‘Traumatic’ is the best word to describe Somerset’s 2015 County Championship season. The cider county were fighting relegation all season, and escaped with just days to spare. At times they were odds on to go down, especially after three losses to start the season.
The acquisition of the most batting points in Division One may indicate otherwise, but it was this facet of the game that too often let Somerset down. During the preceding winter we lost Nick Compton, Alviro Petersen, Craig Kieswetter and batting coach Dave Houghton. New Director of Cricket Matt Maynard decided that he would be able to take this role alongside his main duties. To replace the players lost, he brought in Tom Cooper and Jim Allenby, and gave youngsters Tom Abell and Alex Barrow larger roles in the team.
The feeling at the start of the season was that we had made decent enough signings in Cooper and Allenby to make up for Compton and Petersen’s departures. We knew they weren’t quite in the class of the two internationals but if they had averaged 35 or so each they would have done the job.
Cooper hit 61 and 101 on his Somerset debut, in a friendly against Lancashire. He looked good, too, in hitting 47 in his first competitive innings for the county against Durham. But, batting at number 3, a place or two higher than his regular position for South Australia, he began to struggle. Five single-figure scores in seven innings followed, and he was seen as one of the chief culprits for the early losses. On a flat deck against Yorkshire he top-scored with 99 (now batting at five), but followed that up with scores of 8, 7, 8 and 0 which resulted in him being dropped. His problem was that he was too attacking early on, and Maynard pointed to a sweep that got him out against Notts, an unusual shot for him, that showed that his mind was scrambled.
After three games off Cooper was reinstated to the side, but scored 0 and 17 in his first game back. After a good Royal London One-Day Cup, however, he finally started hitting form in the Championship side, with 57 against Worcestershire then a ton against Hampshire. He finished with 43 and 26 against Warwickshire, along with a shock five-for, and by the end of the season supporters finally felt that Cooper had fulfilled at least some of his potential. The regulations will prevent him from returning next year but it’s unlikely Maynard would have re-signed him anyway.
Allenby, regarded as one of the best county all-rounders, was signed to bat at number five. With another all-rounder, Peter Trego, already in the side, Allenby was expected to justify his place as a batsman with his bowling a useful extra. For Glamorgan he hit 923 runs at 34 in 2014, and 1,116 at 59 the year before. But, as Maynard acknowledged, he struggled with the step-up from Division Two to Division One. He simply never got a run of form going with the bat, and appeared all at sea against top quality bowling. He was usually able to make a start, but too often he gave his wicket away. He lacked discipline and the ability to knuckle down; a loose shot was always around the corner. He made a couple of important contributions – 64 in the first innings at Trent Bridge to help the team recover from a poor start, and 62 in the successful run chase at home to Notts. His two other fifties weren’t the hardest he’ll ever score, on flat decks in huge totals. I’m not saying they don’t count but whichever way you look at it, Allenby was not good enough in his first season for Somerset, finishing with 568 runs at 22.
Alex Barrow was the man charged with taking the gloves after Craig Kieswetter’s injury (and subsequent retirement). Having steadily improved over the previous couple of seasons, he had earned a run in the side.
But he struggled badly. He began the season with four single-figure scores in six innings, and failed to capitalise on starts in the other two. This resulted in a demotion to number 9 in the order, but things didn’t improve for him there. Similar to Allenby, he looked unable to cope against top-class bowling. It is odd, because he has proven before that he can make runs against the best (83 against a Durham attack featuring Graham Onions comes to mind) but this year he didn’t look up to the responsibility. He was replaced by Michael Bates, a man known for his average batting ability as much as his excellent keeping, after six matches and did not return to the Championship side. Maynard has kept faith in the potential Barrow showed earlier in his career, with the young ‘keeper due to be around for at least another season.
Johann Myburgh made a good start to the season, scoring his first century for Somerset against Durham MCCU followed by another against Durham in the County Championship. But he failed to live up to that early promise, hitting just two more fifties before injury curtailed his season to finish with a batting average of 24.
There were some batting success stories in 2015. James Hildreth had one of his best ever seasons to finish with 1390 runs at 53. As always with Hildreth there were many instances where he failed to capitalise on a start but three big hundreds and eight fifties represent an excellent return for a man whose England chances are sadly probably behind him.
Matt Maynard got a lot wrong last season but one risky move which paid off was the decision to move Tom Abell up to open in a struggling batting line-up. He made a good start in the middle order in 2014, and he perhaps would have scored more runs there in the short-term. But Maynard took the long-term view and it paid off handsomely. After initially struggling, Abell made his first notable score with 62 against Yorkshire before carrying his bat for a defensively sound 76 not out while the rest of the batsmen collapsed around him at home to Notts. He followed that up with 72 more in the second innings, before 88 in tough conditions at the Ageas Bowl. He carried his bat for a second time in the second innings away to Warwickshire, then hit his first senior century with 131 against Hampshire in a partnership of 272 with Marcus Trescothick. Abell’s maturity and determination have earmarked him as a future Somerset captain and probably a future England opener.
