Somerset County Championship Batting Review 2019

Somerset managed to win nine County Championship games in 2019, our most in a season since 2007, but there was a perception that this was despite, not because of, our batting. This is certainly upheld by the statistics – at 24.99, Somerset had the second lowest runs per wicket of all Division One teams, with only Nottinghamshire below us on 22.78. The highest was Hampshire’s 31.60, while champions Essex came in at fifth, on 29.13. The best way to dissect Somerset’s batting this year is to look at each player individually, I think, which is what I have done below followed by a look ahead to next season.

Tom Abell

With 756 runs, Tom Abell was Somerset’s leading County Championship run scorer this season. This is a solid return but his average of 31.50 was also Somerset’s highest which is indicative of our batting problems.

Abell started the season well enough, with scores of 49 and 30 at home to Kent before 101 away to Notts. What followed was a period of nine innings where he averaged just 13.25 with a high score of 36. He recovered reasonably well, though, with an average of 36.15 and five fifties in his last 13 innings of the season.

It is interesting to look at his home and away stats: he scored 471 runs at 39.25 at home, compared to 285 runs at 23.75 away.

Abell rightly has a reputation as an extremely talented young batsman but he’s yet to have a truly barnstorming season. His raw season-by-season Championship numbers are:

  • 2014: 292 runs @ 41.71
  • 2015: 726 runs @ 36.30
  • 2016: 538 runs @ 25.62
  • 2017: 572 runs @ 26.00
  • 2018: 883 runs @ 40.14
  • 2019: 756 runs @ 31.50

These are not yet the statistics of a top county batsman pushing for an England call-up. He’s moved around the order a fair bit – starting at 4 in 2014, opening in 2015, 2016 and the start of 2017, moving to 5 for the rest of 2017 and 2018, up to 4 at the start of 2019, then back to opening, then finally to 3 at the end of 2019. This is mainly down to the team’s requirements, but he’s yet to fully find his identity in the batting order. Hopefully he will nail down a position for the entirety of next summer and finally put together a breakthrough season that really puts him in the top tier of County Championship batsmen.

Azhar Ali

Azhar Ali’s raw Championship numbers in 2019 are not great – 344 runs at 24.57. Opening the batting in county cricket is very difficult but ultimately as an overseas player he did fall short of expectations.

There were a few gems in there, though, the highlight being a gritty 65 not out from 184 balls in the second innings against Nottinghamshire at Taunton to haul Somerset from an iffy to a dominant position as others failed around him. That is exactly the kind of innings you want from your overseas player, but he only passed fifty on two other occasions, with 60 at home to Surrey and 79 at home to Hampshire.

His home and away stats show a stark contrast: 267 runs at 33.38 at home and 77 runs at 12.83 away. He was our third-highest run-scorer in our successful RLODC campaign (7 more runs and he’d have been the highest) and judging by social media he was a popular member of the side. Ultimately, though, we needed a few more Championship runs from Azhar and for this reason Andy Hurry is likely looking elsewhere for next season’s overseas players.

Babar Azam

Babar Azam played one game in Somerset’s County Championship campaign, filling the overseas player role by batting at 4 in the mid-Blast game away to Warwickshire. He got off to the worst possible start with a golden duck in the first innings but made up for it with a vital 40 second time round. Coming in at 41/2 chasing 258, which soon became 49/3, Babar and his t20 opening partner Tom Banton put on a partnership of 90 to set up Somerset’s win. Clearly two innings is an incredibly small sample size so we can’t read too much into it but based on his other exploits for club and country I would be very happy to see Babar back next season for more Championship games.

Tom Banton

It was probably overshadowed a little by his sensational limited overs exploits but Tom Banton made a solid start as a regular in Somerset’s County Championship side. He came into the team for the ill Azhar Ali at Guildford and made an important 44 in the first innings.

He remained in the side thereafter as Marcus Trescothick was dropped to accommodate him, and immediately played a starring role in Somerset’s unbelievable low-scoring victory at Canterbury with 63 in the first innings. After two scores in the seventies at home to Hampshire he was averaging 42 in seven innings.

He fell away after that, averaging 21.72 in his final 11 innings of the season, but among this spell was a vital knock of 66 at Edgbaston which, along with Babar Azam’s 40, turned the run chase in Somerset’s favour.

