Somerset return to the County Ground tomorrow to take on Lancashire in another crucial Division 1 fixture. Still doggedly chasing leaders Surrey Somerset know that they need another win against a team fighting relegation to maintain their challenge for the title and close that 32-point gap.
Before we look at the game against the Red Rose let’s look at the current situation from Surrey’s point of view. It has been pretty much their title to lose since they beat Somerset back in June. Since the championship returned in earnest Surrey have won both their games but have not increased the gap. Their supporters must have, at various times during the last round been sure that Somerset were not going to win and that the gap would rise to an almost unassailable 45 points.
But Somerset prevailed in Leeds and Surrey, with three away games in a row now and Essex, who appear to have found some of their form of last season in the last couple of weeks, twice, know that this is far from over.
The psychology of leading by such a margin for such a period of time is a funny thing. If Surrey were to see the gap close this week they may begin to wonder if they can hold on. The leaders will constantly be looking in their rear-view mirror and as the words of the song go Somerset “may appear closer than they are”. If this happens and Somerset win this week Somerset will be a lot closer and Surrey will begin worrying about that trip to Taunton later this month.
Of course, that is a long way off and Somerset have to keep winning. You would imagine that nothing less than 3 wins (including defeating Surrey) and a high scoring draw is the very least Somerset need and that is a tall order for anyone.
But the task needs to be taken bit by bit and we are still in the phase of keeping the leaders within reach until we face them. So, the task at hand is to beat Lancashire. It would also be helpful if the bowlers could have a bit lighter workload than the last two games when they have had long hard final days to bowl the side to victory.
Lancashire, despite their thrilling win at Southport last week are still deep in relegation trouble. The sit 5th but are only two points above the relegation places, have played a game more, and have no home fixtures left due to the work required at Old Trafford ahead of next year’s World Cup.
But they are a very good side who have clearly underperformed this year. They almost, cruelly, beat Surrey last week and fought back from a near impossible position last week to beat Worcestershire. A measure of the spirit of the team can be seen from the fact that, the day after that crushing loss to Surrey, they went to Canterbury and crushed Kent to reach The Blast Finals Day.
Their batting has been patchy this year, Haseeb Hameed is in a prolonged trough which makes me wonder if he is Lancashire’s Mark Lathwell, a prodigious talent that will be unfulfilled. Liam Livingstone’s injury has been crucial depriving them of both leadership and their best batsman. Their troubles can be easily spotted from a look at their batting averages. After Dane Vilas, who hit an unbeaten ton at Southport to see them home and Keaton Jennings, who both average in the 40s the next two in the averages are bowlers Joe Mennie and Jordan Clark.
Their bowling has been dominated by Mennie, Tom Bailey and Graham Onions who have 121 wickets between them. Compare this with Somerset who have 7 bowlers combining for 141 wickets and it is easy to see who the better team is, in terms of all-round contributions.
I am writing this before the England team for the final test is announced but it would be a major surprise if Keaton Jennings is not given at least one more chance after his 40 odd in the second innings at Southampton. Dropping him now would go against all Ed Smith’s principles and probably shut the door on Jennings England career for a very very long time.
I expect Lancashire to go with a similar batting line up to that they fielded at Southport. The only change could be the inclusion of Livingstone if he has healed sufficiently. I am sure he will be keen to get some game time ahead of finals day. It is certainly a good thing for Somerset that Lancashire’s order is in such a state of flux with Toby Lester, Hameed and Rob Jones of the top 4 all desperately short of runs.
Their bowling attack has been bolstered by the signing until the end of the season of Keshav Marahaj and he may be joined in the XI by highly promising leggie Matthew Parkinson given Taunton’s reputation for assisting spin.
Lancashire also have a 21 year-old who has only played two games but made a huge impression. Josh Bohannon with 175 runs since he made his debut two weeks ago against Surrey and made 78 not out in the second innings at Southport has made a huge impact since he arrived.
Somerset on the other hand would, I am sure, like to name an unchanged side. This depends on how the bowlers recover from Saturday. Assuming all are fit the only decision for Jason Kerr could be whether Dom Bess replaces Josh Davey. While Bess has looked out of sorts recently he is a prodigious talent and needs to be looked after for his long-term benefit. Like Dan Kingdom of this parish I also worry about the parallels with Jos and Craig and don’t want to lose the talents Bess brings. He is a potential match-winner and Jack always seems to me to bowl better in tandem with Dom.
The other selection issue is Eddie Byrom. He currently averages 20.6 with 309 runs from 15 innings and a top score of 54. I heard it said during the Yorkshire game that Somerset might leave him out and move the captain back up to open, but Tom seems to be doing just fine at 5 so I’d be loath to move him. The other option is to ask Azhar to open and bring George Bartlett back in at 3 but again I would prefer not to move Azhar. I’d be inclined to give Eddie one more chance but if not how about asking Dom Bess to open? I know it is left field but if you think about it (and I have – a lot!!) you gain a guy who has made a 50 for England and can bowl a bit, what’s to lose?
The other option to be considered is Timmy G who is now back and firing. If he isn’t selected for this week I expect him to play a big part before the end of the season. Somerset have the luxury of having a wide range of bowling options but, if Saturday afternoon is anything to go by, if they can get the twins and Lewis available for the remaining four championship games then we have a real shout at this.
The weather forecast looks good for the next 4 days – always a factor to consider at this time of year. I’m going to stick my neck out and predict a comfortable Somerset win, all our nerves could certainly do with that, with perhaps 22 points.
Encouragingly with pretty much every team involved in either promotion or relegation issues I expect positive cricket for the next few weeks which has to benefit us all. While we all hope that Essex can trouble Surrey Yorkshire who play Notts this week and Worcester and Hampshire who face each other at New Road will all be looking for crucial wins.
I’m really optimistic Essex can do us a favour, especially if the Chelmsford pitch is anything like the one when we played them in late June. I also expect Worcestershire to beat Hampshire. As for Notts v Yorkshire, I haven’t a clue which team will turn up on either side.
I can’t wait, can you?