It’s nearly over. It’s nearly here. The long winter off-season is a thing of the past, the 2019 County Championship starts on Friday. And for Somerset it is their white-ball nemesis Kent who are the first opponents.
As many of you know The InCider has a “bit of previous” with Kent supporters who seem to spend more time reading our pages than they do anything to do with their own club, no doubt encouraged by the ridiculous run they have had against Somerset in the last 5 years.
In the period since the start of the 2014 season Somerset have played the hop county 14 times and won only once, that win coming in 2017 in a 50-over contest. In the recent past the ways that Somerset have contrived to be beaten have become more and more frustrating and, of course, the vociferous members of the Kent support have let us know.
But of course none of those games were in the Championship, Kent were relegated in 2008, promoted the year after and relegated again in 2010 and have languished in Division 2 ever since.
The two sides last met in the championship at Canterbury in August 2010 in a rain affected drawn game. The Somerset side for that game gives you an idea of how long ago it was; Trescothick, Suppiah, de Bruyn, Buttler, Hildreth, Kieswetter, Trego, Phillips, Thomas, Kartik and Willoughby. The Kent side included Rob Key, Sam Northeast and James Tredwell as well as the evergreen Darren Stevens and Joe Denly.
Last season however Kent stormed to the top of the second division and, with a total of 10 wins (equalling Surrey’s tally in the first division), only lost out on top spot on the last day of the season by losing to Warwickshire.
Their arrival back in the top division surprised many including, judging by the comments made recently, Kent coach Matthew Walker. There is little doubt that Kent’s promotion was achieved ahead of schedule for a club which has in the recent past not being able to commit the financial resources it would have wished to the playing side.
Kent decided not to retain the services of New Zealander Matt Henry due to his international commitments this summer leaving a gaping 75-wicket new-ball hole. Henry’s departure and the decision not to replace him places huge responsibility on Darren Stevens and Harry Podmore who finished with 42 and 43 wickets respectively.
Kent are also shorn of skipper Sam Billings and last season’s leading run scorer Joe Denly who are likely to be engaged on IPL duty until late May. Matt Renshaw, much loved of this parish, has been brought in for “the first half of the season” as the overseas signing. All Somerset supporters, like Tom Abell in Tuesday’s press conference, will be hoping that Renshaw does not repeat his first game heroics at Taunton last season. Beyond these four days though we all wish Matt the best and hope, at some time in the future, he will return to Taunton on a more permanent basis.
Renshaw’s decision to sign for Kent will have been partly influenced by Somerset’s confirmation that Azhar Ali will be available for the whole summer. It appears that Azhar is likely to open this season with James Hildreth moving up to 3. The skipper will slot in at 4 or 5 leaving one batting place for one of the trio of young “B’s”; Tom Banton, George Bartlett and Eddie Byrom. Byrom, after his undefeated hundred and fifty in the Cardiff MCCU game last week looks to be in pole position but George Bartlett, who batted well in the second innings against Middlesex on Monday at Taunton Vale, is highly regarded.
The bowling will be without Jamie Overton who has an ankle impingement according to Andy Hurry. Even if Jamie was fit I suspect it would have been unlikely he would play on an early April pitch, but the selectors are in an envious position of having to make some difficult choices. Based on the recent pre-season performances Jack Brooks, Josh Davey, Tim Groenewald, Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton all have strong claims to be involved on Friday.
The final selection will I suspect be left until the morning of the game and specifically the overhead conditions. Dom Bess seems almost certain to miss out but don’t be surprised if Jack Leach is also omitted for this one.
While the majority of the counties have been feasting on the easy early season pickings of the MCCUs, Kent found the Loughborough incarnation a bit of a handful and were held to a draw. Most worrying for them was they lost opener Sean Dickinson retired hurt. Dickinson, who made 108* to underpin Kent’s first innings, was unable to resume on the final day and so must be a serious doubt.
Kent’s batting will, apart from Renshaw and Dickinson, be reliant on stand-in skipper Heido Kuhn and the highly promising Zak Crawley but whether they will be able to cope with the baptism of fire in Division One that the Somerset attack presents is open to question.
While confidence is high it was good to hear Tom Abell say on Tuesday that he and the squad were aware that it was important to make a good start this week if Somerset are to mount a title challenge.