This winter he will be playing in New Zealand for England’s t20 side, then in the T10 League and the Big Bash League. He may well be picked for further England limited overs squads and he has a very good chance of being picked in the IPL next year, plus he will be playing in The Hundred for Welsh Fire.

All of this means that he may not be available for many of Somerset’s County Championship games next season, and with a diet of mainly limited overs cricket in the next year or so he may not progress very much in the longer form of the game. That’s ok – he is still very young and he is riding the wave of one-day success. Hopefully he will find time in the future to progress his 4-day game for Somerset and potentially become an all-format player for England.

George Bartlett

George Bartlett’s career is very much on an upward trajectory after another improved season in 2019. He made his first senior century in 2018 against a Lancashire attacked including James Anderson and followed this up in 2019 with two more against a Nottinghamshire attack featuring Stuart Broad and a Surrey attack including Morne Morkel.

Bartlett wasn’t even in the original squad for game one against Kent, but the loss of day one to rain encouraged Somerset to rejig their side to include an extra batsman in Bartlett ahead of Jack Leach. He then made 63 in the second innings to haul Somerset into a good position after the team underwhelmed in the first innings, ultimately leading to victory.

The two above-mentioned centuries followed in games two and five, and after this Bartlett didn’t match his early season heights with only two fifties in the season’s nine remaining matches.

He ended as Somerset’s second highest run-scorer (718) and had our second-best average (31.21), however, and he has shown he has the temperament to succeed at this level. He is still young and as long as he improves towards averaging 35-40 each season he will be a fixture in Somerset’s batting for years to come.

Eddie Byrom

Eddie Byrom played just one game this season – the very first one at home to Kent. He scored 6 and 14 before he was replaced by Jack Leach for the next game as Somerset re-balanced the side. He was unable to force his way back in, despite Somerset’s batting woes – no one ever had *quite* a bad enough run to be dropped. He may well break into the first-choice side again next season.

Steve Davies

Steve Davies’s time at Somerset overall has been fairly mixed (that he was our leading Championship run-scorer in 2017 but has overall been quite poor in limited overs cricket is indicative of this), and that is probably the best way to describe his 2019 County Championship batting return.

642 runs at 27.91 doesn’t sound brilliant on paper but in the context of the rest of the team he was one of our more successful batsmen, sitting fifth in the averages and third in terms of runs scored.

His highlight was undoubtedly 109 opening the batting at Edgbaston, his first innings of a spell of seven as a makeshift opener at the end of the season. Following this he only passed 16 once (with 51 at the Ageas Bowl) and with keeping and opening being quite a strain I expect him to drop down the order again next season.

Prior to his spell opening he did a reasonable job in his regular position at number 6, with 439 runs at 27.44. This included plenty of starts; only four times in 17 innings was he dismissed in single figures, but he only reached fifty twice.

Davies has signed a new two-year contract and will likely be Somerset’s first choice Championship wicket-keeper for that period, especially with the potential for our other keeping option Tom Banton to be away with the IPL and England, but, depending on the form of others and the balance of the side, when Banton is around there is a chance that Davies won’t necessarily be in Somerset’s first choice XI.

Lewis Gregory

Lewis Gregory is now fairly established as Somerset’s number 7 and has some decent batting numbers to justify it, with 465 Championship runs at 29.06 in 2019 – his best in any season.

His standout innings was 129 not out at home to Surrey; he only reached fifty on one other occasion but contributed seven scores in the 20 to 49 region. It would be nice if he could begin converting some of these sorts of scores into bigger ones – his most 50+ scores in a Championship season is three – but we can’t complain too much about a guy who also took 51 wickets at just 15.76 in 2019.

James Hildreth

Excluding 2003 when he played just one match, this was James Hildreth’s worst County Championship season with 553 runs at an average of 23.04. Again excluding 2003, his previous fewest runs in a season was 760 in 2004 (in 13 games) and his previous lowest average was 30.24 in 2017 – both fairly significantly better considering the sample size of 16 seasons.

While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, it may be no coincidence that for the first time in his career Hildreth batted for most of the season at number 3 (in an attempt to break into an England side whose top order is its biggest problem). It didn’t work, and for the final three games of the season he batted at 4 but the damage was done.

