Jeremy Blackmore takes stock of Somerset’s progress after the opening championship games of the season and finds cause for optimism.
When the 2014 fixture list was unveiled during the winter, Somerset’s cricketers and their fans may have looked with some trepidation at the opening two championship matches of the season.
Playing both last year’s county champions and runners-up in the same fortnight posed a formidable challenge. It was going to be a tough start to the season.
Would Somerset’s fragile batting line-up of 2013 be able to withstand Durham and Yorkshire’s extremely strong seam attacks in bowler-friendly mid-April conditions?
Whisper it quietly, but if pressed, we might have admitted that we’d have quite happily taken two draws from those two games and picked our battles to fight later in the season.
That we were in a position where victory was a possibility – however remote – on day four of both games is a huge testament to the hard work this side has put in over the winter and maybe of a different kind of mindset in the team. Particularly when you take into consideration that we initially got ourselves well behind the eight-ball in both games.
Maybe having to scrap so hard to avoid relegation and retain our prized Division 1 status last year has had a positive impact, strengthening our resolve in pressure situations.
Against Yorkshire last week, we let the Tykes rack up 342 on the opening day, and with Craig Overton going off injured the following morning, our front-line bowling attack was reduced to just three men plus the part-timers. But we responded brilliantly, taking the last five wickets for 48 runs on the second morning, before building a score in excess of 550. Six batsmen scored half-centuries and we took a sizeable first innings lead before the match fizzled out into a draw.
At Chester-le-Street, we again lost a bowler to injury mid-match and collapsed to 185 all out to give Durham a commanding first-innings lead. When Durham batted again though, our bowlers fought back taking 5-36 on day 2.
When we batted for a second time, we lost wickets in clutches, leaving us perilously placed. A similar early collapse last season might have seen us surrender an easy victory to our opponents, but the commanding, and mostly untroubled 154-run partnership between Compton and Kieswetter on Wednesday safely secured the game as a draw.
With the run rate rising and light fading, I think our lads made the sensible decision not to risk launching a last-minute dash for victory at the expense of a draw. We took a certain five points and denied our opponents the 16 points they would have received had our last six wickets fallen in a blaze of glory. But it showed just how much we had fought our way back into the match, that Somerset fans spent Wednesday afternoon openly tweeting hopes of a dramatic and famous away win.
So there’s been a lot of positives to take out of our early games. To name just a few:
- Nick Compton picking up where he left off after the last few seasons with yet another classy century and looking in complete control at Chester-le-Street. An England recall has to be on the cards if he continues to play like this;
- Two solid half-centuries by Craig Kieswetter showing he’s determined to build longer innings this year and avoid some of the rash shots of 2013, while still treating fans to some exciting strokeplay;
- Lewis Gregory’s continued development as an all-rounder – now an immediate selection for Somerset, contributing with bat and ball.
- The welcome return from injury of the ever-reliable and big-hearted Pete Trego at Chester-le-Street, making an impact immediately with bat and ball.
The picture is not all rosy though. Not least because we’ve seen injuries already to our bowling attack with Steve Kirby ruled out for several weeks at the start of the season and Alfonso Thomas, Craig Overton and Craig Meschede all picking up niggles during the opening games.
Many commentators have doubted whether Somerset will be able to bowl sides out twice this year, with our dependence on a clutch of extremely promising, but still very inexperienced bowlers. That inexperience was certainly on display on day one against Yorkshire and in the plethora of no balls we conceded to Durham.
But there continues to be signs of how special this attack is going to be for several years for Somerset. Both Gregory and Meschede have got the ball to swing and picked up key wickets, while Jamie Overton continued to impress with his pace, even his radar needs more work.
While it might make selection difficult, I believe we have to play another bowler against Sussex this weekend. Johann Myburgh – and even James Hildreth – have a done a decent job as part-time bowlers. But we need a quality front-line spinner in the attack to maximise our chances of making breakthroughs, particularly in the second innings. George Dockerell has fielded as twelfth man in both games and needs to be in the starting XI at Hove – whether our seamers get through the match without injury or not.
Our key strength is undoubtedly in the batting department and there were strong performances against Yorkshire and in that big second innings partnership between Compo and Kiesy at Durham. But our top-order remains a cause for concern. Tres has not carried his pre-season form into either game, despite a breezy start against Yorkshire.
Chris Jones made an excellent 75 at Taunton but did less well against Durham. Chris deserves to play against Sussex, but will probably be the unlucky man to miss out if we play an extra bowler. Somerset will be reluctant to leave out their South African signing Myburgh after his 91 against Yorkshire and because he can bowl some useful part-time off-breaks. Meanwhile Alviro Petersen has a top score of 24 and after his half-century against Yorkshire, James Hildreth was out cheaply twice against Durham.
I’m optimistic though with the resolve we’ve shown so far, with someone putting their hands up when it matters. I cautioned last week that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but I’ve been impressed with the way we’ve managed to fight our way back when both games looked lost. We now need to stop getting into those precarious positions to begin with. Then, if our top order can come good – and with their class, they surely will – and we can string together more of the partnerships we’ve seen so far, we can put the opposition under pressure from the off and really give our young bowlers something to play with.
And then, whisper it quietly, 2014 could be a much better season for us in the championship than 2013.
For now though, a stern test awaits away against Sussex, who seem the team to beat so far this year, with Mark Robinson’s charges heading the Division 1 table by some distance.
We wish the lads all the best as they make the trip south-eastwards towards Hove. Remember to check back at The Incider for news and views ahead of the game on Sunday.