Two matches, two defeats – where has it gone wrong?

The Somerset side leave the field after their opening defeat to Durham                             Photograph by Alexander Davidson
The Somerset side leave the field after their opening defeat to Durham Photograph by Alexander Davidson

After two opening defeats, Somerset currently lie in joint bottom place in the first division of the County Championship. Dan Kingdom looks back over the games against Durham and Middlesex and asks where things went wrong for the West Country side.

That wasn’t meant to happen. After a winter of change but plenty of optimism, Somerset have crashed to two unacceptable losses to kick off the Maynard era with a whimper. Some fans are already questioning certain players. So where has it all gone wrong?

The first loss, to Durham, always looked on the cards after a first innings batting collapse. Somerset tried valiantly with the ball, but lacked real penetration and another collapse in the second innings ensured an eight-wicket loss.

The second, to Middlesex, was disappointing for different reasons. Again the root was a first innings batting collapse, but a total of 408 and an eventual lead of 91 after Middlesex’s first innings should not have resulted in another defeat. After the loss of Jamie Overton to injury, Somerset suffered from a worrying lack of penetration on a turning wicket on day four. Middlesex won by 5 wickets.

These games highlighted plenty of issues for the management to address. The biggest one is the ‘collapsibility’ of the batting. Now, teams like Durham and Lancashire have shown in the last few years that you don’t need a completely infallible batting line-up to have success in Championship cricket. But Somerset have collapsed in all four innings this season (if you include a fairly inconsequential lower order collapse in the second innings against Middlesex where a declaration was coming anyway). Durham and Lancashire didn’t collapse in every innings during their recent Championship winning seasons.

Johann Myburgh
Johann Myburgh scored hundreds against Durham and Durham MCCU. Photograph by Alexander Davidson

So, who have been the chief culprits? Firstly, Marcus Trescothick is not an issue at the top of the order. He hit 140 and 76 against Middlesex and a century against Lancashire in pre-season too. Moreover, James Hildreth has made a fine start – he has a reputation for lacking fight but 187 and 86 against Middlesex were valuable runs. Including the Champion County match and the Durham MCCU warm-up, he has already scored 574 first-class runs this season.

Johann Myburgh scored a century against Durham, his first in competitive matches for the club. After an average 2014, he is already showing signs of improvement – he also hit a ton against Durham MCCU.

Myburgh missed the Middlesex match, with Tom Abell replacing him at the top of the order – he is familiar with this position, having opened for the second XI, but failed in both innings. Perhaps he would be more suited to the middle order, where he scored 292 runs at 42 last season.

Tom Cooper, at number three, has only made starts but he is a quality batsman, shown when he hit a sublime century in the Lancashire friendly. He also hit a fifty in that match and should be persevered with at number three. After all, this is his first stint in county cricket, and we shouldn’t pass judgement on him two games into it.

Jim Allenby has yet to make his mark with the bat this season.

The main issues are lower down. Jim Allenby, at number five, has yet to significantly contribute with bat or ball. Alex Barrow, at six, has kept tidily but has suffered from a serious lack of runs. Peter Trego, at seven, has contributed one good innings in a losing cause and has filled his usual fourth seamer role with only limited success.

So is there room for Allenby and Trego in the same side? Well, the former hit 923 runs at 34 and took 52 wickets at 21 for Glamorgan last season. The latter hit 644 runs at 34 and took 49 wickets at 28. Taking into account the fact that Allenby played in Division Two, and Trego in Division One, there isn’t much difference between these stats. But with a five-man seam attack Somerset don’t require the bowling skills of both players. Knowing this, do we need both all-rounders in the side? Possibly not. On the evidence of last season, Tom Abell at number five would score more runs than either player. It must be noted, though, that Allenby appears to have started the season out of form; he will improve and should become better value for his spot.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be so much of an issue if Craig Kieswetter was fit, but with Barrow contributing little with the bat Somerset appear deficient in this area of the order. There are three options here. First, we could stick with Barrow, who, after all, averaged 44 in his limited opportunities last year and has shown a steady improvement over the last two seasons. The fear is that this is the limit of his ability.

Alex Barrow has been short of runs so far, but has kept tidily. James Regan could come into conention for the New Zealand tour game.
Alex Barrow has been short of runs so far, but has kept tidily. James Regan could come into contention for the New Zealand tour game.

The second option is to bring in James Regan. He impressed for the 2nds last year, but saying that Barrow has similarly scored ample runs for the 2nd XI. Regan will not find the step up easy, having only played one first-class match for Somerset so far. If he plays he will be required to bed in to first team cricket incredibly quickly. Many young Somerset batsmen in recent years have struggled upon their immediate introduction to the first XI. We would have to hope that he matches Abell’s start last year.

The final option is to recruit an external replacement. Michael Bates is available – he is an excellent keeper but his batting is not significantly better than Barrow’s. Beyond him, Somerset would likely be looking at the Kolpak or EU passport route.

Last season, Somerset’s Championship batting significantly improved with the appointment of specialist batting coach Dave Houghton. The cider county averaged 36 per wicket, up from 28 in 2013. Maynard let the Zimbabwean leave during the winter, saying that he would take up the batting coach mantle alongside his Director of Cricket duties. The early evidence, however, is that we are missing Houghton’s knowledge.

Alfonso Thomas is set for a return against Worcestershire tomorrow. Photo by Alexander Davidson
Alfonso Thomas is set for a return against Worcestershire tomorrow.
Photo by Alexander Davidson

Onto the bowling, which has suffered from a lack of penetration with Alfonso Thomas and Craig Overton missing, albeit on flat pitches. Lewis Gregory has carried on where he left off last season, and Jamie Overton has shown signs of returning to his 2013 form. But Tim Groenewald averages 77 with the ball in County Championship matches for Somerset. He doesn’t appear to have the penetration required for Division One cricket. He is an effective limited-overs bowler; he should be saved for these formats.

Abdur Rehman’s form is a worry too. We should give him time; he showed in his previous stint what an effective bowler he is. But he was signed to bowl teams out on fourth day pitches – he failed in this regard against Middlesex. As pitches become more helpful he will undoubtedly improve, but he was expected to be more effective even on flat decks. Maynard’s wisdom in signing a spinner for the early period of the season could be questioned, but after Somerset’s troubles with overseas players in recent years, it is hard to blame him for being unable to resist a reliable, season-long option.

Somerset are acting upon these issues. For the Worcestershire game Groenewald has been dropped, and with Jamie Overton missing out as well following his heel injury, Craig Overton and Alfonso Thomas are expected to come in.

Tom Abell misses out, but if the strategy of playing Allenby and Trego continues to produce average results he could come in to the middle order in the near future. However, George Dockrell has been named in the squad; if he plays a seamer will likely miss out, making playing Allenby and Trego necessary anyway.

Director of Cricket Matt Maynard
Plenty of questions to ponder for Director of Cricket Matt Maynard. Photograph by Alexander Davidson

Alex Barrow, meanwhile, will have another chance. But the New Zealand tour match looms, which could provide an opportunity for James Regan to strut his stuff. Josh Davey, Adam Dibble, Max Waller and Jack Leach may also come into contention.

We must remember that it is early days. The players we have are underperforming; this isn’t the limit to their ability. If Maynard can get them playing to their potential we will be fine.

Plus, a new Director of Cricket does not equal instant success. The players need to adjust to his methods and gel first. The early signs are worrying, yes, but give them time. After all, in 2011, Somerset lost their first two games and finished fourth. In 2010, Somerset lost their first two games and finished second. The Championship isn’t decided in April.