3/21/2018 0 Comments
By Mark Kidger
Where: Bristol County Ground, Bristol
Ins: Daniel Worrall (Australia, until 2 July); Ryan Higgins (Middlesex)
Outs: Patrick Grieshaber (released), Brandon Gilmour (released), Cameron Bancroft (Somerset)
Key man: Liam Norwell
2017 season: Championship 6th, RLODC 7th, T20 Blast 9th
2018 Odds: Championship promotion: 16/1, RLODC: 25/1, T20: N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
I was at the County Ground in Bristol in 1977 when Mike Proctor’s wonderful side only missed out on a first Championship since 1877 on the last afternoon, thanks to a century by one Gordon Greenidge. Only in 2003-5 have Gloucestershire made it to Division One, although there was a near miss in 2011. Since then, expectations of a return to the top division have been modest and, usually, almost nil. Division Two of the County Championship looks to be brutally competitive once again in 2018, with Warwickshire and Middlesex coming down, Northants (who only missed-out on promotion due to an over-rate points deduction) and Kent again likely to be in the mix and Durham and Sussex (fourth in 2017) both hoping for a revival of fortunes and a return to Division One. For Gloucestershire, fourth or fifth place would be an immensely satisfying result in the face of such strong opposition.
The bad news is that with the defection of Cameron Bancroft across the River Avon to local rivals, Somerset, Gloucestershire only have an overseas player lined-up until the start of July. Money is tight at Bristol and when the county announced, pre-season, a big-news signing, social media scepticism was intense. It is fair to say that the reaction from most fans has been the widely predicted “Daniel Who?” A second blow is the fact that Jack Taylor will not be allowed to bowl initially in 2018 due to an illegal action: he has been a vital part of Gloucestershire’s limited-over success in recent seasons. There has been no better team man in the successes of recent seasons and the fans hope that he can come back from this latest blow.
On the plus side, Gloucestershire have managed to keep their all their squad, with its array of promising pace bowlers, without any being snapped-up and have made a shrewd signing in Middlesex’s highly-regarded Ryan Higgins. In a superb coup, they have also brought in Chris Rogers as coach for the first two months of the season. Higgins showed what he can do in hitting 68 in 28 balls against Gloucestershire in the tied Blast match last season and as well as adding useful wickets to his runs. With the new Championship format putting results in April and May at a premium, Daniel Worrall could just turn out to be a canny signing on early-season, juicy green pitches. Good enough to play three ODIs for Australia in 2016, the coaching staff will look to him to mentor bowlers such as Liam Norwell, Craig Miles and David Payne and push them on to the next level. The fact that Norwell took 59 wickets at 17.4 and was ignored by the selectors for the Lions and other minor winter tours though is a sad indictment of how hard it is to make an impact when playing in Bristol.
One of the indications of Gloucestershire’s problems in 2017 was the fact that rarely was the first-choice attack available due to injuries. None of the attack, save the (by obligation) sparingly used Jack Taylor, played more games than Liam Norwell’s eleven and, in those eleven games he took more wickets, by a comfortable margin, than the next two highest wicket-takers combined, as well as bowling sixty overs more than anyone else over the season. Another illustration of Gloucestershire’s problems is that none of the other regular bowlers averaged under 32. When Liam Norwell was missing, the attack all too often looked totally impotent and the frail Gloucestershire batting was too often put under pressure by massive first innings totals from the opposition.
Thereby lay Gloucestershire’s second, major issue in 2017: the batting was far too inconsistent. On paper, averages of 42.6 and 40.3 respectively for Chris Dent and Cameron Bancroft look impressive, but Chris Dent was 350 runs down on his return from 2016 and less consistent than before (in 2016 he actually had better figures as an opener than some of those selected to go on the various winter tours) and Bancroft’s average was padded by an unbeaten double century: take it out of his season’s figures and his average drops below 30. Six batsmen scored centuries and two more had near-misses, but the weight of runs was not there to set up winning positions and Gloucestershire were too often indebted to Jack Taylor’s efforts to add valuable runs shepherding the tail.
Will Tavaré, the nephew of Chris, has had his last two seasons severely undermined by injury, but knows that he needs to do better in 2018 than his 422 runs at 26.4 in 2017 and that he has the ability to do it. After coming to Bristol with high expectations attached to him, Graeme van Buuren’s returns have been disappointing and Phil Mustard made less impact with the bat in the Championship than was hoped, while George Hankins was unable to take advantage of the opportunity to have a run in the side. All averaged in the 20s while having the talent and ability to be averaging mid-to-high 30s.
