Red Ball is back – a championship tilt?

It is a very welcome return to Championship action for Somerset on Sunday as we continue to pursue the Holy Grail of that elusive first championship win. No one is under any illusions that it is going to take a real effort to haul in an unbeaten Surrey side who are 34 points and two wins better off than Somerset from the same number of games.

White ball has been fun despite finding yet another way to lose last evening to our dear friends from Kent but with one round of group games left for all the other teams in the South Group Somerset sit top of that table, guaranteed a quarter-final place and with a better than even chance of that being at home. But now we return to the real stuff and Somerset flip from being hunted to hunter.

But folks around the County Ground remain positive that this group of players, who have demonstrated in the shorter format an ability to win in a number of different ways and shown real togetherness and team spirit, have what it takes. Add in the extra ingredient of the fall-out from the two T20s between the sides last week and we should be in for a real treat over the next month and a half.

The task facing Somerset is clear, keep Surrey within reach until September 18th when the two meet at Taunton. Then, as we did in 2016 show that we are the team who can deal with the pressure of being in a title decider and deliver a win. To do this it is very much a case of taking one game at a time and seeing what happens. Who knows, Surrey could have clinched it by then or we could have overhauled them, but something tells me it will come to those four days at Taunton. Bring it on.

It is easy to forget how hard it is to win a championship game. It is very rare that many teams win more than half their games in a season. Last season (the first 14 game campaign in Division One) Essex were champions with 10 wins but second-placed Lancashire won only 5 and only Somerset and Yorkshire 4. The year before, Middlesex, champions (by ONE point let us not forget) won only 6 games. In the last five seasons Somerset’s win totals have been 4,6,4,4 & 3 which gives us a measure of how well this side has done already. We are going to have to sustain this pace to have real title aspirations.

There are two schools of thought about this season that I have been debating in my own mind; one says that Surrey cannot sustain the pace they have set so far and will fall back to the statistical mean, the other, that this is going to be a two-horse race where both Somerset and Surrey pull clear of the rest and both finish with an abnormally high number of wins.

Of course, the weather is a factor to be considered. Let’s hope the cricket gods smile down on the return of red-ball cricket and we are blessed with the weather the first half of the championship enjoyed for the run in.

The other big determining factor is the opposition. Somerset have three home games against Essex, Lancashire and Surrey and trips to Headingley The Rose Bowl and Trent Bridge while Surrey plays Lancashire this week in a day-nighter and have home ties with Notts and Essex with three aways out of their last four at Chelmsford, Worcester and Taunton.

Personally, those fixtures give me hope. I can’t put my finger on why.  Maybe the nature of Oval pitches, or the challenge for Surrey of facing three aways on the spin, or just an inherent belief in Tom Abell and the boys, but my early season belief that this was a special year has only increased over the last three weeks.

One of Somerset’s advantages is that a significant part of the championship squad have not been subject to the exertions of the Blast and have had some quality red-ball practice over the last month. The tangible effect on the dressing room of the likes of Marcus, Azhar Ali, Craig Overton and Dom and Jack coming back into it wanting to emulate the success of the white-ball side cannot be underestimated.

Disappointingly a Somerset 2nd XI which featured eight of the likely squad for the Essex game (Tres, Azhar, Byrom, Bartlett, Bess, Davey, C Overton and Leach) fell victim to the weather earlier in the week but not before Jack Leach (4-48 in 22 overs) and Dom Bess (2-69 in 20) had extended middle practice and Tres had breezed to an unbeaten 42. But there were enough positives before the rain and in the preceding week’s game to be hugely encouraged.

Paradoxically we are all Essex fans this evening. While they haven’t had the best of Vitality Blast campaigns, winning only 1 of their first 12 group games and being one of the three teams cut adrift at the bottom of the south group at an early stage. But they won last night against Middlesex (who doesn’t) and could do something we can’t and beat Kent this evening. Counter-intuitively the relief of getting back to Championship action might be a good thing for them. Those of us of a Somerset persuasion will hope the 20 over malaise continues into the championship.

In the Championship, remember they are defending champions, they currently sit fourth with 3 wins from 8 and 92 points. Like Notts and Yorkshire, they are in the middle ground from which it is going to be very hard to make a title bid but where a couple of defeats could easily see them embroiled in the relegation battle for the last month.

Essex will be hoping Jamie Porter will be released by England from the Trent Bridge squad in time to enable him to take the new ball. Porter has been outstanding for the last two seasons and together with offie Simon Harmer account for over half (60) of the championship wickets the Sea Axes have garnered so far. Both Harmer and Porter bear favourable comparison with any other county’s bowling spearhead and Somerset will need to be at their bat with the bat to post a winning aggregate. The top three in their batting averages; Bopara, Cook, ten Doeschate, will come as no surprise to any cricket watcher.

The weather forecast for the four days looks good so let’s hope the boys can deliver a fifth win of the campaign and close the gap on Surrey.