After six months of work and preparation, the Maynard era finally begins in earnest at Taunton tomorrow as Somerset take on Durham in their opening County Championship game of 2015.
There’s a palpable buzz around the County Ground at the moment, a genuine sense that the team can compete in every format of the game this season. If that confidence is manifested by a quiet, understated determination, the club are right not to make bold claims after two years in which – by their own high standards – they have often struggled and failed to perform.
But, while no-one is guaranteeing silverware just yet, there’s a real belief that this squad have the ability to make it through to the final rounds of the one-day competitions and still be with a shout of the championship with a few games to go.
After a precarious couple of years when belief often seemed in short supply, many fans would take a semi-final appearance and a top four championship finish. But as Director of Cricket Matt Maynard has said, if his charges can do the hard work to reach those final stages and keep themselves in contention, the chance is there to go all the way and claim a coveted trophy. The hunger is definitely there.
The talk has been of bringing back a brand of cricket which is synonymous with Somerset – the one which Brian Rose and Andy Hurry fostered at Taunton. The smiles are indeed returning to the faces, with a healthy mix of aggression and enjoyment very much in evidence.
It’s early days though and while the warm-up games were generally encouraging, there were still some worrying moments, not least the first innings collapse against Lancashire.
Maynard has already made it clear that clubs who mount serious challenges for the championship can only afford a few poor passages of play – like the one against Lancashire – during an entire season. He will be aware though that the real stuff doesn’t start until today and hopeful that the side will have learned valuable lessons at the right time.
He will have taken positives from Tom Cooper’s performances against Lancashire last week and particularly the speed with which the South Australian batsman adapted to English conditions, making a half-century in the first innings against the Red Rose county and an unbeaten ton in the second.
Skipper Marcus Trescothick made a century in the same game and indeed most of the batsmen have now made scores, with Johann Myburgh and James Hildreth also reaching three figures and Pete Trego making 94. Any concerns that new recruit Jim Allenby would go into the championship short of runs were put to bed with a half-century in the second innings against Lancashire.
Despite a good run out against Glamorgan in the opening warm-up game and the students of Durham MCCU at Taunton Vale, Somerset’s bowling was less inspired at the County Ground against Lancashire as the visitors racked up 497 runs with Tom Smith and Steven Croft sharing a stand worth 180.
In the bowlers’ defence – as evidenced by Somerset’s batting performance in their second innings – there were few vagaries in the surface. But flat tracks this early in the season will naturally raise concerns that Somerset will again struggle to bowl sides out twice in 2015; a major impediment to any serious championship challenge.
Helping the club take ten wickets in the second innings is one reason why the club re-signed Abdur Rehman (right) for his second spell at the club; something he was so adept at last time round in late summer 2012. Whether he can produce the goods again in early spring remains to be seen. He had a limited run-out against Lancashire, so has few overs under his belt, but expect to see that position substantially rectified by the end of this game.
One bowler who did have plenty to write home about after the Lancashire warm-up was Tim Groenwewald who claimed five wickets in the visitors’ sole innings to go with the three he took against Glamorgan.
Jamie Overton too has impressed, bowling at somewhere near his old pace and is also likely to start tomorrow. His brother Craig has come back from injury earlier than expected and is named in a 13-man squad. It remains to be seen though, whether he is entrusted with a four-day game just yet after Maynard’s insistence that he will not rush bowlers back before they are ready, although the tail will be longer without him. It’s a long summer and Maynard has made squad rotation a key part of his strategy. I expect to see Craig carrying the drinks for the next four days along with Jack Leach.
The attack is likely to be led then by Jamie Overton and Pete Trego with Lewis Gregory and Groenewald as first-change and Rehman providing the spin option. Allenby and Myburgh will offer other alternatives for Trescothick.
Somerset will have fond memories of Durham’s last two visits to Taunton. In last year’s corresponding County Championship fixture, Marcus Trescothick (left) stroked a glorious innings of 133 at less than a run-a-ball to take his side to a seven-wicket victory. A few months later, a stunning, unbeaten 209-run partnership from James Hildreth and Lewis Gregory for the sixth wicket led Somerset to a five-wicket win in the Royal London One Day Cup.
Somerset know too well though to ever underestimate Durham and as Mark Butler points out in his View from the Riverside feature, Chris Rushworth and Graham Onions represent one of the most threatening new-ball pairings in county cricket. Even missing two players away on England duty the 2013 County champions represent a far more formidable opposition than Lancashire did last week.
Marcus Trescothick has been around too long to take any match for granted and understands the challenges ahead over the next four days.
“There are no easy games in this competition,” he said. “We know Durham are a good side and have played them a number of times early season. We beat them here last year, so hopefully we can do the same again this time round.
“However, we are going to have to be a little bit better with our first innings performances if we are going to make sure that we can do that.”
He continued: “I think that we are doing a lot of good things right. A lot of people have got runs at different times and the bowlers have had a good run out. We know that it will be a good pitch and all in all in our pre-season we have got what we wanted, so now it’s all about engaging the brain and getting into the first match.”
Maynard can’t wait to get started: “I’m really looking forward to the Durham match,” he said. “We have had some good preparation and the Lancashire game told us that we need to sharpen up our skills a bit more. The lads have worked really hard in pre-season and it’s nice at last to be playing a proper competitive fixture.”
Somerset will select their final team from the following squad- Marcus Trescthick (capt), Jim Allenby, Alex Barrow, Tom Cooper, Lewis Gregory, Tim Groenewald, James Hildreth, Jack Leach, Johann Myburgh, Craig Overton, Jamie Overton, Abdur Rehman and Pete Trego.
Expected final XI: Trescothick, Myburgh, Cooper, Hildreth, Allenby, Barrow, Trego, Gregory, Groenewald, Rehman, Jamie Overton