it has been for a long time. It would also not be unreasonable to say, by extension, that performances like this are what it takes to beat Somerset this season.
But that is not to say that Somerset didn’t have their faults in Southampton.
Loyal and long-time Somerset fan Mike Unwin messaged me last evening with his thoughts on the Hampshire defeat. Mike points to the difference in the approach of the two sides in the respective second innings.
Hampshire anticipated they would lose quick wickets and after the initial collapse were happy to bat time scoring only 1 or 2 runs an over, in the process taking the shine off the ball and sapping the Somerset bowlers’ energy. Hampshire’s approach was based on the knowledge that, at the end of that tough period they would have either Vince, Northeast or Dawson to take advantage against a tiring seam attack and a softer ball.
Yesterday afternoon Somerset got away to a dream start. The post-lunch session was always going to be pivotal and if Abbott’s burst could have been seen off Somerset really were in with a chance. But once the initial breakthrough took place there didn’t seem to a plan to dig in as Hampshire had done on the previous afternoon, rather too many risky shots were played in what appeared to be a desire to hit their way out of a crisis. This may not have been the case but it appeared so. Maybe the pressure of the situation clouded thinking, maybe the plan wasn’t executed. Whatever the Somerset innings collapsed from match winning potential to certain defeat in 10 overs of mayhem.
If the pressure of the match and championship situation got to Somerset that is understandable. This is a young and still relatively inexperienced side which will get better in the coming years. Something which will be of little comfort, in the context of the current campaign to Somerset fans, but promises much for the future.
The 20-point swing that took place yesterday afternoon has taken all the pressure off Somerset. It is not just Essex fans and media who are confident the title is theirs, something which Tom Abell will not doubt use over the next few days.
When watching a Somerset game I always try to look at the match position if the roles were reversed. Applying this to the season as it stands I am pretty sure that if we were heading to Chelmsford on Monday after being involved in T20 finals day with a 12-point lead I’d be feeling particularly nervous. The media narrative would clearly be that the perennial runners-up Somerset had it all to lose.
I saw and heard many members of the Essex supporter community who have seen the weather forecast for next week and would be more than happy to see the game severely truncated. That to me is a measure of the threat they see Somerset pose. If the boys put in another performance like they did against Yorkshire at Taunton last week Essex’s worst fears may be confirmed.
But, before we head into the last week of the season please take a moment to ask yourself how you would have reacted at the start of April if you had been offered the One-Day Cup and needing a win in the last game to clinch the title.