More Questions Than Answers

A season like no other in 2020 is in the past. A season that promises to be like no other in 2021 is about to start. Somerset's initial task is to overcome an 8-point deficit and qualify for the top group in the second phase.

Somerset Head Coach Jason Kerr indicated in his press conference last week that the only question in his mind was who would open with Tom Lammonby at Lord’s on Thursday. For me, this is a start to a season like no other. None of us has any idea what the world will be like by the time the domestic season reaches its conclusion at the very “Home of Cricket” where Somerset begin their first-class campaign tomorrow. 

The cricket season also has far too many unknowns for any of us to offer more than informed guesses for the six months ahead. Over the past couple of days 

The old order of first and second divisions is gone, at least for now, meaning for most of our opponents in the first phase of the County Championship we have no recent head-to-head form line to follow. 

Add in the, there is no other word for it, “weird” results in the truncated 2020 season and there is an argument that the eighteen first-class counties start on a more level basis than we have ever seen. I’ve been lucky enough to look ahead to the season on both the Somerset Podcast and the BBC Somerset Cricket show in the last couple of days. And what is clear is that everyone I have spoken to has a different opinion, all based on entirely sound principles about how this season will pan out.

The pre-season friendlies told us little of use; they rarely do. So we give way to speculation and guesswork. However, one thing that can be deduced from pre-season is that the Academy continues to produce outstanding prospects. While they will not feature in the Championship’s early stages many of the names we saw over the last couple of weeks will almost certainly see action in the 50-over competition if nothing else in 2021. The medium to long term looks exciting beyond words.

But back to Middlesex this week. As Kerr said, the question over which of Banton, Byrom and Green walks out to start the innings is the main one. With Green involved in the second XI game at Taunton Vale that leaves a straight choice between Eddie and Tom. Banton, after a tough year spent mainly in various bio-bubbles and not participating in the IPL, has minimal experience at the top of the order in red-ball cricket. He has committed himself to winning a place in the Somerset red-ball side and that deserves a chance. He is an exceptional white-ball talent who would be a massive asset to the county club if able to reach similar levels in the longer form.

While Byrom is by far the more experienced, he seems unable to secure his place despite his hundred last September. Therein lies the problem we have potential rather than a proven track record. Remember, Tom Lammonby is just about to start his first full season opening in the County Championship so dips in form can be expected. Banton’s ability to score more quickly and take pressure from Lammonby, who is a more measured starter, could make them a perfect combination. So I’m going with the potential of Banton, provided he is given the whole of the first phase of the campaign.

Beyond the opening spots, it seems likely that Abell, Hidreth and Bartlett will occupy the upper-middle order. Will Steven Davies bat at 6 giving Abell five bowling options or will Byrom bat at six? 

Gregory, Overton and Davey will, fitness permitting be in the side which would leave one or two places between Leach, deLange and Brooks. My preference would be to go with Leach and (you know I am going to say this) use Abell as the fourth seamer. What I saw of pre-season suggested the skipper is appreciably quicker than last season and a safer option with the ball than Marchant (who has yet to prove himself to me) and Jack Brooks is still making his way back to full fitness. I suspect that Jason Kerr will bat Davies at 6 and pick the extra bowler meaning Eddie misses out.

Middlesex, like Somerset, have greater strength in their bowling than batting. Finn, Murtagh, Roland-Jones and Harris are a formidable quartet. Even more so on their home ground in bowler-friendly conditions. Somerset will do well to secure many batting points and may well find themselves in a match decided by which side’s bowlers deliver. 

It seems unlikely that the game will end in a draw or that the game will go beyond the third day. We just hope that Tom Abell’s side will come out on top.

Elsewhere in Group 2, Somerset will face Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Leicestershire, Surrey and of course that eight-point deduction. I’m going to take a look at the group in a little more detail after the first round of games, but my gut feel is that Surrey will be Somerset’s principal challengers. In a group where you can envisage five of the teams beating each other (sorry Leicestershire), Somerset may, especially with the eight-point deduction, find themselves going to the last group game with it all to play for. 

I hope the points deduction isn’t the difference between finishing in the top two and not. Make no mistake though; this is going to be a tough group to qualify from.