County Championship preview – Group 2: Can Somerset go one better in 2021?

The County Championship returns on Thursday; our preview of the new campaign continues with Group 2, including 2020 runners-up Somerset.

GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Overseas players: Dan Worrall (Australia), Kraigg Brathwaite (West Indies – first eight games of County Championship)

Ins: Tom Lace (Middlesex), Jared Warner (Yorkshire)

Outs: Gareth Roderick (Worcestershire), George Drissell (released), Stuart Whittingham (retired)

Story of last season: Gloucestershire were never really in contention in the Bob Willis Trophy, as Somerset streaked away with the South Group. One of their two losses came at the hands of the eventual tournament runners-up, suffering the ignominy of twice being bowled out in the 70s – Craig Overton returning stunning match figures of 9-51.

What’s changed? Kraigg Brathwaite is a great overseas signing, with the obdurate West Indies opener having precisely the type of technique that should be perfect for testing conditions on tricky pitches in the early summer. Beyond his arrival, however, it is pretty much a case of ‘as you were’ for the west country county who could be set to struggle in what looks to be a tricky group.

Century-maker? Although his stay is for only eight games, Brathwaite should form a formidable opening partnership with captain Chris Dent, who you’d expect to bounce back after a down year in 2020 by his standards – he was the third-leading run-scorer in Division Two in 2019, with 1,087 runs at an average of 47.26, including four centuries.

Wicket-taker? Ryan Higgins has finished as the leading wicket-taker for Gloucestershire in each of the last two seasons, following up his 50 strikes at 23.64 in 2019 with 17 at 23.00 in their five games last year – 11 of those came for the cost of just 96 runs in their solitary success in the Bob Willis Trophy, an eight-wicket beating of Warwickshire.

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HAMPSHIRE

Overseas players: Mohammad Abbas (Pakistan – first two months of County Championship), Kyle Abbott (South Africa)

Ins: None

Outs: Harry Came, Oli Soames (both released)

Story of last season: Hampshire suffered more than most last season, with the new post-coronavirus normal seeing them without their usual Kolpak contingent of Rilee Rossouw, Kyle Abbott, and Fidel Edwards. The trio finished as their second-leading scorer and top two wicket-takers, respectively, on the way to a third-placed finish in 2019. Without them, Hampshire – blooding a number of youngsters and debutants – were still surprisingly competitive in 2020, winning two of their five games including a memorable innings victory over Surrey, in which they bowled out their opponents for 74 in the second innings.

What’s changed? Abbott is back, at least, although now has to be classified as an official ‘overseas’ player, while he is joined by Pakistan, and former Leicestershire, seam bowler Mohammad Abbas to form a devastating new-ball duo.

Century-maker? As well as their Kolpak contingent, Hampshire also badly missed captain James Vince last season, with Joe Weatherley the only batsman to average over 40. Vince will be more available this summer instead of being part of England’s white-ball ‘bubble’ – although he still might be called away on occasion – and he could be set to cash in.

Wicket-taker? Abbas is a terrific addition, especially when paired with Abbott to spearhead the attack. In two seasons with Leicestershire, he took 79 wickets in 19 games, 50 of those coming in a staggering 2018 debut season in which he took five five-wicket hauls and one match 10-for in his 10 appearances.

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LEICESTERSHIRE

Overseas players: Marcus Harris (Australia – County Championship and One-Day Cup), Naveen-ul-Haq (Afghanistan – Vitality Blast)

Ins: Scott Steel (Durham), Rishi Patel (Essex), Ed Barnes (Yorkshire)

Outs: Tom Taylor (Northamptonshire), Mark Cosgrove (released), Paul Horton (retired)

Story of last season: Leicestershire beat a depleted Lancashire squad in their opening game of 2020 – Ben Slater starring with a first-innings 172 – but that was about as good as it got for the traditional County Championship cellar dwellers as they went winless from their next four, losing two.

What’s changed? Australian overseas signing Marcus Harris could prove a great opening foil for fellow left-hander Slater, and there will be hope that he can fill the rather sizeable void left behind by the departure of countryman Mark Cosgrove, who has retired, bringing to an end his stint with the midlands county since 2015.

Century-maker? Harris has a big incentive to scoring a bagful or runs, as he fights for an opener’s berth in the Ashes this winter. He fell out of favour for the national side after failing to take his chance when playing the final three Tests of the Ashes tour of England in 2019 – he had a top score of 19 from his six innings and memorably dropped Ben Stokes during his Headingley heroics. Harris returned to the Test team for the final game of their home series loss to India, but big runs in England this summer could be the way to truly cement his spot.

Wicket-taker? Chris Wright. The 35-year-old former Warwickshire seamer might not seem the most obvious pick, but Leicestershire don’t have plentiful resources in the bowling department. Wright only played twice last summer, taking five wickets at an average of 28.20, but back in 2019 he enjoyed a mightily impressive first season with the county, claiming 47 poles, and he has signed a two-year contract with the county over the winter to show his commitment.

MIDDLESEX

Overseas players: Peter Handscomb (Australia), Mujeeb Ur Rahman (Afghanistan – Vitality Blast), Mitchell Marsh (Australia – Vitality Blast)

Ins: None

Outs: Tom Lace (Gloucestershire), Miguel Cummins (Kent), Dan Lincoln (released)

Story of last season: A real mixed bag of a campaign for Middlesex, consisting of two wins, two defeats, and a draw. The celebrations surrounding a resounding opening win over rivals Surrey were short-lived as they were beaten by Hampshire in their next outing. A draw with Kent and victory over Sussex followed, before a rather emphatic defeat to eventual champions Essex to end their season.

