After the forced premature retirement of England one-day wicket-keeper-batsman Craig Kieswetter, the moving of formed England opening batsman Nick Compton back to Middlesex and Matthew Maynard replacing Dave Nosworthy as Director of Cricket, last season was the start of a new era for Somerset.
Despite all the change around him, James Hildreth continued to churn out runs in all forms of the game, becoming the highest run-scorer in England last season. Yet they still ended up in a relegation fight, finishing sixth for the third consecutive year in the County Championship.
Somerset were disappointing in the Royal London One-Day Cup last year, actually playing their best cricket after they’d been mathematically knocked out. Adam Hose got a chance to open with Thomas Abell, a partnership which helped the West Country side win their last three matches and provided an exciting nod to the future.
This season the new signings of Roelof van der Merwe and Yasir Arafat will be particularly useful in the one-day arena, adding experience to the bowling and middle order batting.
For the second season running Somerset failed to progress from their group in the Natwest T20 Blast competition, showing that even the best T20 batsman in the world can’t always win matches single-handedly.
Chris Gayle is set to play double the three matches he managed last summer, and if his teammates can muster better form around him, then Somerset should expect to earn back their reputation as one of the better English T20 sides.
The wicket-keeping position became perhaps the biggest debate in all line-ups for Somerset last summer. Having come up through the Somerset age groups, Alex Barrow has performed well enough for the second XI, but has not yet come close to filling the shoes left by Kieswetter and Jos Buttler.
With Michael Bates and James Regan both being released during the off season, new signing Ryan Davies has had a promising pre-season so far and is the next in line to be given a first team chance with the gloves.
It was surprising to see Somerset allow Craig Meschede to make his move to Glamorgan permanent – he was opening the bowling and providing useful lower-order runs in all formats when he last played for the West Country side in 2014.
Ins: Roelof van der Merwe (former Somerset, Dutch Passport) Ryan Davies (Kent) Michael Leask (Scotland) Yasir Arafat (Hampshire, season-long loan)
Outs: Craig Meschede (Glamorgan) Alfonso Thomas, George Dockrell, Tom Cooper, Michael Bates, James Regan, Adam Dibble (all Released)
James Hildreth was Division One’s top scorer last season despite Somerset finishing just 22 points from the drop zone. In his 16 Championship matches, Hildreth scored 1,390 runs including three centuries at an average of 53.46, with a best of 220 not out.
He also managed more than 200 runs in both shorter forms of the game and took 13 catches during the season. He will likely bat four in all forms again this year and be crucial in guiding the middle order and tail through latter stages of innings to grind out bonus runs.
It’s a job Hildreth has done so well for more than ten years for his side, making him surely the best, most consistent performer in the county game to have never received an England cap.
Player to Watch
With the departure of George Dockrell, no Abdur Rehmann this season and Max Waller still yet to prove himself in the longer form of the game, Jack Leach will be Somerset’s front-line spinner in the County Championship and One-Day Cup.
After injury kept him out of the first few months, the Taunton Vettori took 15 wickets at 26.07 in the latter stages of last season, including a career best of 7/107 at home to Warwickshire. The left-arm orthodox bowler claimed the wicket of Hashim Amla on his Somerset debut in July 2012 and made his Championship debut the next month.
Born and bred in Taunton, Leach is very popular amongst the locals and still turns out for West of England Premier League side Taunton Deane when county commitments allow.
Chris Rogers has come in to captain the County Championship side, allowing 40-year-old Marcus Trescothick to concentrate on his batting after six years of leadership. The former Australian opener will likely bat three with Somerset eager to continue the opening partnership of Tom Abell and Trescothick which played a big role in retaining their Division One status towards the end of last season.
Chris Gayle has again been signed for the T20 Blast competition. The West Indian opener scored 328 runs in three appearances last season and appeared to really enjoy his time in the West Country. Gayle’s expected to play six T20 fixtures from June 1 – 19.
Mahela Jayawardene, arguably the most aesthetically pleasing batsman in world cricket has signed for 12 of the 14 T20 group fixtures. The former Sri Lankan captain is 38, thus has retired from all forms of international cricket. This has allowed him to save his body for the shortest format where he’s still prolific, as he showed for Adelaide Strikers in the most recent Australian Big Bash.
The prospect of the top two World T20 run scorers batting together at Taunton this summer has increased sales rapidly, so act fast if you want tickets!
How they’ll fare
Somerset won’t expect to be pulling out any trees this season, but can realistically expect to better last season’s efforts in all three facets of the game. They have a very strong top four, but fans still worry over Alex Barrow or the inexperienced Ryan Davies as their wicket-keeper and the lack of strength in the bowling department.
The Overton twins, Jamie and Craig, are likely to be away with England increasingly more so this season and Tim Groenewald and Peter Trego are approaching the twilight stages of their careers at 32 and 34 respectively.
They leave the injury-prone, but talented, all-rounder Lewis Gregory as their only other front-line seamer. Jack Leach is expected to bowl a large amount of overs this term and Jim Allenby will chip in with some medium-pace, but he was far from impressive with the ball last season, averaging 31.65.
If they can keep their trio of young fast bowlers fit and away from the England set-up, then Somerset should be capable of at least a mid-table Championship finish, a decent One-Day Cup run and a real push to support the expected heroics of Gayle and Jayawardene in the T20 competition.
v Durham, Sunday 10th April at Chester-le-Street
Specsavers County Championship Division One: 12/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: N/A
Natwest Twenty20 Blast: N/A