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Feature

Perennial runners-up Somerset aiming to finally go one better

We assess the chances of the teams in Group Two in our County Championship preview

Tom Lammonby shone during Somerset's run to the Bob Willis Trophy final  •  Getty Images

Tom Lammonby shone during Somerset's run to the Bob Willis Trophy final  •  Getty Images

Is it time for Somerset to break their Championship duck, and can the slumbering London giants reawaken? We run the rule over the contenders in Group Two. You can also read previews of Group One and Group Three.

Gloucestershire

Last season: 5th in Central Group
Coach: Ian Harvey
Captain: Chris Dent
Overseas players: Kraigg Brathwaite, Daniel Worrall
Ins: Tom Lace (Middlesex), Jared Warner (Yorkshire)
Outs: Gareth Roderick (Worcestershire), Stuart Whittingham (retired), George Drissell (released)
Gloucestershire are yet to have their "day in the sun" following promotion in 2019, but last summer's Bob Willis Trophy provided a reminder as to the gap in quality between the divisions. Reinforcements are due in the shape of Kraigg Brathwaite and Daniel Worrall, but they will rely on the same core that has been at the club for a number of years.
Gareth Roderick's departure to Worcestershire means that James Bracey will probably face the burden of keeping wicket while batting in the top order - most likely at No. 3 - but he has impressed during his time among England's reserves, and should be up to the challenge. Ryan Higgins has 115 first-class wickets at 21.43 since his move from Middlesex, while averaging 36.82 with the bat: if he can maintain that form against a higher calibre of opposition then he may be touted as an England contender before long. One area of concern will be their record at Bristol: since 2016, they have won four, lost six and drawn 16 at their main home ground. A bit more life in the pitches may serve them well.
One to watch: Tom Lace became the third player in as many years to make the move from Middlesex to Gloucestershire last summer, following in Higgins and George Scott's footsteps. He made three hundreds while on loan at Derbyshire in 2019, but Middlesex struggled to find room for him in their own middle order. He turns 23 this season, and will hope to reaffirm his status as one of the brightest batting talents on the county circuit after a quiet summer last year. Matt Roller
Bet365: 25-1

Hampshire

Last season: 4th in South Group
Director of cricket: Giles White
Coach: Adrian Birrell
Captain: James Vince
Overseas players: Kyle Abbott, Mohammad Abbas (April-May)
Ins:
Outs: Harry Came, Oli Soames (both released)
Kyle Abbott is back as an overseas player after the end of the Kolpak era and travel restrictions which kept him home in South Africa last year. If he can reprise anything like the form that delivered 72 wickets at 16.19 during the 2019 season, he will form a formidable new-ball attack with Mohammad Abbas. Without Abbott, the seam bowling looked light, with allrounder Ian Holland finishing as Hampshire's leading BWT wicket-taker.
A rain-affected friendly against Northamptonshire frustrated Hampshire's pre-season campaign, while injury setbacks for batsman Aneurin Donald and left-arm seamer Keith Barker add to their woes. But, in some good news, spinner Liam Dawson is back from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in August. He took two wickets and scored 48 off 91 balls after being promoted to No. 4 in last week's friendly against Sussex.
Tom Alsop and Lewis McManus scored well against Sussex, adding to a batting line-up that will expect plenty of captain James Vince, Sam Northeast - now at peace with the notion that his England chance may have gone - Holland and Joe Weatherley. If they can get enough runs on the board, legspinner Mason Crane could be a wildcard matchwinner as the season wears on.
One to watch: Opening batsmen Joe Weatherley was Hampshire's leading run-scorer in the Bob Willis Trophy with 263 runs at 43.83. At the age of 24 and with just one first-class century to his name since his debut in 2016, he could be ready to take the next step. Valkerie Baynes
Bet365: 11-1

Leicestershire

Last season: 5th, North Group
Coach: Paul Nixon
Captain: Colin Ackermann
Overseas players: Marcus Harris
Ins: Ed Barnes (Yorkshire), Rishi Patel (Essex), Scott Steel (Durham),
Outs: Tom Taylor (Northamtonshire), Paul Horton (retired), Mark Cosgrove (released)
The Foxes were rebranded "the Running Foxes" last season and for the too long the bugles of the Hunt - sounded by the many detractors who question their worth - have been blaring in their ears. Those critics will be given short shrift as long as the hyper-charged Paul Nixon remains as coach. The Running Foxes will certainly have more vigour in the field with senior pros such as Paul Horton and Mark Cosgrove replaced not by old county lags but by ambitious young professionals such as Scott Steel and Rishi Patel, signed from Durham and Essex respectively.
If the defiant opener Hassan Azad can rediscover the form of 2019, when he seemed to be batting for ever, and Australia opener Marcus Harris makes an impact then runs may come. How Leicestershire will bowl the opposition out remains to be seen, however. The loss of Tom Taylor - viewed as England potential by Nixon - to Northants means that beyond the first-class wickets of Chris Wright and Dieter Klein there is not too much left. Leicestershire may need that youthful enthusiasm for some long days in the field. Ed Barnes, a former England U-19 seamer gained from Yorkshire, will hope to alleviate the shortcomings.
One to watch: Rishi Patel's lack of opportunities at Essex frustrated many seasoned observers who were aware of his prolific 2nd X1 form. After a brief loan spell at Grace Road, Leicestershire have done well to entice this attractive middle-order batsman to accept a three-year deal with the promise of regular cricket. David Hopps
Bet365: 50-1

