When Somerset’s two captains and their brightest young talent flew to Pakistan in February, their ambitions for the PSL season were clear: to rub shoulders with some of the world’s top players, to experience high-pressure situations in a major competition, and to earn a few rupees while they were at it.
Things did not go to plan. Lewis Gregory won the match award in his first game but then suffered a minor injury; Tom Banton was unceremoniously dropped by Quetta Gladiators after two single-digit scores; and Tom Abell couldn’t force his way into a strong Lahore Qalandars’ line-up. And then, as the tournament’s biosecure bubble burst, all three tested positive for Covid-19.
“I guess we are all pretty fortunate,” Abell, the club’s red-ball captain, reflected at Somerset’s pre-season media day. “Lewis had a bit of a fever, but very mild, and I didn’t suffer any symptoms. We were all aware of the risks of going abroad and playing in these competitions but it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“We had 10 days [of self-isolation] in the hotel in Pakistan – which wasn’t ideal – then tested negative, and then had another 10 days back at home. It’s obviously a big relief to get back into pre-season here. There will certainly be no excuses – it’s just a question of getting the miles in our legs, but we’ll all have had plenty of preparation leading up to that first game.”
It is just as well that they have recovered: if any side in the country can afford to start slowly in the County Championship, it is not Somerset. The pitch prepared for their title decider against Essex in 2019 earned them a points deduction, which has rolled over to the start of this season and been adjusted to fit the rejigged structure – heading into their game against Middlesex at Lord’s next week, their points tally stands at minus eight.
Not that the deduction has dampened the enthusiasm around the club ahead of the new season. “We’re a very driven group of players,” Abell said. “We want to achieve, and we want to win. We feel like we’ve been very competitive over the last couple of years but we’re certainly not content with that. The energy around the club is as good as I’ve experienced and the competition within the squad is extreme.”
In fact, that competition for places has been sufficiently fierce that three players have left the club in the last 12 months in search of more first-team opportunities: Dom Bess moved to Yorkshire, Jamie Overton to Surrey, and Nathan Gilchrist, a highly-rated young seamer, joined Kent. Marchant de Lange, signed as an overseas player for the full season, is a like-for-like Overton replacement, but the club will promote youngsters to plug any other gaps.
“We want to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to retain our players and keep them at the club,” Andy Hurry, the director of cricket, said. “I think we do become victims of our own success: it is a challenge for us because we’ve got significant competition for places. We’re competing for silverware and it’s important that we’re selecting sides that give us the best possible chance of winning games. As a consequence, we can’t always keep everybody happy.”
As for other recruits, Babar Azam looks unlikely to return given the overlap between the T20 Blast and the window for the rescheduled PSL, but Hurry said that the club will “continue to explore” the possibility of bringing someone in for the competition.
There has been a significant change off the field, too. Marcus Trescothick, the assistant coach last summer, has ended his long association with the club to take up a full-time role as England’s batting coach, with Jim Troughton – sacked by Warwickshire over the winter – filling the vacancy. Steve Kirby is also back as bowling coach after Stuart Barnes took up a role with Ireland.
There are several young players hoping to make an impression. Tom Lammonby was the breakout star of last summer’s Bob Willis Trophy, making three hundreds as an opener, and is sure to be discussed as an England contender before long, while Lewis Goldsworthy and Will Smeed impressed in the Blast. In pre-season, 18-year-old Sonny Baker has caught the eye with some hooping inswingers, but will have to wait his turn given the number of seamers ahead of him in the queue.
Banton’s early-season involvement is noteworthy. He made only two Somerset appearances last summer on account of his international commitments, but opted to play the early rounds of the Championship rather than entering the IPL auction and facing the prospect of more time on the bench. After his eye-catching 2019 season, Banton’s stock has fallen in the last 12 months as he has got to grips with life in bio-secure bubbles and failed to nail down an England place.
“When you have a player of his quality coming back, that’s only going to give you a boost,” Abell said. “Bants is a big character in the dressing room and I know he’s excited to be back. He’s a phenomenal talent but he’s human as well and his attitude towards coming back to play red-ball cricket for us has been fantastic. I’m very confident we’ll see the best of him this year.”
The biggest question still remains: how can a team that has finished second in the last three seasons go one better this time around? “We’re always looking to make small improvements but we have to trust what we’ve been doing as a group,” Abell said. “We’ve been there and thereabouts for a reason and we don’t want to change too much to chase that elusive Championship. The best thing we can do is start well and our full focus is on doing just that.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98