What’s changed? Australian Peter Handscomb – who has had impressive county stints prior with Gloucestershire, Yorkshire and Durham – arrives as the new skipper and also as bolsters their batting, with only one century scored by Middlesex last summer.

Century-maker? That century was scored by Nick Gubbins – a fine, match-winning knock of 192 against Surrey – and the opener will again likely be a leading light in the batting lineup for 2021.

Wicket-taker? Tim Murtagh. The wily, 39-year-old veteran is a magician with the ball in helpful, English seaming conditions, evidenced by his staggering haul of 25 wickets from four games last summer, at an average of 12.72. And it’s far from a one-off too – 43 strikes at 17.60 in 2019, 58 at 15.31 in 2018. While other members of the Middlesex attack may generate more column inches, it’s Murtagh who year in, year out is Mr Consistent.

SOMERSET

Overseas players: Marchant de Lange (South Africa)

Ins: None

Outs: Jamie Overton (Surrey), Dom Bess (Yorkshire), Nathan Gilchrist (Kent)

Story of last season: Runners-up. A familiar story of so near, yet so far for Somerset fans in the four-day format as they were once again cruelly denied silverware – following off the back of second-placed finishes in both 2018 and 2019 too. Somerset swept all aside (with the exception of a draw against Warwickshire) in the Central Group, with their four wins earning them a spot at Lord’s for the final against Essex, a game that ended in stalemate but that saw their opponents crowned courtesy of having scored more first-innings runs.

What’s changed? The squad the has consistently challenged these past few years is still strong and largely intact. The departures of England offspinner Dom Bess and fast bowler Jamie Overton are notable, but Somerset certainly have the bowling reserves to cope. They should once again be challenging for silverware but, as ever, the question is whether they can secure it?

Century-maker? Tom Abell. The club captain scored two classy centuries in last year’s Bob Willis Trophy, finishing as their second-leading run-scorer behind only Tom Lammonby – who is well within his right to argue his claim for this title in 2021 after his 459 runs, three centuries and average in the fifties from last summer. But, the young lad is just 20 and it might be a tough ask for him to repeat such impressive numbers.

Wicket-taker? Craig Overton already has four England Test caps to his name, one in ODI cricket, with the 26-year-old seamer long touted as a promising player for the future. Well, that future appears to have well and truly arrived as he had arguably his best-ever year for Somerset last season, taking 30 wickets in six games, at an average of 13.43, to propel them to the BWT final. Further England recognition should come with a repeat of such numbers but, given the national strength in depth in that department, that is unlikely too and Somerset stand to gain heavily.

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SURREY

Overseas players: Kemar Roach (West Indies – first seven County Championship matches), Hashim Amla (South Africa)

Ins: Laurie Evans (Sussex), Jamie Overton (Somerset)

Outs: Scott Borthwick (Durham), Sean Hunt (Sussex), Morne Morkel (released)

Story of last season: A real season to forget for Surrey, as they lost four of their five Bob Willis Trophy games – and that’s despite still being able to field a reasonably experienced and talented squad relative to other counties who were hit far harder by the unusual set of circumstances in 2020. Nick Gubbins (192) put them to the sword in their opening loss to Middlesex, Simon Harmer claimed staggering match figures of 14-131 as Essex beat them, they were bowled out for 74 in an innings loss to Hampshire, while the ageless Darren Stevens’ seven wickets helped secure Kent a slender 17-run win. Sussex took pity and helped them secure a consolation six-wicket win to end the campaign, with England’s Rory Burns hitting a hundred and a fifty, and left-arm spinner Dan Moriarty – who had made his debut earlier in the summer – taking 11 wickets in just his second game.

What’s changed? Laurie Evans was loaned from Sussex last summer, but now returns on a full-time basis to his home county. Kemar Roach is a terrific overseas signing, albeit for just their first seven games, while Jamie Overton is another strong addition to the pace attack. The talented 26-year-old has consistently been on the fringes of the England setup but is looking to make that final leap after beginning to fall out of favour at Somerset. Hashim Amla finally arrives at The Oval after Covid delayed his second stint with the county by a year, though his countryman Morne Morkel passes him out the door the other way.

Century-maker? Amla will be expected to weigh in with significant contributions throughout the campaign, but it is expecting a lot of the now 38-year-old to carry the entire batting burden on his back. With the squad stripped, as usual, of its England Test contingent, the other most notable candidate that Surrey will hope will score heavily is Will Jacks. The 22-year-old has currently built a reputation as a bit of a white-ball specialist, but he was their second-leading run-scorer in the BWT last year – 248 runs at 31 – and this could be the summer where he kicks on even further in the four-day format.

Wicket-taker? Roach is one to watch out for. The West Indies paceman was impressive during the Test tour of 2020 to these shores and deserved greater reward for his efforts than his haul of eight wickets across three Tests, at an average of 36.50. His consistent, probing off-stump line and length should reap regular rewards. Offspinner Amar Virdi deserves a mention too for his impressive haul of 22 wickets at an average of 25.90. After Dom Bess’ struggles towards the back end of their tours of Sri Lanka and India over the winter, the 22-year-old Virdi could stake a claim for an England Test spot with another strong showing this summer.

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