By Mark Kidger
Where: Taunton, Somerset
Ins: Cameron Bancroft (Overseas, Australia) and Fin Trenouth (Academy)
Out: Jim Allenby (released), Ryan Davies (released), Michael Leask (released)
Key man: Jack Leach
Last year: Championship 6th, RLODC Q/F, T20 Blast Q/F
2018 Odds: Championship 14/1, RLODC 14/1, T20 Blast N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
After just missing out on the Championship on the last afternoon in 2016 to what many felt was a contrived finish from their two main rivals, many fans must have felt that 2017 could be the year for that elusive Championship pennant. However, a consequence of the change in Division 1 to fourteen games was to neutralise in part Somerset’s ability to make a late-season charge on turning pitches. There was, though, a certain irony in the fact that the side that had pipped them to the title in 2016 – Middlesex – went to Taunton in the last round, with the second relegation spot between them, knowing that even a defeat would save Middlesex and condemn Somerset… unless Somerset took more bonus points, which they duly did. It was a curious game to end the season, with a spinner taking the new ball in three of the four innings of the match, on what can most kindly be described as a result track – with Middlesex briefly holding out hopes of salvation, even after the season ended, in the form of a sanction for an unsatisfactory pitch.
You would have to be a real curmudgeon not to want to see Marcus Trescothick – Banger to the fans – obtain the one county honour that he has never won and the one that probably would mean more to him than any other, in what may well be his final season. He will be close to his 43rd birthday come the end of the season and has not played limited-overs since 2015, preferring to drop down to play for the 2nd XI rather than play white-ball cricket. You cannot help but feel that he has hung on one more year in the hope that he can see Somerset go one better than its four runners-up spots, achieved in 2001, 2010, 2012 and 2016.
Such was the mid-table log-jam in 2017 that just two points separated Yorkshire, with their 4th place and a not to be despised amount of prize money, from Middlesex, in 7th. But while 6th in the Championship and an undignified late-season scramble to survive was a disappointment, there was no shame in the manner of their Quarter-Final exit in the Royal London One Day Cup. Chasing 430 to win, they gave Nottinghamshire an almighty scare before finally losing. Jamie Overton and Tim Groenewald had scored 38 from the previous 23 balls and reduced the equation to 25 needed from 13 – certainly well on – before Overton was run out to end the game. Fourth in the group in the NatWest T20 Blast with a 6-6 record was a big improvement on 2016, even if the Quarter Final ended up with Nottinghamshire again getting the better of them, on this occasion, quite comfortably.
Tom Abell retains the captaincy for a second season and will take over the One Day Cup captaincy too with the departure of Jim Allenby. However, under 600 runs, no century and an average of just 26 will have done nothing to suggest that the people who doubted the wisdom of his appointment were wrong. Having dropped down to 3 for the start of the season, to avoid the double load of the captaincy and opening, four fifties in twenty-five innings is a return that will have to improve in 2018 if Somerset are to challenge in the Championship. Later, in the second half of the season, he dropped himself further down the order to #5, although with no greater success.
Dean Elgar has been replaced as the overseas player by Cameron Bancroft. The South African opening batsman only played six Championship games in 2017 but held the batting together when he played, with 2x100, 2x50 and a batting average of 47 (twelve more than anyone else). Between him and Marcus Trescothick, they scored four of Somerset’s nine centuries during the season. Charged with the job of filling his very large boots Cameron Bancroft, who has moved westwards across the River Avon from the County Ground at Bristol is an interesting choice. Sixteen games for Gloucestershire over two seasons have hardly set the West country alight, producing just a single century – albeit an unbeaten double – and 5x50. However, Bancroft has also made his Test debut – in the Ashes, no less – and, after an uncertain start, is beginning to suggest that he can make a success of it. It is hoped that Bancroft’s solidity as an opener, added to Trescothick’s hitting, will allow Somerset to post some decent starts.
Bancroft’s second string is as a gloveman. He will back up Somerset’s big winter signing from 2016/17, former England wicketkeeper, Steven Davies. Davies played every Championship game in 2017 and was the only batsman other than Elgar to average over 35. However, with two international wicket-keepers on the books and a third ‘keeper, Fin Trenouth, who played for Somerset 2nd XI and for Devon in 2017, signed for 2018, Ryan Davies, the club’s other wicketkeeper, who ended 2016 strongly, did not get a First Class game in 2017 and has been released.