Middlesex

Last season: 3rd in South Group
Director of cricket: Angus Fraser
Coach: Stuart Law
Captain: Peter Handscomb
Overseas: Peter Handscomb
Ins:
Outs: Dan Lincoln (released), Miguel Cummins (Kent)
It comes as quite a relief to Stuart Law that Victoria have endured a bit of a stinker in the Sheffield Shield this season. The state's failure is the county's gain, with Middlesex's overseas signing and new captain, Peter Handscomb, "pumped" to get over to England, with the chance to set the early tone for a squad that - much like their rivals south of the Thames - have promised far more than they have delivered in recent seasons.
Since winning the County Championship in 2016, it's been a tale of barely mitigated failure in red-ball cricket for Middlesex. Relegation in 2017 was followed by two more seasons in the second division, including an abject campaign in 2019 when only Leicestershire won fewer matches than their three out of 14.
They did manage sparky showing in last year's Bob Willis Trophy, however, finishing behind Essex, the eventual champions, and Kent in the South Group. Their two victories in five attempts included a satisfying 190-run thrashing of Surrey at the Kia Oval.
The cornerstone of any Middlesex challenge will lie in the depth and variety of their seam attack. An enviable blend of youth and experience means that the old guard of Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn, James Harris and Tim Murtagh will be kept on their toes by youngsters such as Blake Cullen, Ethan Bamber and Tom Helm - who, at the age of 26 and after a winter on England's radar, should be all the more driven to succeed this summer.
One to watch: At the age of 33, Toby Roland-Jones' best years may be behind him, but we won't know for sure until he's back on the field in a more permanent capacity. After four injury-ravaged years, he's reportedly fitter than ever before, and quietly determined to make up for lost time - having been an Ashes shoo-in in 2017-18 until that stress fracture of the back. Andrew Miller
Bet365: 10-1

Somerset

Last season: 1st in Central Group, BWT runners-up
Director of cricket Andy Hurry
Coach: Jason Kerr
Captain: Tom Abell
Overseas: Marchant de Lange
Ins:
Outs: Nathan Gilchrist (Kent), Jamie Overton (Surrey), Dom Bess (Yorkshire)
Could this finally be the year? After four second-place finishes in the last five seasons, hopes remain high that 2021 could see Somerset record their maiden Championship title. If that is to be the case, it seems likely conditions will again favour a seam attack - Craig Overton, Josh Davey, Lewis Gregory, Jack Brooks et al - who troubled all opponents last year. Marchant de Lange, signed to replace Jamie Overton, will provide some pace when required.
The batting has an exciting look to it. While Tom Banton, George Bartlett and Tom Lammonby have lots to prove, they are a talented young trio and, alongside the more experienced James Hildreth and Steven Davies, provide an attractive line-up - even if Babar Azam's Pakistan/PSL commitments may prevent a return. The fact that most of those seamers can bat could prove important, too.
The one area Somerset may be lacking is in their spin bowling. With Dom Bess having moved to Yorkshire and every chance that Jack Leach will be on England duty from June onwards, much may be required of Lewis Goldsworthy, who is 20 and has yet to play a first-class match, and Roelof van der Merwe, who is 36 and has taken 16 first-class wickets in the last three years.
So, can they challenge? We'll see. But, such are expectations at Taunton these days, anything less than qualification for Division One would probably be considered a disappointment.
One to watch: Tom Lammonby made a remarkable impression last year. He not only become the youngest Somerset player to carry his bat in first-class cricket, but the first England-born player to make three centuries in his first six first-class games since Graeme Lloyd in 1989. Batting in April and May could prove far more challenging but he looks to have the technique and phlegmatic nature to succeed. His left-arm seam bowling looks decent, too. George Dobell
Bet365: 7-1

Surrey

Last season: 5th in South Group
Director of cricket: Alec Stewart
Coach: Vikram Solanki
Captain: Rory Burns
Overseas: Kemar Roach, Hashim Amla
Ins: Laurie Evans (Sussex), Jamie Overton (Somerset)
Outs: Scott Borthwick (Durham), Morne Morkel (released)
Since romping to the 2018 County Championship with an aplomb that belied the 16-year wait that had preceded it, Surrey's form has fizzled once more in red-ball cricket. In the BWT, their only victory in six South Group matches came at the final attempt, in their wooden-spoon clash with Sussex.
But when has precedence ever got in the way of Surrey's pre-season narrative? It would be quite a shock if they aren't firmly in this year's shake-up - especially given a Test-quality batting line-up that could feature Rory Burns, Mark Stoneman, Hashim Amla, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes in the top six, alongside such up-and-coming talents as Jamie Smith and Will Jacks - the latter, aged 22, surely primed for a pivotal season after three years of grounding in the first XI.
On the bowling front, Surrey's seam attack will be missing the spring-loaded menace of Morne Morkel, but the often-underestimated Kemar Roach is a world-class replacement. The Curran brothers will be away on IPL duty in the first half of the season, but Jordan Clark is an under-valued allrounder who may hope to thrive in their absences.
Surrey's most eye-catching signing, however, is arguably Jamie Overton, a genuine quick who found his style cramped at Somerset, but who hopes to unleash his full potential. In an Ashes year, he will be extra-incentivised to crank up the pace.
On the spin front, Gareth Batty is now more focused on his coaching duties, but Amar Virdi is itching to prove his progress after a winter in England's Test bubble, while the slow left-armer Dan Moriarty was one of 2020's breakout stars, with 17 wickets in two matches including 11 against Sussex.
One to watch: Rory Burns endured a grim winter in England's bubble, albeit the birth of his first daughter brought some off-field joy. But, having lost his place as first-choice opener, he now has extra incentive to knuckle down for seven first-class games in a row, and reprise that Championship-winning run-glut from 2018 that earned his England spot in the first place. A big response is the only fitting response. AM
Bet365: 10/1