September 5, 2013

Somerset hope for autumn glow

Survival in the Championship remains in the balance but success in the YB40 has given supporters something to cheer

September is upon us. Evenings are closing in, play will start half an hour earlier and thoughts of supporters have turned to the County Championship; promotion, relegation and, for the fortunate, an autumn day in the sun at a Lord's final. Rumours abound of contracts, transfers and which soon-to-be-retired cricketer will be announced in the line-up of this year's Strictly Come Dancing.

Meanwhile I seem to have entered a parallel universe. Ten days ago Somerset were drifting without an obvious means of propulsion along a rather murky waterway. Hovering above the danger area of the Championship table, two high-profile players were yet to sign contracts for next season and other richer/flashier/more fashionable counties were circling like sharks with chequebooks. Their chosen overseas player for the latter part of the season, Abdur Rehman, was watching grass grow in Harare as part of the Pakistan squad on a rearranged tour to Zimbabwe. His jet-lagged stand-in Piyush Chawla was failing to take a wicket at Edgbaston.

Poor light and rain may have arrived in Birmingham in the nick of time on the final day to save Somerset from their fifth Championship defeat of the season but a Derbyshire victory over Middlesex pushed them into the relegation zone. To add to their woes Peter Trego, the highest run-scorer in this year's YB40 competition, sustained a blow on the hand during the Warwickshire match and was likely to miss the final, must-win group match.

Doomed. Doomed, I say. That was the verdict of many a Somerset supporter looking towards the end of the season. The director of cricket, Dave Nosworthy, in his first season, was lined up as one of several goats to be scaped; brought in with the directive to assist Somerset with that final push over the line to win a trophy it seemed to some all that was being achieved was a final push over the edge of a cliff, with Division Two waiting below.

But in the space of a week the gloom has lifted. It started with the welcome confirmation that Nick Compton has signed for the club for a further three years. Victory over Gloucestershire in the final YB40 group game earned Somerset a trip to Trent Bridge for a semi-final. Although Trego was forced to miss the match with his badly bruised hand, he will get another chance to get the six runs he needs to pass 1000 limited-overs runs for the season (a rare achievement though he will not be the first to do so this year, that accolade goes to Gloucestershire's Michael Klinger). Then a trip to Lord's for what looked to be a tricky four-day match against title contenders Middlesex.

Shorn of Trego and Steve Kirby through injury, and Jos Buttler through England commitments, on paper the team didn't inspire a great deal of confidence. This may come as a surprise to some Somerset supporters but although cricket is played on grass, sand, ice and all manner of artificial surfaces, it has yet to be played on paper. And on the sloping turf of Lord's the combination of some old wise heads and some bright young things improved the prospect of first division survival by beating Middlesex by an innings inside three days.

Victory was built upon a first innings total of 449, thanks largely to a century by Chawla batting at No. 9 but aided by fifties by young guns Chris Jones and Alex Barrow and the young at heart Alfonso Thomas and Marcus Trescothick. The last time Trescothick went a whole English summer without scoring a first-class century was, well, last century. Sixty-four runs at Lord's plus five slip catches plucked from the air should be proof there is life in the old fish yet.

The bowlers, freed up by 400+ runs on the board for only the third time this season, bowled out the home side twice inside 90 overs. Lewis Gregory, entrusted with the new red ball for the first time, took seven wickets in the match, including his first five-for in the second innings. Craig Meschede's five wickets in the match show he can be more than just a one-day bowling force (he is the joint-highest wicket-taker in this season's YB40 competition). And with 3 for 8 in the first innings, Chawla gave notice that his primary role in this team is not to shore up the lower-order batting, welcome though that may be.

With two home fixtures against relegation rivals Surrey and Derbyshire then a final-week trip to Nottinghamshire, Somerset's Championship fate is in their own hands. A day in the sun at Lord's still beckons.

The season could still end in mellow fruitfulness.

Nicky King is a Somerset supporter and member of Somerset CCC's radio commentary team. She tweets here