To challenge, Somerset will need more runs from some of their senior batsmen. James Hildreth’s runs were critical in the crucial win over Middlesex but, before that game pushed his Championship average over 30, he had been averaging only 26, far below what his side needed or expected. Byrom and Barlett, who came into the side in the second half of the season, averaged mid-twenties and mid-teens respectively. Added to Abell’s struggles and the fact that Marcus Trescothick averaged well under 30 too, meant that there were rarely many runs for the bowlers to defend.
When analysing a particular side’s troubles a few years back, the situation was summed-up with the words “too many batsmen averaging under thirty. Too many bowlers averaging over thirty!” If Somerset can presume to have the former trouble, the latter is not an issue. No fewer than five front-line bowlers averaged under twenty-five and Jack Leach’s 51 wickets at a highly respectable 25.8 saw him finish well down the bowling averages.
Craig Overton finished just short of fifty wickets, with 46 at an average of 22.4, putting him sixth in the list of Division 1 wicket-takers and, of bowlers to send down at least one hundred overs, eighth in the Division 1 bowling averages. The result was a call-up by England and a Test debut, impressing both with the ball and, by his courage in playing on despite a broken rib, quite apart from making useful runs at Perth. Fortunately for Somerset, the return of Ben Stokes should limit Craig Overton’s chances of adding to his two Test caps during the summer, although another season as good as 2017 will see him touring next winter and, undoubtedly, playing many more Tests in the near future.
Injury limited Jamie Overton and Lewis Gregory to just a dozen games between them, but those games showed glimpses of what they offer if the much-changed backroom staff can keep both fit. Gregory made a maiden First Class century and bowled with good effect in the first half of the season. Jamie Overton had a good game with the ball for the Lions against South Africa A in June but was only able to play a single 2nd XI game in August after that. However, on the plus side, off-spinner Dom Bess became a regular in the side and formed a lethal spin partnership with Jack Leach.
What to say of Jack Leach? After a miserable winter during which he lost a possible Test debut as he was re-modelling his action and then struggled initially with his new action during the Lions tours, there were concerns that Somerset’s biggest weapon – the chance to exploit fully turning pitches at Taunton – might be seriously compromised. He could not match his 65 wickets at 22 from 2016, but 51 wickets at 25.8 in two fewer games was a fantastic effort with his re-designed action. One of the few successes of the disastrous recent Lions tour of the Caribbean, Leach has been rewarded with a place in the England Test squad in New Zealand, replacing the injured Mason Crane. While, at the moment, a Test debut in New Zealand or, during the summer, in England, looks unlikely, a good 2018 will undoubtedly see him making a Test debut in Sri Lanka in October. If anyone can bowl Somerset to a Championship pennant, it is Jack Leach.
Some fans are already beginning to think of a future England spin attack of Leach and Bess, the first county spin twins for England since the Middlesex pairing of Edmonds and Emburey. As a slow left arm/off-spin combination, it would offer England potentially their best-balanced attack for all conditions since Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar combined so effectively in India in 2011. Somerset should be praised for offering the one pitch in England that really rewards spin and trains batsmen to play in the kind of conditions that have caused their batsmen so many problems in recent years.
A look at the fixture list though shows that Somerset will play three of their home Championship games in April and early May, one in June and just three in late August and September. If the Somerset pace attack can stay fit and if the batting can give them some runs to defend, Somerset may not be too far off the pace come August for Leach and Bess to power another surge up the table but the reduction in fixtures has inevitably done Somerset no favours.
Somerset’s t20 cricket improved massively in 2017 and a Quarter Final was probably about right – the side was too irregular to go further. Corey Anderson of New Zealand returns as the T20 overseas player. He only played four games in 2017, but made a big impact, scoring 142 runs at the impressive strike rate of 184: comfortably the highest strike rate in the side. If Anderson plays more games this season and if the young lions in the attack fire – their returns were promising in 2017 – Somerset may even threaten to reach Finals Day.
The Taunton faithful have just one question though: could 2018 be the year when the County Championship finally comes to Taunton? There were high hopes for 2017, but Somerset were never in the hunt and were extremely lucky to escape relegation in the end. It is a lot of ifs that must be fulfilled for Somerset to win in 2018, but England calls are unlikely this summer, so all the fit players should remain available. Somerset will either be title challengers, or relegated: I cannot see a season of mid-table anonymity in the side’s DNA, but it may be too much of a stretch for the county to give Marcus Trescothick the retirement present that he most wants, especially considering the unusually changes in the off-field staff over the winter that may hint at an unsettled support team.
County Championship: 2nd
T20 Blast: S/F
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space science, at https://openspacescience.blog/
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