Can Somerset’s brilliant brigade of young batsmen develop the consistency to propel the club to that long awaited first County Championship title this summer?
That is the key question as the Cidermen’s quest for what has become known as their ‘Holy Grail’ begins against Middlesex at Lord’s from Thursday.
Having finished second five times in the last 11 years and runners-up in the Bob Willis Trophy, the abbreviated replacement for Championship cricket, last summer, it is tempting to wonder whether Somerset will ever fly the famous pennant at Taunton.
If it is to be won over the next five months, the hugely talented quartet of Tom Lammonby, George Bartlett, Eddie Byrom and Tom Banton will need to contribute big runs on a regular basis to support the more experienced James Hildreth, Tom Abell and wicketkeeper Steve Davies.
All four are aged 23 or under and each has displayed more than enough ability to persuade head coach Jason Kerr that Somerset did not need to employ an overseas batsman for this season’s tilt at the title.
But only Lammonby of the group averaged more than 35 in the inaugural Bob Willis Trophy. And, while he notched a century in the competition, along with Byrom and Bartlett, they also shared 13 scores of 20 or less over the six games.
Banton, already rightly regarded among the most exciting one-day batsmen in the country, could manage a total of only 33 runs from three innings.
On occasions, Somerset’s lower order came to the rescue and the team still made the final against Essex, only to be bridesmaids again when, despite the match being drawn, the reigning county champions lifted the trophy on a higher first innings score.
This season, Somerset start the Championship, under its new format, with an eight-point penalty, reduced from the original 12, hanging over them for producing a ‘poor’ pitch for their final game of the 2019 season against Essex.
With only ten games in which to secure the top two finish in their group necessary to play in Division One of the second stage, the Cidermen will hope to wipe out that deficit as soon as possible.
The first and second teams in each of the three groups will contest Division One in September when the winners over four games will be crowned champions and the top two contest the Bob Willis Trophy final.
If Somerset can score enough runs, there is little doubt that they have a bowling attack capable of capitalising to the full.
While the departures of Jamie Overton to Surrey and Dom Bess to Yorkshire at the end of last season were blows, there should be genuine excitement over the signing of Marchant de Lange as overseas player.
The 30-year-old South African often impressed me when bowling for Glamorgan and is a fierce competitor with an extra edge of pace when compared with Somerset’s other seamers.
Craig Overton, Lewis Gregory, Josh Davey and Jack Brooks already made up a pace department that was the envy of most counties.
And, while Brooks needs time to fully recover from surgery on both achilles tendons during the winter, Ben Green and exciting youngster Sonny Baker will both be eager for opportunities.
Jack Leach has the quality to take wickets on what I expect to be good batting pitches at Taunton. And when their number one spinner is summoned by England, Somerset can call on the evergreen Roelof van der Merwe or promising 20-year-old Lewis Goldsworthy as deputy.
The pressure is on because, after all the near misses, only a title win will represent progress. But director of cricket Andy Hurry and Kerr exude confidence as ever and another strong bid for red ball honours can be anticipated.
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