Mission accomplished…but the beat goes on!

Season 2019 has ended with the finale somewhat dark and wet. The much-heralded title-deciding confrontation with champions elect Essex was ruined by September’s showers, but there is much to ponder as the planning for 2020 is already well underway. So was 2019 a hit or miss for Somerset? Let’s discuss.

Cricket can be a game of silly superstitions, particularly in club cricket. There’s the scorer who refuses to add up a batsman’s score in the notion it will lead to that person’s instant dismissal. The person who refuses to put the ‘Nelson’ scores on the scoreboard (111, 222, etc.) as this ultimately signals the end of the world. The batsman who insists they strap their left pad on before their right, the clubman who must sit in the same seat at tea, the bowler who can only bowl at one end. I won’t go on. Silly superstitions.

And such strange traditions are true for the modern cricket follower on social media. For my 2019 preseason preview I confidently predicted that Somerset would win a trophy in the season ahead. There should no grey areas in our ambitions for the season ahead, I said, and it mattered little to me whether success be in the 20-over, 50-over or four-day formats; the mission for this talented group of primarily younger players was to graduate from so-called bridesmaids to winners. And it was most definitely time for Somerset’s long-suffering supporters to witness a Somerset captain hoisting aloft some silverware to the chorus of Blackbird.

My confidence drew howls of protest from the Twitterati. “Season ruined,” one said. “That’s put the kibosh on our chances,” said another. But my confidence was justified and on May 25, on a glorious day at Lords, Tom Abell held aloft the Royal London One Day Cup in front of his delighted team and our thrilled supporters. And by doing so he and his team-mates joined an elite group of Somerset cricketers to win a trophy for the cider county, and an even more elite group to taste success at the Home of Cricket.

It was a fantastic feeling. Forty years after I had stood on the Lords pitch as a 14 year-old and watched Brian Rose raise the Gillette Cup – Somerset’s first ever trophy success – I was there again to see my team taste success once more. And it felt as good this time as it did then. For the first time since 2005, Somerset had won a major trophy. Jamie Overton bowled well enough to be named the man of the match but it wouldn’t have been out of place if Tom Banton or Josh Davey had collected the honour instead. And it mattered little, they were all winners.

The mission had been accomplished. Not that that would herald some kind of end of the season for this team. Somerset had already made a positive start in their County Championship campaign and had acquired the services of Babar Azam for the Vitality Blast – the man widely acknowledged as the best 20-over batsman in the world. There were two more trophies to win. And our boys were determined to win them.

What happened next in this most enjoyable of campaigns was, at times, baffling and never predictable. There were some incredible highs and unfathomable lows in each competition as roughly the same group of players who qualified for T20 Finals Day in 2018 fell slightly short of qualification this season. And roughly the same squad who finished runners-up in the longer format last year, and who led the division for large parts of this season, fell foul of Essex, the weather and themselves (quite frankly) in equal measure.

It was the batsmen who starred in the Blast. On five occasions the team scored over 200 and in Azam (578) and Banton (549) Somerset had the two highest run scorers in the entire tournament and the only to pass 500 runs. For a long period Abell was forced to captain the team in the absence of Lewis Gregory but this didn’t distract him from having a fantastic season and he was the only player in 2019 other than Babar and Bants to score a Blast century; a most majestic knock in the final game against Middlesex.

Jason Kerr showed his ruthless side after four games when club legend Peter Trego, was, I think, surprisingly dropped never to return again, despite leading his team to an opening day win at Glamorgan where he scored an unbeaten 47. Tregs departure meant a chance for Eddie Byrom – never previously acknowledged as a 20-over player – and he took it. It could be argued the middle should have contributed more but batting wasn’t the issue. Let’s hope Babar is back for 2020 – Somerset fans would certainly welcome that as would our newly-founded fan club in Pakistan.

Spinners Max Waller (13) and Roleof van der Merwe (15 – the seasons highest wicket taker) took 38% of the 74 wickets claimed by bowlers but, there’s no beating about the bush, the pace bowling left much to be desired at times. Too short too many times, wide of the mark at others, there will be definite need for improvement if Somerset are to mount a challenge in 2020. To his credit Jerome Taylor took 14 wickets but I doubt we will see him back next year. Young Tom Lammonby was given his first experience of Taunton crowds playing 12 games and he applied himself very well. He would have learnt a lot from this and could well be a big player for us in 2020.

As a polar opposite it was the bowling that dominated the County Championship campaign. Every bowler employed accrued double figure returns with Gregory’s 51 wickets leading the way despite the aforementioned injury. Jack Leach took 34 (despite starring as an England Test batsman at times) and Craig Overton (37) and brother Jamie (28) should both be happy with their seasons. Jack Brooks was signed for his title-winning experience but injury dealt him a cruel hand. That said, 25 wickets in eight games is no mean return.

In the Championship batting the figures speak for themselves. Only Abell and George Bartlett topped 30 in the averages (and only just) and it was the former who scored most runs with 756. The captain certainly led from the front in all formats this year. James Hildreth had an off season (I don’t think anyone has ever said that before?) and the season heralded the end of the road for Marcus Trescothick after he played five games but struggled to score 86 runs in eight knocks.

Recruitment will be key for next season and it remains to be seen if Azhar Ali’s 344 runs at 20.0 was good enough for Andy Hurry to seek a return to the Cooper Associates County Ground. I’m not entirely surely if there are any answers on the domestic front? Maybe James Bracey would have been an option after a fine season for Gloucestershire, but their promotion to the top flight would have ended any thoughts of that should his name have been discussed.

There’s even talk that it may be worth taking a punt on the one once dubbed “Baby Boycott”, Haseeb Hameed, fresh from his release by Lancashire. He was good enough to make his debut for England aged 19 and score 82 in India as recently as November 2016. Since then form and fortune appear to have deserted him, but is there another ground as good as Taunton or a support as passionate as Somerset’s for a batter to regain confidence? Personally I think this is worth a shot.

There has already been movement within the squad. As well as Tres & Tregs moving on, Paul van Meekeren and Tim Rouse have been released and Tim Groenewald has signed for Kent. Steve Davies, Roleof van der Merwe and Eddie Byrom have signed new deals and Tom Lammonby has extended his contract too.  The seeds are being sown for success for a few more years to come.

So in the old game of hit or miss how does this season rank? Hit. Definitely. Yes the end was damp and disappointing, and we were agonisingly close to that first Champo win, but the summer was fun nonetheless. Our boys can be proud of their efforts. There is the notion that winning a trophy so early in the campaign created a premature sense of ‘job done’ and the team took their foot off the gas a little, but I don’t subscribe to such a theory. This team battled throughout.

This group is going places. At the heart of it all there is a nucleus of young, talented South West lads who love playing for Somerset and are desperate to succeed. Andy Hurry and Jason Kerr are brilliant at building an environment where players can develop and improve and the academy continues to produce England internationals, with five home grown players being called up by the Three Lions in two short years. And there will be more to come.

Where we are fortunate is that, in Tom Abell and Lewis Gregory, we have two fine, young captains who can mix their skills with the ability to read and understand the game so well. I said when he was named club captain back in December 2016 that Tom Abell would eventually be Somerset’s longest-serving captain beating the twelve seasons Sammy Woods enjoyed a few thousand years ago. The only thing that may hamper that is if he gains international recognition. We wouldn’t begrudge him that if he were.

The future is bright. You can be sure of that.

The mission for 2019 has been accomplished but the beat goes on for 2020. And I’m going to say it now, Somerset will win the County Championship next season. To hell with silly superstitions.