Somerset came so close last season. So close you could taste it. So close you could hear ‘Blackbird’. The song (not the bird) was killed by Toby Roland-Jones’ magnificent bowling at Lord’s in the final session of the 2016 season. It was replaced by the more appropriate, if less familiar, sound of Fred Astaire’s ‘So Near and Yet So Far’.
Now it is time for one of the three counties never to have claimed the title to – in the words of another Astaire classic – pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. With a new captain in Tom Abell and experienced keeper Steven Davies signed on a three-year deal, there is a new buzz around the club as they open their account against newly-promoted Essex.
Essex, meanwhile, have shown already that they are not in the top flight to make up the numbers. In a cut-throat division where a quarter of the teams will face the drop, Essex travel to the west country with a vital draw under their belts. They batted all day against a strong Lancashire attack that included James Anderson, Kyle Jarvis and Stephen Parry to save the game and claim five points.
Both of these sides have a reputation for underperforming with talented squads, and the result of this game will depend on which side holds their nerve at the key moments. Somerset seamers Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton starred in the nail-biting Champion County match against Middlesex in the UAE – if they are to feature in that fixture next year, they will need to start with a big win against the new boys.
Without wishing to heap more pressure on a young captain’s shoulders, Tom Abell will be hoping to start this season with a solid knock in front of the home fans. Widely tipped by journalists as a prospect for England, his overall record lags behind many of his rivals’ (he averages 31 after 32 first-class games) and while time is on his side at 23, as Geoffrey Chaucer wisely pointed out, it will tarry for no person. Abell may have higher ambitions than England, of course – namely, delivering Somerset’s first ever Championship title.
Alastair Cook is once again an FEC, but this time the F stands for ‘former’. While he has not been exactly a regular in the Essex side during his tenure as England captain, he has averaged over 75 in two of the past three seasons and remains a vital part of both England and Essex’s plans for the future. He was ruled out of Essex’s draw with Lancashire due to a hip injury but is expected to play a full part in the Somerset game.
Somerset have named a strong squad including both of the Overton twins. Dean Elgar returns to the top of the order and new signing Steven Davies makes his long-awaited debut for the club.
Somerset squad: Tom Abell (c), Steven Davies (wk), Dean Elgar, Lewis Gregory, Tim Groenewald, James Hildreth, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jamie Overton, Peter Trego, Marcus Trescothick, Roelof van der Merwe
The big news for Essex is that Alastair Cook is back. Adam Wheater remains as wicketkeeper despite his poor performance with the bat against Lancashire, which means that veteran gloveman James Foster is still frozen out.
Essex squad: Ryan ten Doeschate (c), Aaron Beard, Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Varun Chopra, Alastair Cook, Simon Harmer, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter, Neil Wagner, Tom Westley, Adam Wheater (wk), Ashar Zaidi
Somerset are currently unbeaten in their last four matches with Essex (W2 D2).
Essex have avoided defeat in their last five outings to Somerset (W2 D3).
Somerset come into this fixture having won three on the bounce; if they claim victory in this match, it’ll be the best such run since June 1995 (also four wins).
Marcus Trescothick’s 228* helped Somerset claim a 219 run victory over Essex when these sides last met (August 2010).
Weather and conditions
Showers are predicted on Friday but there should be more than enough time to produce a result. Last season, Taunton’s reputation as a batting paradise was frequently challenged by some low totals and turning pitches – what have they prepared for 2017?
Date: 14th-17th April
Ground: Cooper Associates County Ground
Odds (SkyBet): Somerset 4/6, Essex 6/5