The signing of experienced top order batsman and wicket-keeper Stephen Davies from Surrey, and Dean Elgar’s arrival from overseas, should comfortably fill the void left by last year’s skipper Chris Rogers.
Somerset Director of Cricket Matt Maynard will be delighted to have managed to convince Rogers to return as batting coach and player mentor for the first half of the season, though has been assured that Rogers won’t be putting on his spikes again, however desperate the Taunton side might be for him to.
Pre-season friendlies against Gloucestershire, Glamorgan and Worcestershire gave youngsters such as Adam Hose, Josh Davey, Paul van Meekeren and George Bartlett a chance to show what they can do, whilst Steven Davies showed what all County Cricket fans have known he can do for years.
It will be interesting to see what Maynard uses wicket-keeper Davies junior (Ryan) for this season, after the 20-year-old started to look more comfortable with the bat towards the end of last season having really struggled even down at eight or nine in the early months. Steven Davies is clearly the superior Davies with the bat (likely to slot in at four or five alongside James Hildreth) but has also made clear his desire to keep more, with belief that strong performances for Somerset could grant him a return to international cricket.
The MCC County Champions match last month saw a perfect opportunity for young bowlers Lewis Gregory, Craig Overton and Jack Leach to stake their claim for an England spot on the world stage. They duly obliged with ‘Somerset’ taking all ten of Middlesex’s first innings wickets and five of the nine in the second innings. In bizarrely similar circumstances to the Somerset v Middlesex County Championship fixture last term, the three Somerset boys’ MCC team lost in a game they probably thought they’d already won. John Simpson again carried his bat, hitting the winning runs off Overton with his number 11 sheepishly watching on from the other end.
Ins: Steven Davies (Surrey) George Bartlett (Graduated from Academy)
Outs: Alex Barrow (Released) Chris Rogers (Retired)
Key Player – Tom Abell
Tom Abell’s appointment as County Championship captain for Somerset this season came as a real surprise for many, but not for me. When I played against his Taunton school side when he was only 18, five years ago, it was more than clear that this man had what it takes to make the highest level of the game and lead a team whilst doing so. He had scored 100 in all his previous innings that school year and he’s not stopped breaking records since.
With Chris Rogers’ retirement, Somerset lost their captain, their most (or second most) experienced player and a number three batsman. Dean Elgar has come in to likely fit in at the top of the order whilst Abell seems to have been designated the number three position if the preseason friendlies are worth going by.
Previously seen as a traditional, `baby Boycott’ style opener, in preseason Abell has appeared to have broken the shackles a little, scoring much closer to a run a ball and with more regular sixes than last season. This implies he really fancies himself as an all-format player for this year. He surprised many with a superb 106 batting at 4 in July’s RLODC game v Sussex and will hope to get more one-day chances this season.
Player to Watch – Jack Leach
As a result of his supreme efforts with the ball both, home and away, last year Jack Leach is a strong candidate to play as England’s second or third choice test spinner. It was a real shock for him to be overlooked for the winter tours of Bangladesh and India, especially when the likes of Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson were called up ahead of him.
It was an equally large shock for the 25-year-old to be told there were doubts over the legitimacy of his action. Remedial work over the winter seems to have solved this problem, allowing him to perform so well for the England Lions and the MCC.
The `Taunton Vettori’ was cynically criticised for only taking wickets at home, at Taunton’s `Cyderabad’ last season. But this was unfair criticism, as shown in instances such as his 6-64 in a 10 wicket win over the reigning champions at Headingley last season. 65 Championship wickets, at an average of just over 20, saw him second only to Somerset’s frequent tormentor Jeetan Patel in last year’s bowling charts.
Roleof van der Merwe and Dom Bess will provide handy assistance to Leach this year, especially as Somerset will likely persist with spin-friendly pitches which worked so well for them in 2016’s `oh so nearly’ year.
Dean Elgar is set to return to Somerset for the first time since 2013, when he filled in for seven matches whilst Alviro Petersen was on international duty. The 29-year-old left-hand batsman will be available for all three formats when international commitments allow. He is also capable of bowling some handy left arm spin.
Elgar has shown some very impressive form in test cricket this winter. He has scored centuries against Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand in the last five months. His 127 in the first test at Perth in November saw him record South Africa’s highest ever partnership at the WACA, 250 with JP Duminy.
His international commitments in New Zealand have only just finished, so he will not join up with his new teammates for the first time until within the next week or so. Yet the pitches the likes of the University Oval, Dunedin, are likely to be pretty similar to the pitches English County sides provide in April. Elgar scored 140 in Dunedin last month, Somerset Director of Cricket Matt Maynard will likely have little qualms about putting Elgar in for the season opener in spite of him missing all of Somerset’s preseason.
How they’ll fare
After last year’s final day heartbreak from the contrived result at Lords, Somerset will feel they only need to be marginally better to go on and win the County Championship this year. But, perhaps brutally, I feel that last season was a once in a lifetime opportunity for relative County Cricket minnows Somerset. With the massive wealth of clubs such as Yorkshire, Middlesex and Surrey, it will be much harder for Somerset to get so near to the top of the tree this season.
Any England call-ups for the likes of the Overton twins, Jack Leach or Tom Abell could seriously derail Somerset’s chances as well.
The club hierarchy could still surprise fans with a T20 specialist overseas signing, as Dean Elgar is not much of a one-day player, though expect him to still play some RLODC matches.
Expect them to have an improved T20 tournament this year and, if they can avoid having to face Jeetan Patel again, then who knows? They might even go one further and make the RLODC final this year – the tournament I believe suits Somerset’s current squad best.
v Essex Friday 14th April at Taunton.
LV County Championship Division One: 8/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 12/1
NatWest Twenty20 Blast: 14/1