By Sean Beynon
The start of a season, in any sport, should bring optimism. This is particularly the case in cricket. The long winter months make selective recall of magnificent summers easy. Ducks and defeats are forgotten, and every cricketer knows that this will be their year. If only that were the case at the County Ground…
The stark reality is that even the most positive minded will struggle to imagine significant Gloucestershire success this season. A youthful side, thrown together after a mass exodus at Nevil Road, proved many wrong last year, and impressed with their enthusiasm and spirit. While form in the one-day game was abysmal, Gloucestershire’s Championship performances kept promotion hopes alive late into the season.
This year, with further departures over the winter, it will be even tougher. Glos should be heartened by coach John Bracewell’s decision to extend his contract for a further three years, while the news that New Zealander Kane Williamson will re-join the squad in May has been greeted by a collective sigh of relief. He will be replaced by another New Zealander if he is called up by his country later in the season.
It has, in truth, been a miserable off-season. Refused permission for a development of the ground necessary if Bristol is to host international cricket in future, Chris Taylor’s release by the club was collateral damage. Taylor, a batsmen imbued with talent and finesse, had given more than a decade’s service to Gloucestershire and enjoyed his best season in what turned out to be his last. The 1,100 runs he scored last summer will be difficult to find in an inexperienced top order. Taylor and the club have reached a settlement, and the 35-year-old has moved down the road to Taunton, where he will be Somerset’s fielding coach.
Jon Lewis will be even more difficult to replace. His spell at the County Ground lasted longer than Taylor’s, yielding an astonishing 798 wickets. A combative bowler who has in later years has seen guile replace pace, Lewis’ departure was announced in the summer after Gloucestershire told him they could not offer him a deal while plans for the ground redevelopment were unresolved. He heads up the M4 to Surrey as one of Gloucestershire’s leading wicket takers of all time, and his nagging away swingers will be much missed as will his frenetic – if generally all too short – big-hitting down the order.
Dwelling on the past will not bring success this season, but it does set a context for a difficult year where younger players will be forced to step up. Perhaps the most significant is Chris Dent, a classy left-hander, brilliant slip-fielder, handy spinner and – to top it all – occasional wicket-keeper.
Thirty first class games under his belt at just 21 highlights Dent’s talent, but also the shallowness of Gloucestershire’s squad. He has impressed in his first two seasons at the club, but now is the time to properly kick on. He has been prolific in pre-season, and finds himself, all of a sudden, as a senior batsman. It is an opportunity he must take.
Hamish Marshall and Alex Gidman add experience to the top-order. Both can be brilliant, destructive batsmen, but neither have shown the consistency that would have wanted in previous seasons. Williamson, whose match saving hundred for New Zealand against South Africa underlined his class, will join the squad in May to help shore up the batting, while punchy right-hander Dan Housego goes from Middlesex’s second team straight into the squad for today’s season opener at Chelmsford.
If they all stay fit, and if Ian Cockbain can improve on a promising first summer, Gloucestershire’s batting might yet shed the brittle tag that has dogged them for a decade. Early season injuries or lack of form will, however, quickly test a batting line up which has very little depth.
With the ball, Ian Saxelby and David Payne will lead a youthful attack. James Fuller brings significant pace to the table, while Ed Young and Jack Taylor provide all round spin options.
Last year’s surprise package Will Gidman will be keen to avoid second season syndrome. After a few years turning out for Durham’s second XI, the captain’s brother was thrust straight into the Championship in 2011. He performed beyond anyone’s expectations – completing 1,000 runs and fifty wickets. He was the first player to complete such a double since 1996 and has quickly become an integral part of the squad. Likely to bat at six or seven, if Gidman can go close to emulating last year’s heroics he might yet help Gloucestershire sustain a promotion push.
Cricket’s big money competition remains the Twenty20. Gloucestershire’s record in previous seasons has been dismal, and it is difficult to see great emphasis being placed on the tournament this year. Glos are not blessed with big hitters, and the return of Muttiah Muralitharan is a peculiar choice. He may be Test cricket’s greatest bowler, but the Sri Lankan added little last year and, for the money, Gloucestershire would have been better off plumping for a consistent six hitter from overseas.
Unfancied teams have succeeded in the past of course, and Gloucestershire’s team spirit was much remarked on last year. Gidman’s leadership has been impressive, and while his side lack experience, they are not short of ability. If they are to get back into Division One of the Championship, they must start well, and today’s opening game with Essex provides the first opportunity to spring a surprise.