One to look out for though is James Bracey. After making his debut at the fag-end of the 2016 season, he came into the side for the last four games of 2017, batting at #3 and scored 370 runs in six innings at an average of 74. Just twenty years old, his First Class average stands at over 50 from his first seven games.
Given the side’s manifest problems in 2017, to finish sixth and “best of the also-rans” in a very strong division was a creditable result. To get around the fringes of the promotion race in 2018, Gloucestershire will need Liam Norwell and Daniel Worrall to combine to good effect in the early season and get effective support from one of the other seamers. They will also need the captaincy to inspire Chris Dent and for him in turn to inspire two or three of the top order to perform well above their 2017 level. Fourth place is not impossible, but anything better would be a huge surprise.
For the travelling support, there is the enticing prospect of a 4-day match at Lord’s for the first time since 2011 – to be played, less enticingly, in mid-May – and at Edgbaston in late August holiday season. Sophia Gardens is the third Test ground that Gloucestershire will visit, although the vagaries of the fixture computer’s deliberations mean that there is no fixture at the lovely Riverside Ground at Chester-le-Street in 2018.
The Gloucestershire squad probably looks better suited (on paper at least) to achieving success in ‘white ball’ cricket, particularly in the shorter T20 format.
Sadly, despite being on the Gloucestershire books for another two years, the hugely popular Michael Klinger has had to be relieved of the captaincy of the 50-over side as he helps his wife battle cancer. His availability is very doubtful and Chris Dent has also taken over the side in Klinger’s likely absence. Andrew Tye has been signed again for the Blast, having needed to be replaced at short notice for the 2017 competition by Thisara Perera of Sri Lanka, but a measure of the uncertainty at Bristol is that no T20 captain has yet been appointed, in part because Chris Dent does not play in the competition.
In the One Day Cup, which had been won in 2015, the best that can be said was that 7th in the South Group was a better result than in 2016 but, four defeats in the first five matches meant that Gloucestershire’s interest in the competition ended in the first week of May. Without Klinger and without Jack Taylor’s bowling, the chances are that 2018 will again be a struggle in the Royal London One Day Cup, barring some magic from Benny Howell, who is showing in the Bangladesh Premier League that his talents adapt to foreign climes and that his success in England is no flash in the pan.
Having topped their T20 Blast group in 2016, before losing in the Quarter Finals, Gloucestershire were second in their group after ten of the fourteen games of 2017, lifted by a magnificent Michael Klinger century and by some mean bowling from Benny Howell, who seems to get better and better with the white ball. They would have qualified comfortably for the Quarter Finals with just three points from the last four games. Instead, all four games were lost and Gloucestershire slumped to last in the South Group. It was a dispiriting and unexpected implosion.
With Michael Klinger looking sadly unlikely to play, Gloucestershire will hope that Andrew Tye can turn out this time. Cockbain, Howell and Mustard all backed up Michael Klinger with 230+ runs last season but, of the rest, only Cameron Bancroft, who shared the second overseas spot with Perera, scored the weight of runs to support the “big four”. Similarly, although Benny Howell had admirable support from David Payne, Tom Smith and – when he played - Thisara Perera, Matt Taylor followed a promising 2016, with a nightmare T20 season in 2017, going at nearly 10-an-over and having (un)comfortably the worst strike rate of any bowler who took more than one wicket.
Just like Mark Alleyne’s unlikely all-conquering side of early in the millennium, Gloucestershire’s successes in the white ball game in recent years have been down to a team of individual modest talents that are, jointly, far greater than the sum of the parts. A team, like Alleyne’s, who have been raised to the heights by skilful captaincy. Without the father figure of Michael Klinger to coax out performances that some of those who produced them probably did not even believe themselves capable of, success is less certain. Much will depend on team spirit and on developing successfully a David and Goliath mentality.
While the Gloucestershire playing staff is not as small as it was five years ago, in the darkest days when the club almost folded, it is less well-equipped to handle injuries and loss of form than most, so the T20 Blast is the most likely competition to allow a team with limited resources to ambush its more illustrious opponents. As Gloucestershire found in 2017, margins in the Blast can be tiny and if the luck falls the right way they could get into the knock-out stages and, when you are there, logic often goes out the window while the knock-out games are being played, leading to some unlikely champions.
Championship – 5th
RLODC – 6th
T20 – 6th (but with a hope that the dice fall right and that the Shire sneak into the Q/Fs, at which point all bets are off)
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
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