Since reaching three consecutive finals between 2009 and 2011, Somerset’s t20 side has been in decline. In 2012, the cider county reached finals day but lost to Hampshire in the semi-final. The following year, Surrey defeated us in the quarter-final. In 2014, we didn’t even make the knockout stages, finishing fifth in the South Group. Last year we won just four games all tournament as we slumped to a dismal eighth, above only Middlesex.
The reasons for the decline are clear. In the following years, we have gradually lost many of the key players from that run of finals: Kieron Pollard, Jos Buttler, Craig Kieswetter, Alfonso Thomas, Murali Kartik, Zander de Bruyn et al. You can throw in Marcus Trescothick, too, who has looked out of sorts in t20 over the last couple of years and has probably played his last game in the format. The management have tried to keep up with these losses – players such as Albie Morkel, Yasir Arafat, Jim Allenby and Tom Cooper are good but the team as a whole hasn’t been strong enough for a while.
Last season we appeared over-reliant on Chris Gayle when he was with us – he scored the bulk of the runs and when he left we struggled to get enough on the board. There were some good individual performances – Allenby’s 89* at Uxbridge and Cooper’s 84* at Cardiff spring to mind – but we weren’t consistent enough with the bat and struggled to build partnerships.
The bowling was at fault too – in the later matches especially, we struggled to take wickets, as shown by Kent’s first-wicket stand of 112 at Canterbury and Surrey’s mammoth 208 for 1 at the Oval. Sohail Tanvir was a good wicket-taking option, but he only played the first seven games, while Alfonso Thomas was a shadow of the death bowler he used to be. Our young quicks, Lewis Gregory and the Overtons, flattered to deceive but all three showed signs of improvement in the Royal London One-Day Cup. Mention must be made of Max Waller, who had another good year with his leg spin.
So can 2016 provide a revival of Somerset’s t20 fortunes? A number of factors lead me to believe that yes, it may well do. The return of Gayle is obviously a big factor, and if he plays all six games he is contracted for it should get us off to a great start in the competition. There are eight matches, however, where we’ll have to win without him. No overseas player has been signed to replace Gayle for those games, but Mahela Jayawardene is an excellent signing as the second overseas player and will give us his vast experience for 12 games. He is more of a touch player than Gayle but still scores fast and is a sublime player of spin.
Two other signings, both returning after previous stints, will also boost the side: Roelof van der Merwe and Yasir Arafat. Van der Merwe was a resounding success in 2011; more of the same with bat and ball would suit us perfectly. He has made a poor start to the season in the County Championship but he is a more natural t20 player. He’ll give us power in the middle order and a reliable option with the ball.
As for Arafat, again more of the same would be excellent. He was a frugal death bowler when we had him in 2013, and lost little of that in his stints with Sussex and Hampshire since. He should fill the sizeable hole left by Alfonso Thomas.
The composition of the side will be interesting, with a few good players likely to miss out. For the six games he’s available, Chris Gayle will open, but there are a few options for his opening partner: Allenby, Jayawardene, Johann Myburgh, Adam Hose. With Jayawardene having batted at three for Adelaide Strikers and Sussex recently, he will probably bat there for us. Of the remaining three it can be assumed that Allenby, who has vast t20 experience at the top of the order, is the most likely candidate.
Peter Trego, then, may well drop down from his usual position of three as it is unlikely that Jayawardene will bat at four or below. Myburgh or Hose will probably open when Gayle is not available; I suspect Myburgh has the edge after a recent 57-ball century for the 2nd XI. Alternatively, Jayawardene could be promoted to open, leaving Myburgh or Hose to slot in lower down.
James Hildreth and van der Merwe will likely bat at five and six, providing us plenty of power in the middle order. Ryan Davies should start with gloves while van der Merwe, Allenby and Trego will probably make up the fifth bowler’s share of the overs.
As for the frontline bowlers, we have plenty of options. The spinner’s slot is sealed up – Max Waller is improving every year so will without doubt be first choice. Arafat is another guaranteed starter and will be our chief death bowler. So that leaves slots for two of Craig Overton, Jamie Overton, Tim Groenewald, Lewis Gregory, Josh Davey and Jack Leach if we want an extra spinner. We’ll probably see a few changes throughout the competition but I’d expect Groenewald and one of the Overtons to be first choice. Groenewald is a reliable one day bowler, while either Overton will provide wickets and some useful hitting with the bat.
As we all know, the South Group is ultra-competitive with all nine teams capable of advancing. Teams like Essex, Sussex and Hampshire look strong as always, while Middlesex, recently so poor in limited overs cricket, look much-improved this year with the additions of Brendon McCullum and James Fuller. Kent, eliminated in a tied quarter-final last year after topping the group, will also be challenging. Our squad is perfectly capable of matching those teams though – play to our potential and it will be a good year for us in t20 cricket.