I’m writing this while on a nine hour flight to Houston, Texas. A flight that will leave behind the best team in cricket and land me in the home of the best team in baseball at present.
The Houston Astros won the World Series in 2017 and went very close to repeating last season, losing in the American League Championship Series (effectively the World Series semi-finals) to the eventual winners the Boston Red Sox.
This year the Astros have started the season like a team that means to go all the way again this season while the Red Sox, like our friends from The Oval, are struggling with the demands of repeating.
But there the similarities between the Houston and Somerset end. A.J. Hinch, the Astros manager has been faced with a startling injury crisis which has robbed him with three of his best position players (batters and fielders as opposed to pitchers). Hinch has skilfully worked his back-up players to keep the Astros run going, but has little room for manoeuvre. At present his side is picking itself while the fans wait for Altuve, Correa and Springer to return. Springer is, coincidentally leading baseball’s MVP race at present.
Jason Kerr would probably be casting envious glances at such a situation. While Somerset have injuries to contend with, three of the first choice XI; Azhar Ali, Josh Davey and Lewis Gregory, missed the trip to Guildford and there are still a number of very difficult selection decisions he has to make ahead of the game against Kent at Canterbury starting on Monday.
I am going to try in this piece to explain why selection is not always a simple case of finding one replacement. How the potentially easy solution to a problem in turn creates another problem to be solved and when a solution is found to that another arises. And on and on.
Tom Abell was more than a little enigmatic in his post-game on Thursday. The clear implication when asked about the injury position was that the news from Taunton was good and that the respective returns of the missing three isn’t too far away.
That is certainly true I suspect of Azhar and Josh but Lewis Gregory was, according to reports before the Surrey game likely to be out for four to six weeks. The return of both only adds to the complexity of the selection challenge Somerset face.
The old adage of never changing a winning team no longer seems to hold true, if it ever really did in the first place. There is a strong argument that a team that is top of the table with four wins and a strong, rain affected draw from the fifth is in little need of adjustment. But the top order batting has failed to provide any sort of platform this season. Tom Abell at 4, George Bartlett (twice) batting at 5 or 6 and Lewis Gregory at 7 have made hundreds when Somerset have made substantial first innings totals.
It is unreasonable to expect the lower order to keep scoring the runs and the bowlers to keep producing outstanding performances to win games. A sustained championship challenge will require the top three to make significant runs the rest of the way.
Azhar’s return means that one of the top six has to be left out to accommodate him. Jason Kerr made what appears to be the obvious move – however much we all hoped it wouldn’t be the case – that being a straight swap at the top of the order with Marcus Trescothick being the man to stand down.
I am sure like most Somerset fans we held out the hope that Marcus would be able to step down at a time of his choosing but the case for his retention as an opener, and possibly in the side at all, was getting thinner by the week. While he continues to add a vital presence in the field and I suspect in the dressing room and around the club (and his catching is still superb) his lack of runs at the top of the order has been a big issue for the past few weeks.
There is plenty more to be said about Marcus, whether he gets back in the side, is left out again after this match at Kent or decides to leave himself out – and there is little doubt that he will do what he believes is right for Somerset, what gives us the best chance of winning next week and in every game between now and the end of September. The criticism will have hurt him hugely and, while everyone is entitled to an opinion, can I ask that it is not expressed on social media so overtly while he has a chance of being in the team. It is not helping him, the team or our chances of Championship success and you won’t hear it here.
The first difficulty regarding the option of Azhar returning in place of Marcus is the other opener’s berth.
Tom Abell took one for the team, we would expect nothing less, by opening in Azhar’s absence this week but surely he should revert to his place in the middle order. Which leaves the second openers spot available. There has been a growing clamour for Tom Banton to move into the openers spot. But if Somerset wanted this to happen why didn’t it at Guildford? Why ask the skipper to go back to a role he gave up over a season ago if Banton is in the side to open.
And then there is the very strong argument that Tres’ value to the team as a whole means he deserves to bat in the middle order in the games ahead. If that is the case we have Hildreth, Abell, Banton, Bartlett, Trescothick and Davies occupying 4 batting positions and with no one to open with Azhar.
I don’t know about anyone else but my head is starting to spin already. And it gets more complicated before we can try to find a solution.
I’d much prefer to see James Hildreth batting at 4, despite his sublime second innings at Guildford he is the side’s premier batsman and should be moved away from the vulnerability of the No3 spot. The lack of a substantial opening stand so far this season has meant that far too often Hildy has been batting too early. With a direct impact on his productivity.
If Banton is to be given his chance at the top of the order Abell or Bartlett would have to bat at 3 to allow Hildy to go back to 4, the other batting at 5.
The next question is whether Banton is ready to take the gloves in the Championship? The possibility of playing Banton in this role, which surely is the direction of travel, would be harsh on Steven Davies, especially as he kept so well at Guildford, but throws up some intriguing possibilities, especially if he opens as well.
If the logic within the dressing room is that Tres needs to be retained in the side irrespective, of his run output, he would, in this scenario slot in at six.
But still we have issues. Craig Overton’s batting is clearly significantly improved this season. The injuries that restricted his bowling in the off-season gave him more time to concentrate on his batting. The undoubted all-round talent has been added to by better defence, shot selection and execution. But I still argue that at present both he and Jamie are batting one place too high in the order. Why deprive ourselves of potentially the best numbers 8 & 9 in Championship cricket by batting them at 7 & 8?
Still with me? I hope so. Now all we need is an all-rounder to bat at 7 if Lewis is absent. Dom Bess has one game left of his current loan spell at Yorkshire. Given his success with the bat last week, an unbeaten 91 against Essex at Headingley is very impressive, could he be the solution?
Yorkshire travel to Guildford on Monday so it is highly likely that Bess will have little bowling to do and may even be left out to allow Yorkshire to play and extra seamer. I also tend to agree with the many on social media who have been saying they’d rather he was doing it for Somerset than one of our potential rivals.
We may need to make this decisive move to bring Dom back and play him now or lose him permanently. With Adil Rashid currently on World Cup duty Yorkshire have no other quality spin option. A win against Surrey would put them right in title contraction and an international spinner is the one thing missing from their side at present.
I’m firmly, resolutely, unmovably in the Dom Bess camp. I want to see him at Taunton and have believed for a good while that we need to allow his batting to develop at first team level. If he was to do what I think he is capable of and score consistent runs for Somerset his off-breaks would be an added bonus. What a bonus!
Having solved all the batting issues (!) all we have to do now is pick four bowlers from the twins, Timmy G, Josh Davey (assuming fitness) and the pair of Jacks! Simples! Davey may be left out and given the two weeks until Essex to get full fit which makes the task a little easier, and we have no idea what the pitch and weather will reveal come Monday morning, but what is clear is that on very deserving bowler will have to miss out.
I’m planning on going to watch the Astros take on the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday evening, by which time hopefully Somerset will have further strengthened their position atop division one. Hinch is unlikely to have had any of his injured stars back and will, given that the Astros play every day this week have had to do some mixing an matching with his lineup. But I’m pretty sure Houston will remain at the top of the American League standings and will be continuing their serene progress to the end of season play-offs.
If Somerset are to achieve what we all hope this week the selection and man management skills of Jason Kerr will have been a significant factor. Whatever eleven is chosen, whatever differences it has to our preferred eleven let’s just get behind Tom and the boys all week, with a full understanding of the difficulties success brings. And think before we jump on social media?