There is never a dull moment for supporters of Somerset Cricket either on or off the field. In the last two weeks there have been three batting collapses, three recoveries, recoveries, four superb bowling performances and two comprehensive victories.
But the off-field events have overshadowed the start of the Bob Willis Trophy with an update on the club’s finances from the CEO and the contractual news in respect of Craig and Jamie Overton.
The anticipation of the long-delayed start of the season was punctured if not totally deflated on the eve of the opener against Glamorgan when it was announced that Jamie would be heading to Surrey and a new three-year contract in 2021 with rumours swirling of an earlier departure on loan.
This was not the news I wanted to hear. I have always been a fan of the twins, admiring their competitiveness and obvious passion for the game and our county. Jamie made a particular impression on me at Headingly in 2018 where, on the last day, he bowled with pace and hostility as Somerset bowled Yorkshire (Kane Williamson, Garry Ballance and all) out on the final day to secure a vital win. I definitely want both Overtons on my side.
Jamie was simply awesome that afternoon. He cleaned Ballance up for pace and scared the life out of the majority of the home batsmen on a lifeless pitch. His 4-25 in 15 overs contributed hugely to a very satisfying victory.
Understandably, off the back of this news concerns about the immediate future of Dom Bess and Craig Overton swirled around a crowd-less Taunton for the next few days and while England’s off-spinner’s future at Somerset remains uncertain Craig signed a three-year contract a week later.
The reasons for Jamie’s departure are, to my mind, many. And each, when considered in the context of Craig’s decision to stay even more fascinating. This contrast throws up some important questions for Somerset fans. But, in my opinion, many go beyond the parochial to question the future of county cricket when the new landscape, in the form of the much despised “Hundred” now scheduled to start in 2021. Is this the first signs of the haves and the have-not’s dichotomy impacting Somerset cricket?
Money. Often the elephant in the room so let’s deal with it first. Undoubtedly and understandably a factor. Cricket careers are short and anyone who criticises an individual for wanting to maximise his income is being very unfair. Somerset’s financial position is still a little unclear but the rumoured issues from last year combined with the loss of all sources of revenue for the first four months of the season will have had an impact on the club’s ability to offer what they wanted to (and probably what Jamie is worth). What we do know is that the players have all taken a pay cut on the back of the loss of income from being furloughed. It is a worry.
The attraction of Surrey. An oxymoron to all Somerset fans not just for the club but the thought of living in the grinding, unrelenting metropolis rather than the bucolic splendours of Somerset. Joking aside, Jamie will have seen an opportunity to be one of the first-choice seamers for the duration of his contract at The Oval. Surrey’s bowling at Chelmsford earlier this week was; Clarke, Virdi, Finch, Atkinson, Taylor, Borthwick and Jacks. Which says it all. Given the current strength in depth at Taunton a move to Surrey would appear to offer a chance of leading the attack. At Taunton the best he could reasonably expect would be equal billing with Craig on Lewis, and many would argue he needs a full season of injury free consistency to achieve even that.
Jamie was clear in his comments during / after the Glamorgan game that at 26 he knows now is the time to push himself into the England reckoning and sadly, very sadly, he feels Taunton is not the place to do that. Long have we said that the selectors rarely look down the M5 so to argue otherwise would be utter hypocrisy.
The presence of both Richard Gould, and more importantly Daz Veness in south London will also have been a huge influence in Jamie’s decision. Anyone who was at Taunton on the last day of the 2016 season will recall Jamie on crutches and Craig accompanying Veness on the lap of honour in what was the strength and conditioning coach’s last game. There was clearly a strong bond there.
Jamie strikes me who, contrary to his on-field super- aggressive persona, as an individual who needs to feel loved. Veness will be well aware of this and confident he can provide the environment for the North Devonian to succeed. While not saying that Andy Hurry and Jason Kerr are deficient in this regard, last season’s decision to send him out on loan to Northamptonshire will not have helped. Especially as Somerset’s seam bowling was a little thin at that time of last season. I suspect the same is true of Dominic Bess who I have on good authority felt very loved in Leeds…….
The irony of all ironies though is that, for a career blighted by some nasty injuries, which clearly have impacted on his place in the pecking order, Jamie looks to be at a physical peak at the moment and capable of moving to a higher level. The desire to play for England, given further fuel by the period he spent in the extended England squad training camps in June and July drives both Overton’s. Whether something was said by the England hierarchy or he has got there himself though it is clear that Jamie does not feel Somerset offer him the best opportunity of achieving this ambition.
The last point is one all of us can only wonder at. But it struck me during the T20 campaign last year that Jamie was well short of his best. He certainly copped his fair share of criticism during that disappointing group phase which would have hurt. I’m sure it wasn’t a big factor, but I’d understand if it was a significant contributory one.
For Somerset the concern is that, despite the on-field consistency over the last ten years and the prudent way the club had managed its finances it is not a destination club for potential England cricketers. The combination of the loss of revenue due to the pandemic and the second-tier financial status the club will enter as a non-Hundred Franchise club can only add to this disadvantage.
Somerset’s hierarchy seem to be confident that they will, despite Jamie’s departure, have sufficient seam bowling resources by allowing Nathan Gilchrist to leave for Kent. Whether that depth will come from Casey Aldridge, who is clearly highly rated and rising fast in the ranks, Vernon Philander or a new signing or two over the winter is to be seen. Surely there are county bowlers out there who will see a move to Somerset as a significant career progression?
But there is no doubt that the younger Overton’s departure will deprive Somerset of the high pace all sides crave. Anthony Gibson has already thus season been moved to remark on a number of occasions that Somerset’s wickets have been as a result of the psychological impact Overton’s pace has had on opposing batsmen.
It would be churlish for any Somerset supporter not to wish Jamie well. Even though he is heading to Surrey. No county with ambitions of winning trophies can afford to lose players of such talent let alone to a rival for the same silverware.
A little part me still harbours the belief that Jamie will have a change of heart and perhaps a spell on loan before the end of the season would be no bad thing. Surrey’s red-ball side are a bit of a mess at the moment and some time in that environment may convince him that the grass actually is much greener at Taunton. If he does stay at The Oval the games against Surrey with Craig v Jamie will be something to savour!
But for now the championship game at Edgbaston may be the last time we see J Overton on a Somerset team sheet. Rumours of him departing on loan next week have increased after the slightly ambiguous way the confirmation that he will play in Birmingham was announced.
Whatever reasons have made Jamie’s decision for him Craig has clearly seen the counter arguments committing his future to Somerset. As much as I am deeply saddened by Jamie’s departure I am as delighted by the thought of Craig furthering his England ambitions with Somerset. Thank you Craig.
One final thought, and a bit of shameless self-promotion. When the time comes to write Craig and Jamie’s biographies what a tale they’ll have to tell and here’s a thought if – wouldn’t a joint biography be a lot of fun? Now there’s a project I’d love to be involved in.