Somerset, at long last, open their Championship campaign on Friday at home to Worcestershire.
It has been a long wait since those nerve-tingling four days against Middlesex which sealed our survival in the top division and condemned the previous season’s champions to relegation. Although of course, being Middlesex, losing that last game had to be argued, contested, the pitch inspected and, for good measure, object to a result from 4 weeks before that!!
Worcestershire come to Taunton off the back of a 196-run loss to Hampshire in their opening game last week at the Ageas Bowl. Tellingly they were bowled out for 211 and 127 with pacemen Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards taking 12 of the visitors 20 wickets. In their first innings Worcester slumped to 83-6 and 127-7 before Ben Cox and Ed Barnard added 80 for the 8th wicket while in the second innings Daryl Mitchell and Aussie Travis Head were responsible for 80 of the 127 they totalled.
The twin spearheads of their bowling attach are the admirable Joe Leach (7 wickets against Hampshire) and Steve Magoffin, who still gives me nightmares remembering that morning in Horsham when Sussex were last in the top division.
And then of course there is the mercurial Moeen!
While Somerset’s preparation has been ruined by the weather it seems the innovation of the marquee on the outfield has proved a huge success judging by the comments of the players and coaches. It is worth remembering that, as usual at New Road at this time of the year, the only thing you could safely put on the outfield would require sails and a rudder! Somerset should, despite Worcestershire having a four day game under their belt, consider themselves better prepared.
The Worcestershire captain, Joe Leach, will face a real dilemma at the toss. Does he choose to go uncontested and hope he and Magoffin can make early inroads, or face the prospect of his namesake and Dom Bess on a fourth innings pitch, or back his top order to bat long and deep. My guess is he will go for the former and hope the April pitch isn’t as conducive to spin as it will be later in the year.
I think there are genuine reasons to be optimistic that 2018 will be closer to 2016 than 2017. The top order looks stronger than last year; Eddie Byrom seems to have taken big steps forward over the winter while Marcus looked in superb touch against Ireland. James Hildreth will be freed from his testimonial commitments of last year and Tom Abell has had a winter to reflect on the demands of captaincy which his batting will surely benefit from. And then there is the enticing prospect of Matt Renshaw hungry for runs to grab one of the places that have opened up in the Australian top order.
The bowling is also stronger, a fit-again Jamie Overton (keep everything crossed he stays that way) is a huge addition. Craig’s confidence must be sky high and he will be looking to reinforce his Test ambitions by bullying Division 1 batting line-ups early in the season. With Timmy G, a healed Lewis Gregory as well as the underrated Josh Davey, the seam attack is as good as any in Division One. Add in the two best English spinners both coming off the back of outstanding winters and you have an attack that should be able to bowl sides out twice in any conditions.
The impact of Jason Kerr as head coach will also help the bowling attack as well as reuniting the successful off-field combination with Andy Hurry.
So, all in all, I think there is very good reason to be confident. The weather is set fair, Somerset’s greater depth in both batting and bowling and our experience in Division 1 should stand us in good stead.
Born just a few hundred yards from the county ground and raised in the town until university and then work exiled him, Steve now supports his beloved cidermen from his home just outside Liverpool.
Steve is a contributor to the multi-award winning Anfield Wrap and made his podcast debut for them in March.
More of Steve’s writing on Somerset, Liverpool and The Boston Red Sox can be found on his blog www.SomersetNorth.co.uk