Trescothick started the season with a bang, with scores of 140 and 76 at home to Middlesex. A lean period followed, including a run of three consecutive ducks. Through the middle of the season he made a habit of seeing off the new ball without really pushing on. There was a suspicion that he perhaps did not have the stamina for long innings in the 23rd year of his career. He did justify a new one-year deal, however, and it was the announcement of that contract that set off a spark inside him – he hit 153 against Hampshire, then 210 not out against Sussex to put Somerset in a good position for survival. It was secured in no small part thanks to Trescothick’s 87 in the final match against Warwickshire to set the tone for victory.
Peter Trego had a good season with the bat, ending with 871 runs at 36. He scored some important runs, too, including fighting knocks of 81 and 95 not out at home to Sussex and 100 more away to the same side. He was one of several players to contribute to the Notts run chase, top-scoring with 79. The Somerset stalwart has a few years left in him yet.
As a team, there was an overall decline in batting returns from 2014. Somerset’s average runs per wicket was 30.25 in 2015 – down from 35.88. In 2014, Somerset were strong in the first innings, averaging 357. This trend did not really change, with it dropping slightly to 336 in 2015.
It is instructive, however, to look at the home and away comparison for these stats. At home, Somerset averaged 37.86 runs per wicket; away that number was just 23.39. The average first innings score at home was 404.88, while away it was 267.88. These statistics are reflected in the contribution of some of the players, too – Cooper averaged 40.54 at home, compared to just 12.36 away. Hildreth, who has long been criticised, rightly or wrongly, for making most of his runs at Taunton, averaged 79.42 at the ground in 2015 – but just 31.21 away.
Often, in 2014, the lower order was able to bail out the top order when they had collapsed. In a similar article I wrote last year, I found that in the first innings, after the fifth wicket had fallen, Somerset added an average 148 runs. In 2015, that figure was just 98 runs. One of the chief reasons for this was Lewis Gregory’s batting average of just 13.44
Maynard has already taken steps to improve our batting line-up for next season. Chris Rogers has been signed to bat at number three and while he is a short-term solution at the age of 38 (although these days most overseas players are short-term, young or old) there was probably no better available batsman in world cricket. It means that Somerset’s top four in 2016 will consist of Trescothick, Abell, Rogers and Hildreth – all capable of scoring 1000 runs or more.
Maynard has already said that another of his new signings, Roelof van der Merwe, will play Championship cricket next year. Last time he was at Somerset he was seen as a limited-over specialist, but he has worked on his first-class game, shown by his average of 55 in his last season for Titans in 2014/15. He will likely slot in at number five.
Maynard’s final signing came as a surprise. He was widely expected to bring in a proven wicket-keeper, with Phil Mustard and Chris Cooke linked. Instead, he plumped for youngster Ryan Davies of Kent, a 19-year-old with just five matches of first-class experience from which he averages just 5.83. He is involved in the England under-19 set-up, so clearly he is a young man of big potential. But the step up from Division Two back-up to first choice in Division One will be big, so it is important he is given time to bed in. With Barrow remaining at the club, he will have competition for the ‘keeper’s spot to keep him on his toes.
With Van der Merwe able to send down some left arm spin, we may not need a frontline spinner for the early part of the season which leaves a spot open for Allenby at number six to which he should be better suited than five. Trego will likely follow at seven, with Davies at eight, then three seamers to complete the line-up. There seems to be no obvious spot for Myburgh, but he will create competition for places along with youngsters Adam Hose and Eddie Byrom.
The biggest problem that needs to be fixed in 2016 is the notorious Somerset batting collapse. While it is hard to define a batting collapse exactly, I counted 18 batting collapses in the County Championship in 2015, in 30 innings. Even Somerset’s most successful batsmen – Hildreth, Trescothick and Abell – were often unable to alleviate these short, shocking periods of play. It happened almost every time the team were greeted with tough conditions – while there is no team in the world that can survive these periods of play every time, collapses like the one at Headingley that left Somerset 36 for 6 are just not acceptable on a regular basis. To an extent it’s about mind-set – all of these guys are talented, but in the long form of the game you need to discipline yourself and wait for the bad ball. There has been no indication that a specialist batting coach will be brought in, so instilling discipline will be one of Maynard’s biggest tasks this winter. If he can do that, Somerset will be a long way towards enjoying a successful season.