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Deepening the Wounds?

County Championship Division One, Surrey v Somerset 3rd to 6th June 2019

The fixture computer couldn’t have been any kinder could it? Somerset were given their first off-week of the season which having won the one-day cup last Saturday was a huge blessing. No matter how professional Tom Abell and his side are, it would have been asking a lot to park the emotion from Saturday and focus on a Championship game at 11am on Monday morning.

A further blessing arrived toward the end of the week when Yorkshire and Hampshire had to shake hands on a draw at Headingley after four days heavily disrupted by the weather. While the draw was enough to put Hampshire 7 points ahead of Somerset they have now played a game more while Yorkshire, who have, like Somerset played 4, trail by 14 points.

Kent subsided against Essex at Chelmsford moving Sir Alistair and co into contention just four points behind Yorkshire. But the most significant result was that involving Somerset’s next opponents, Surrey, who were beaten by Warwickshire at Edgbaston by 130 runs in a low-scoring spin-dominated game.

Surrey find themselves 42 points behind the leaders and 35 adrift of Somerset. Without a win this season and with a very poor record in the on-day cup, last year’s champions need to find a major reversal in form and fortune quickly if they are not to find themselves at the wrong end of the table.

I must confess I have found myself, for various reasons, listening to the BBC commentaries for a decent part of Surrey’s last three games. While the highly entertaining and knowledgeable BBC commentary pair of Mark Church and Johnny Barran have been noticeable downbeat over the last couple of weeks as Surrey were unable to bowl Kent out in over a day and then subsided to Warwickshire. I think their assessment that Surrey are probably out of the title race and heading for a battle with Notts, Warwickshire and Kent for the one relegation spot is premature.

While Surrey undoubtedly have problems at the moment, they are far too good a side to slip into a relegation dog fight. However putting a finger on what is wrong is not easy. Injuries and international call ups have deprived them of, most notably; the Currans, Ollie Pope and Liam Plunkett. Without wishing to tempt fate the core players they relied on last season; Burns, Stoneman, Elgar and Morkel have not performed meaning that the Surrey formula from last season of batting big and batting once and allowing scoreboard pressure to do assist their bowlers has not been possible. 

But there is clearly something intangible missing, confidence? Luck? Or is the task of repeating too much for a team heavily reliant on Morne Morkel for wickets and Rory Burns and Dean Elgar for runs?

Somerset know that if that can inflict defeat on their opponents this week that will mean the gap between the two is probably insurmountable for the Champions with at the ned of this week over a third of the season complete. Like Surrey did last year, the opportunity to whittle away rivals now presents itself to Somerset for the first time this season.

Memories of the same fixture last season will however temper Somerset optimism. Heading into the game as leaders they were blown away by Surrey in a manner we will skip over here. 

Somerset have now had that week’s break to get their “four-day heads” screwed firmly back on. While mentally I expect Tom Abell and his side to be ready the fitness concerns are growing especially in the bowlers. Both Lewis Gregory and Josh Davey have not been named in a 13 man squad. Jamie Overton’s recall from his loan is an indication that he is likely to play meaning the last bowling place is between Jack Brooks who has only just returned to fitness and has little bowing in the last month and Tim Groenewald.

While the bowling line up will be determined by fitness the batting line up is a more complex conundrum. The case for giving Tom Banton a role in red-ball cricket now seems indisputable but how to accommodate him in the batting order more complex. The decision seems to be whether he will be given the gloves and asked to bat at 6 in place of Steven Davies or will he come in at the top of the order in place of Marcus?  

A third, more complex alternative would be to use Banton’s inclusion to allow James Hildreth to revert to 4 but that would require omitting George Bartlett (extremely harsh), Davies or leaving out a bowler and asking Tom Abell to fill the fourth seamer’s role and perhaps Azhar to bowl a decent number of overs as well.

Somerset supporters will await the announcement of the side tomorrow morning with greater anticipation and interest than for a good while. 

Can Somerset win their fourth championship game of the season and continue their fine start to the season? I believe that even with huge loss of Lewis Gregory and the only slightly lesser loss of Josh Davey they have the tools to do it and should still be favourites but this is almost certainly the biggest test of the Championship campaign so far both in terms of opponents and squad depth.