Writing the month by month season reviews over the course of the winter has, on the whole, been a joy. My emotion when writing the reviews is a direct reflection of Somerset’s fortunes and in that context there is no doubt that the goods far outweighed the bads.
From a self-congratulatory perspective the hard work that was keeping the day by day diary was worth it in so many ways. Most significantly is the comparison between how a particular session, day or game is judged at the time and how it is viewed at the end of the season when all the outcomes are known.
But the most telling thing, the one I am most proud of, is how many times I was able to recall where I was or what I was doing at a particular moment in the season. Even more so the fact that at those specific times I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. For example, I remember driving home from work and going around a particular roundabout when Azhar Ali reached his maiden century at Worcester. Similarly the chaos of the last session of the third day at Headingley when Lewis and co were smashing the Yorkshire bowling all around Leeds.
And these are not isolated incidents, I could recount many, many more. Now a good part of this is due – I am sure – to living and working where I do and my opportunities to watch Somerset live are severely limited. But an equally large part is like many of us I genuinely live and breathe the fortunes of the county cricket club from April to September. Long may it continue.
So for that, I’d like to say a big thank you to the players and management for a fantastic ride in 2018. No, we didn’t bring home any silverware, but we were in contention in two of the three competitions until the middle of September. The progress made by the squad has been recognised in full and Lions England recognition and further emphasised in the recent MCC selection.
The experience of 2017, when following a season where we went much closer to clinching the title, was a chastening one. One which put our proud record of the longest continuous presence in Division One at risk. I am optimistic that 2019 will not see a repeat of two years ago and the majority of the reasons are embedded in last year’s performances.
Throughout 2018 Somerset possessed a bowling attack which was the envy of all other counties. Now before you jump in and throw the name of the champions at me, consider this; Surrey were very much led by Morne Morkel with others chipping in. Their bowlers benefitted from nearly always having a massive total to bowl at and scoreboard pressure is very much a thing in the County Championship.
Somerset could select from five top seamers when Jamie Overton returned to full fitness and two international spinners. The bonus of Tom Abell developing into a potent wicket-taking option added further to the attack. Lewis Gregory also has good reason to point to 2018 as an all-round season in all formats.
There were the odd occasions when one bowler (Jack Leach) took the bulk of the wickets in an innings but on the whole the wickets were shared around. This and the way in which the workload was managed across the season were substantial contributory factors to the 4-day success. Josh Davey typified what the Somerset bowling attack in 2018 was all about. Rarely did Davey fail to deliver across the two innings of a game and while he never had that truly headline-making performance he was consistency personified. The value of such players in the squad should not be under-estimated. And he’s a pretty handy no 10 or 11 as well!
There were times however when the batting, especially the upper order, did not produce the runs required. While the young tyros were given ample opportunity it was disappointing that none of them staked a claim to a regular place. The middle order, and James Hildreth in particular, deserve great credit for the numerous occasions they scored the bulk of the runs.
Tom Abell excelled in all the disciplines. To plagiarise and bastardise baseball terminology for a moment, Abell became in 2018 a “four-tool” player, being worth his place in the side for his batting, bowling, fielding and leadership. His growth in confidence through the season was there for all to see and each discipline seemed to feed off the success of the others. While Rory Burns was understandably getting all the plaudits for his batting and captaincy I would venture to suggest that Abell out-performed the Surrey skipper in fielding and leadership and was only just behind him as a batsman.
There were individual disappointments. Dom Bess will I am sure have learnt a lot from the vast swing in fortunes between his England selection and subsequent performance and the poor returns later in the season. Like Jack Leach before him it is to be hoped that this experience sees him come back stronger in 2019.
Collectively there was an energy and desire to win which many of us over the years have not seen in Somerset teams. For this huge credit has to go to the leadership of Abell, Andy Hurry and Jason Kerr. It is no exaggeration to say that the difference between the 2017 and 2018 management was night and day and the players responded positively to the environment the trio created.
Ultimately the failure to win the championship was down to an inability to follow up that stunning win against Notts in early June in the following two games. Defeat against Surrey and a failure to win at Chelmsford left a gap that we were never able to bridge. But it should be remembered that it took an unprecedented run of wins by Surrey to see Somerset’s challenge off.
The 50 over competition was the biggest disappointment. Leaving aside the inevitable defeat to Kent the home performances against Gloucestershire and Sussex were the difference between qualification and elimination. The what-might-have-beens were emphasised by the run chase against the eventual winners Hampshire in the last game.
The T20 campaign should not be judged on the performance on finals day. I’ve long believed that T20 by its nature reduces the margins between sides and that to produce a fair result the semi-finals and finals should, like in the end-of-season baseball playoffs, be best of five or best of seven. I know the schedule doesn’t allow this, and the ECB has to have its money-spinning finals day, so the destination of the trophy from a pure league basis can’t work. Somerset were, let us not forget, top of the south group, which is a more accurate reflection of their capabilities in this format.
When those future cricket lovers look back on Somerset’s 2018 season, I am pretty certain they will decide that it was one of their best. It may not have had the edge of the seat, end-of-season outcome of 2016, or the one-day trophies of years gone by but it had a lot to commend it.
A final thought as we now turn our attention to 2019. From someone who witnessed the Brian Close teams of the late seventies and early eighties. This squad is in my opinion significantly stronger than that one was. It doesn’t have the triumvirate of huge stars of 40 years ago but it has a depth that squad could only dream of. As one door closes, another opens …….