In the first of his columns for SomersetNorth former Somerset and Devon opening
Somerset’s disappointing defeat to Hampshire means no result other than a win against Essex will be good enough if they want to create history and be the first Somerset team to win the County Championship. In many ways, perhaps that’s the best position to be in. At least everyone knows exactly what has to happen and what they have to do. Essex have the lead, but they also have the awkward position of safety and with that can come hesitancy and caution. Somerset have to attack and seek a win. They are in no doubt as to what they have to do. Essex on the other hand may fall into the mindset of playing safe, which isn’t a natural default position, especially for the modern cricketer – Sir Alastair Cook aside. Mistakes can follow and players have to change their approach, which isn’t always easy to do.
Had Somerset led going into this final game, they may have thought about a benign playing surface to nullify all bowlers. The problem with that, is that the batting hasn’t been as consistent as in previous years and may well have backfired as a plan. No, its much better to simply enter the game playing on a surface that has provided success many times. It makes more sense to play on a surface the players understand and are confident achieving results on. Of course, Essex will have bowlers that may well benefit too. However, I am always a firm believer in that you back your best players, rather than give too much positivity to your opponents. Belief in your team is an absolute must, especially after a setback.
Team selection will be difficult, but it need not be too taxing. Hindsight is a useless quality, as the world is full of experts once we’ve seen what has happened. The key is foresight and the ground at Taunton will offer enormous knowledge to the management in how they select the team for this final game. Essex have won seven out of seven games at home. Their away record is much less impressive.
The selection for this game will be especially difficult. When you have a strong squad, no one will want to miss out. As Somerset coach Jason Kerr mentioned last week, selecting from a strong squad is a good problem. Away games pose much harder selection questions and the Hampshire game will have posed many ‘in hindsight’ questions. There is always the conundrum surrounding the toss (who will win it) and not really knowing how the pitch will last. Did we need two spinners? Would Jamie have been a more useful weapon when James Vince and Kyle Abbott were compiling their match defining ninth wicket partnership? Pace is always an asset, especially when pitches flatten out and the previous week’s game at Southampton v Surrey suggested that is exactly what was likely to happen. But yes, that’s still only hindsight. Jamie has an X factor about him. Will he come back in v Essex?
There was also the matter of a James Vince master class. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and after his performances for England, understandably so. His 142 was hugely impressive. I love watching batters patiently compile their runs, with no apparent concern at scoring, or not. Vince scored one run from his first thirty balls. He was slow to his first ten runs, but all the while, he was getting in and once in, he changed the game. Had he done this once for England in the last eighteen months, he wouldn’t have been playing and we would have undoubtedly won. Ifs, buts and maybes over the course of a season are as much use as hindsight!
Which brings us to the weather. The BBC weather forecasts a very wet week, which could ruin what should be a finale for the ages. The Met Office is much more positive. The only thing I believe is whilst you have to keep one eye on the weather, it cannot dictate what you must do. You must still play the game and back what you know you do best. And by that, I mean, history suggests batting first presents the best chance of forcing a win. Hopefully the pitch won’t be something that alerts pitch inspectors, but if a result is needed within two / two and half days then the pitch must reflect that possibility. Defeat doesn’t matter one iota to Somerset.
Unfortunately, the week ahead cannot bode well for the batters. It cannot be a game where some easy runs can be had to bolster the batting average and end the season on a high. Any runs will be hard earned and must be either a) loaded with grit, fight and determination or b) taking a chance or two with a counter attacking approach. The modern player is used to the counter-attacking approach. What I want to see is the grit, fight and determination. If the pitch is as it needs to be, anyone that scores forty, fifty, sixty plus may be placing themselves into the match winners circle. Chancy twenties won’t change the game unless they are part of a late run chase.
The discussion this week must surround doing things their Somerset forefathers did as matter of habit week in week out. This week is the time and place. Your forefathers may not have been in your position now, but I can assure you, everyone of them would dearly love to be in your place. The game they played will most likely fit this week. Please take note of that.
It is possible that the game will have to evolve at a fairly hectic pace, but that doesn’t mean a shot a ball approach. Time at the crease, rotating the strike and meaningful partnerships are the keys. We have seen at Taunton, scores of 150, 150, 150, 150 (or thereabouts) and next week will most likely reflect that. Who can be the difference and turn that sequence into 200, 150, 200, 150? It will probably be a game of very small margins, but enormous moments. Lots of them.
The bowlers will know to be patient and therefore the batsmen will have to reflect that approach. If the bowlers look to start forcing errors, they may well force their own. The batsmen have to make look to force errors from the bowlers. That is when the run scoring options will appear.
It is almost impossible to predict. Cricket is like that. So, I won’t. What I will say is this. The team crossed a line earlier this season. They won a final. They now know what it’s like to win when it matters. This team plays for each other. A unique entity in professional sport. So much exudes from the captain. It isn’t just him though. The joy at each others success, each wicket that falls is infectious. Jack returning will add even more passion to that. The team has a nucleus of west countrymen, which some of us have long argued, has to be the at the heart of this club and this team. That environment, that culture is now very clear and the results are following.
Whether this team wins the championship next week, or not, I believe they will win it over the next few years and when they win it once, they will win it several times. They have a young and improving squad, that is maturing annually.
I was lucky enough to see the tail end of that attitude in my first season, when we won the 1983 Nat West final. Unfortunately, things changed after that season and it took many years to recover. I did experience ongoing success in my years with Devon CCC, when we won the minor county championship three years running, and two more after I retired, making it five in a row. I know it’s a level below, but what was the real reason the team achieved so much? Good players, yes. A good captain, yes. Pleasure in each others success, yes. Shared goals, yes.
But there was one thing greater than all of that. We not only thought we were the best team in the competition, we knew it. And because we knew it, we didn’t doubt ourselves for a moment. Yes, we lost the odd game, but that only made us better. We enjoyed it too. We played good hard cricket, but we knew how to smile. I hope the lads smile whilst playing tough cricket next week.
When Somerset genuinely believe they are the best team in the country they will win the championship. I actually already believe they are, although in truth, that’s a flawed statement because I haven’t seen every team, nor every game. What I have seen is the Somerset players and their depth. In my first season for Devon we didn’t win the championship, but at a team meeting towards the end of the season I said there was no other team in the country that could possibly be as good as the team we possessed. And I meant it. I have said for ages, this team is on the verge of great things. I hope its next week they begin to believe it themselves.
And then the rest of us can ‘drink up thee cider’ at long last!