Somerset face Gloucestershire in County Championship as rivals start to glance over their shoulder
Head coach Jason Kerr remains bullish that Somerset will challenge strongly for a first ever County Championship title again this summer.
Gloucestershire counterpart Dale Benkenstein is equally adamant that First Division survival would represent progress at his club and provide an important foundation for future success in red-ball cricket.
What’s certain is that, after a disappointing start to the campaign by both counties, the first West Country derby of the season, starting in Bristol on Thursday, carries added significance.
The losers will be anchored among the bottom sides in Division One. As things stand, Somerset are one point behind their arch-rivals, having played one less game, with only Kent worse off in bottom place. It’s still early days, but with two clubs to be relegated in September, the sooner our counties start climbing the table the better.
Pressure of expectation is on Somerset, whose supporters have become used to seeing their team compete effectively with the most powerful counties under the leadership of Kerr and director of cricket Andy Hurry. Even that proven duo faced serious questions when four successive defeats at the end of last season were followed by three more at the beginning of the current campaign.
A resounding victory over Warwickshire at Taunton in their last game was massive for Somerset in terms of rebuilding confidence. But they will need to back it up over the next four days for Kerr’s faith in the squad to appear justified.
“The only time we have been outplayed this season was in the opening game against Hampshire, which we went into with nothing like the team we anticipated," Kerr said. “We knew England wanted Craig Overton and Jack Leach rested. But for various reasons, Lewis Gregory, Jack Brooks, George Bartlett, Josh Davey and Tom Banton were also unavailable.
“That affected our plans massively. Youngsters Ned Leonard and Kasey Aldridge performed admirably, but it was not realistic to expect them to fill the boots of the more experienced bowlers.
“The two following games against Essex and Surrey were close and we had chances to win. What impressed me was that the unity of the squad never wavered during the poor results and we came back strongly against Warwickshire.
“I am certainly looking towards the top of the table, rather than the bottom. Perhaps the best way for us to win that elusive first title will prove to be coming with a late run.
“We have been out in front at times and not quite been able to sustain it. I wouldn’t swap our bowling attack with any other county and I am sure we will be up there when it matters.”
Somerset should be at full strength, with Peter Siddle fit again after a stomach strain to provide major support for Overton, who already boasts 20 wickets in three games.
With Davey, Gregory and Brooks also in contention, one of them seems sure to miss out on selection, while Marchant de Lange, Leonard and Aldridge wait in reserve for opportunities later in the season.
Benkenstein’s problem has been getting a fit first-choice bowling attack on the park. David Payne missed the first three games after suffering a Covid-19 attack in pre-season.
Naseem Shah looked an exciting signing. But the Pakistan pace bowler suffered a shoulder injury in the first innings of the opening match against Northamptonshire and has not played since.
Mohammad Amir, recruited as short-term replacement, impressed in the match against Surrey at Bristol, despite not taking a wicket, and claimed six in the following game with Hampshire. But Benkenstein admits that Gloucestershire can ill-afford injury setbacks as they set about adjusting to First Division cricket following promotion in 2019 and the disruptions through Covid that affected the next two seasons.
“We have a very strong side if everyone is fit. But we have already had a host of injuries to our bowling attack and it hurts us a bit more than the counties with greater depth to their squads," Benkenstein said. “If Nassem Shah had been racing in and taking wickets for us as we had hoped, we might be in a very different position.
“But reality has quickly set in that we are always up against it in the First Division because there are some big counties out there with real quality.
“Even bringing Mohammad Amir in was a bit of a gamble because he hadn’t played for a while, but he has bowled really well.
“We have played a lot of fighting cricket in the early games, but the fight has been for draws, rather than victories.
“Every first innings we have been behind. It’s not due to any lack of effort, but the fact is that the players are operating at a higher level. We have to learn quickly and the first priority is to stay in this division. I view my job as a three-year project.
“You can see how things look on paper and in pre-season games, but you only get a true idea of players’ qualities when they are out in the middle in competitive matches. I have to judge where we can improve the team we have and how we might strengthen it along the way.
“From where we are now, I would settle for us being above the relegation positions at the end of the season. If we can get on a roll and confidence grows, there is a chance of doing better than that, but being realistic we need to establish a platform for the future.”
Gloucestershire will view themselves as underdogs against Somerset, but that tag has always suited them.
With home advantage on a pitch likely to lack the pace of those at Taunton, Graeme van Buuren and his team will secretly fancy themselves to put one over on their near neighbours.