I remember when I was growing up and heading to the County Ground at every opportunity that I could, that the cricket season followed much the same pattern. Benson & Hedges Cup group games at the start of the season interspersed with the odd Championship game and then the regular 3-day championship format – Saturday, Monday, Tuesday – with the B&H knockouts on the Wednesdays, usually the day after the Test Match finished. And every Sunday there was the John Player League.
Over recent years there has been so much tinkering with the schedule that I find it hard to know from one week to the next what is going on let alone what is coming up.
The relevance of all this in relation to this year’s Championship is that, at the end of the Hampshire game, I had to do some research to find out how the next phase of the Championship plays out and when.
Somerset head into the One-Day cup in good heart after the opening “block” of Division 1 games. But the structure of the season means that it is going to take a real effort by us, or anyone else, to sustain title-winning form between now and the 19th August when the championship run in begins.
There have been a couple of significant setbacks over the last 4 weeks; the injuries to Marcus and Jack and the failure to convert such a strong position on Sunday afternoon against Hampshire into a win. But overall second place, undefeated and with significant contributions from all the squad is really encouraging.
We can cogently argue that we have gained a couple of all-rounders in the first four games. The skipper has to be considered as a batting all-rounder after a number of fine performances with the ball and both Leachy and Bessy have contributed significantly with the bat. The ability to score 500 when 4 of the top 5 contributed less than 50 in total points to a depth in the batting as did the resilience at Old Trafford the previous week.
And there is, in my opinion, plenty more to come; the return of Jamie Overton who can tune up over the next couple of weeks to hopefully be ready for the next four-day game against Notts on 9th of June will allow us to rotate the seam attack as we need will be crucial. With runs aplenty for Tom Banton and a number of others pressing their case for promotion from the seconds the depth of our squad must be the envy of most other counties.
But what of the other teams in the top division? Surrey are clearly the team to be feared most at present, they like Somerset, have played one game less than the rest of the division and are only 2 points of our second placed position. Their success has to date been built on some exceptional performances by their youngsters, who may find it hard to sustain this over the course of the season, but they have strength in depth and will not hesitate to do another Kohli-like rental later in the season if they are in contention. Expect them to hang around at the top of the table.
The real Notts showed up at Trent Bridge last week as did their conquerors Lancashire. I don’t expect either to be title contenders but if I had to pick an outsider it would be one of these two. Yorkshire’s underlying belief that they should win the title every year as a divine right is being sorely tested prompting a Twitter storm of internal division that warms the heart of the other 17 counties. They need to sort themselves out quickly If they are not to face another relegation battle as do Essex who are in danger, despite scraping home against Worcestershire, of following the Middlesex/Lancashire model of relegation following immediately on the back of a title win. Hampshire and Worcestershire regrettably look like this season is going to be a long hard slog to avoid the drop.
So there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic, a combination of rude good health at Taunton and other counties with “issues”. Even the injuries to Marcus and Jack, regrettable as they are, have come at a time when, hopefully, swift recoveries will mean they miss little Championship cricket.
Turning to the matter in hand, I for one hope we can go at least one better than last year’s quarter-final defeat to the eventual winners in the 50-over competition. While there is less differentiation between the two divisions in the one-day formats the fact that there are only three other division one teams in the south group indicates that achieving one of the top three places should be within Somerset’s capability if the group runs true to form.
Ideally of course winning the group to go straight to the semi-finals is the ambition especially given the short turnaround between quarter-final and semi-final but it is worth noting that neither of last year’s group winners, Essex and Worcestershire, made it to the final which was contested by the third-placed teams in each group, Notts and Surrey.
When the championship resumes at Taunton on Saturday 9th June what are the chances that Somerset will face two games against Notts in less than a week? Certainly an appetising prospect and a distinct possibility given Notts recent strength in the one-day formats.
The middle section of the championship season is very staccato, the Notts game is followed by the RLODC quarter-finals and semi-finals before we travel to Guildford and Chelmsford to face Surrey and Essex in the space of 9 days in what could well be a pivotal phase of the season.
A visit to Worcester is slap bang in the middle of the T20 “block”, a game Somerset must be targeting for maximum points. Realistically 2 draws and two wins in those 4 games would emphasise real championship credentials, especially if Surrey, who are the team that concern me most, could be one of our victims.
The return with Essex comes at the end of the T20 group stage before the Blast quarter-finals in mid-August and then the 5 game run-in takes us to hopefully a title decider at Taunton against Surrey starting on 18th September.
Note I’m aiming for us to clinch the title at home with a game to spare!!!