Promise of youth could propel another title tilt

The Championship captaincy could be the making or breaking of Somerset's young prospect, Tom Abell Getty Images

Last season:
Championship: 2nd Div 1; NatWest Blast: 9th South Group; Royal London Cup: Semi-Final

In: Steven Davies (Surrey), George Bartlett, Ben Green
Out: Chris Rogers (retired), Alex Barrow (released)
Overseas: Dean Elgar (SA)

2016 in a nutshell
Mixed. They came tantalisingly close to that much-anticipated first Championship title - they eventually fell four points short of Middlesex after what some viewed as a controversial run-chase in the final match against Yorkshire at Lord's - and enjoyed a good run to the semi-final stage of the Royal London Cup. But they won fewer games than any other side in the NatWest Blast and saw the progress of some of their highly-talented young players - particularly Jamie Overton who, to be fair, was good before a back problem laid him low, and Tom Abell - stall just a little due to injury and loss of form. That they enjoyed such a successful Championship season was, to a large part, a reflection of the ability of their spinners to exploit helpful Taunton surfaces (four of their six of their wins were at home; they also enjoyed a notable one in Leeds) and some heavy run-scoring from two of the finest batsmen the club has ever produced: Marcus Trescothick and James Hildreth. Peter Trego and Chris Rogers also made 1,000 runs in the Championship season. Most of all, though, it was about Jack Leach claiming 65 Division One wickets - only Jeetan Patel took more - and helping Somerset recover from a start in which they won only one of their first nine games (and that by one wicket after the last three batsmen, one of which was Leach, added 64 for victory) to a breathlessly tight finish to the season. There were few, if any, grumbles about his action at the time, so it was quite a shock when it was found to be illegal during ECB testing at the end of the season.

2017 prospects
There's no reason Somerset shouldn't challenge again. While Chris Rogers has retired, Dean Elgar replaces him at the top of the order and will open with Trescothick. Abell may benefit from a move down to No.3 and Steven Davies, recruited from Surrey, will fill the No. 5 position - a problem in 2016 - and keep wicket at the start of the Championship season, at least. Ryan Davies is likely to gain keeping opportunities at some stage, though. With the Overtons, Lewis Gregory, Leach et al, they have a nicely balanced (and locally developed) attack, with Jim Allenby and Peter Trego adding all-round depth. T20 overseas signings are likely to follow, but there no reason Somerset shouldn't improve sharply in that format with Steven Davies moving up the order in the white-ball formats. It is anticipated that Taunton's wickets may well again provide some assistance to spinners but, after years when the county ground was a bowlers' nightmare (and bearing in mind England's record in turning conditions) that may well be no bad thing.

In charge
The promotion of Tom Abell to captaincy in the Championship is something of a risk. While there's no doubting his talent, his returns in 2016 - he averaged 25.61 in the Championship, finding some form in the latter part of the season - suggest he is still in the developmental stage of his career. Aged 23, why wouldn't he be? So the added responsibility may be the making of him, or it could be a burden he could do without. Either way, it was a bold move to give him the leadership at such a young age. Matthew Maynard remains as the coach, with Rogers back in a role as batting coach until the end of June. Allenby continues as limited-overs captain, with Jason Kerr as assistant coach and bowling coach.

Key player
When Leach struggled on the Lions tour - he was left out of the first unofficial Test in Sri Lanka and proved expensive in the second - it was feared that he may be having difficulty adjusting to his remodelled action. Evidence since, such as in pre-season games in the UAE, suggests he is growing more comfortable with it, but whether he has fully recovered remains to be seen. As the man who gave Somerset their attacking edge in 2016, his success may go some way to defining their season.

Bright young thing
There's quite a choice in this category for Somerset. Abell, aged 23, is a fine, locally developed player and George Bartlett, just 19 and good enough to score 179 in the recent Under-19 Test in Nagpur, may follow him into the side soon. Dominic Bess, the teenage offspinner who took his 13 Championship wickets at a cost of 10.46 apiece, is promising, while Craig Overton already looks a terrific allround cricketer who, aged 22, is pretty much a senior player. But it remains his brother Jamie who has the higher ceiling as a cricketer. Capable of bowling with the pace required for Test level, he also has ability with the bat and in the field. If he can retain his fitness - and he is understood to have had an encouraging winter on that score - he is really is the sort of player who could make a difference in an away Ashes series.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
There's quite a lot going right at Taunton at present. The club is developing (with significant help from Devon) good young players who promise to support the more experienced spine of Trescothick, Trego and Hildreth (all of whom can again be claimed as local) in competitive campaigns across all formats. Yes, there is support from some South African-born players, but Somerset is proof that a smaller ground can produce players, compete and sustain itself financially. Somerset also host a T20I between England and South Africa (June 23) and expect to sell out their Blast tickets. Many clubs could learn from their example.

Bet365 odds: Specsavers Championship: 8-1; NatWest Blast 12-1; Royal London Cup 12-1