He made sporadic scores – 90 at home to Surrey, 64 at Guildford, 105 at home to Hampshire and 58 at home to Yorkshire – but scattered among his 24 innings were no less than 13 single-figure returns. This is unusual of Hildreth because he has sometimes had a tendency to make a start without pushing on; this year he wasn’t even making those starts. A comparison with his last below-par season – 2017 – is instructive here. That year he batted 26 times but made only six single-figure scores. He made 16 scores in the region of 10 to 49, but did this only 7 times in 2019.

Hildreth has long had a reputation for being a home bully (whether this is true is an article for another day) and it is instructive that in 2019 his home return was 383 runs at 31.92, while his away return was 170 runs at 14.17. He batted 12 times each home and away; 5 of his single-figure scores were at home and 8 were away. Clearly most players will favour batting at home but these stats, I think, point to a relatively large disparity which needs to be rectified.

Hopefully 2019 was a mere blip for Hildreth – while this one was his worst he’s had underwhelming seasons before, for example 2017, 2014 and 2013 where in each he averaged below 34. He’s 35 now and his England chances are probably past him but to write him off as a Somerset force now would be foolish. Get him back to 4 next season and I’m sure the runs will flow again.

Marcus Trescothick

I don’t recall many people having qualms about Marcus Trescothick signing a contract to keep him at the club for the 2019 season, but sadly in hindsight it was one season too many for the great man.

His returns had been declining for a few years:

  • 2015: 1284 runs @ 45.85
  • 2016: 1239 runs @ 51.62
  • 2017: 714 runs @ 28.56
  • 2018: 491 runs @ 27.27

In 2019 he managed just 86 runs at an average of 10.75 before he was correctly dropped after Guildford to allow Tom Banton to stay in the side. Somerset’s batting coach next?

Murali Vijay

Somerset were absolutely right to sign an overseas replacement for the last three games of the County Championship season but sadly the acquisition of Murali Vijay didn’t work out. He only batted five times so I may as well list the scores: 7, 0, 0, 29, 6.

The only positives we can possibly extract from that are that in his first innings for the club he saw out 46 balls on the first morning against Yorkshire and that his 29 was in a partnership of 86 that gave Somerset a good start in the second innings against Hampshire, but this ended in tears as his miscued pull shot was the first wicket in Somerset’s spectacular collapse to Kyle Abbott.

While one could point to the fact that he had been dropped from the India test side the previous winter as evidence that he may not be up to scratch, in 2018 he had a stint with Essex where he scored 323 runs at 64.60 with a century and three fifties.

Both of his county stints lasted five innings, then – two small sample sizes. In the first he was a success and in the second he failed. Vijay is not a bad player; it is simply the nature of short-term overseas signings that they are hit or miss. In any case I doubt we will see him at Somerset again.

Next Season

On the domestic signing front there haven’t been any strong rumours and despite our batting woes this year, I’m not sure a domestic batsman, unless they’re really, really good, is necessarily the solution. We have enough talent, supplemented by an overseas player, to succeed with what we have. Haseeb Hameed does of course remain available and he could suit Somerset but based on his recent form he would be unlikely to slot straight into Somerset’s team in any case.

In terms of the line-up for me the starting point has to be James at Hildreth at 4. When he is on top of his game he is our best batsman and number 4 is his best position.

I am going to assume that Tom Banton will miss the start of the season due to the likelihood of his being picked in the IPL. This opens up a spot for someone different to come in – i.e. Eddie Byrom, who would open.

The other two top 3 spots will probably be filled by Tom Abell and the overseas player; which way round remains to be seen. I hope Abell can find one position and stick to it. He’s been down at 4 and 5 at times in the past but ultimately I think his long-term future, and his best chance of an England spot, is as an opener.

Numbers 5, 6 and 7, then, would be filled by George Bartlett, Steve Davies and Lewis Gregory respectively.

When Tom Banton returns, he would very probably slot back in when available but where he’d bat in the order would depend on the needs of the team at the time and the form of the players.

Overall I am optimistic about our chances of going one better next year in the County Championship. Bowling will probably be our strength again, rather than our batting, but hopefully it is a year where James Hildreth returns to his best form and Tom Abell and George Bartlett come of age with big seasons. Our overseas signing will be key as well. Australia don’t appear to have any test matches scheduled for next summer, so could we possibly see the return of Matt Renshaw?