Dave Nosworthy has one of the hardest jobs in cricket and his first examination begins on Wednesday: can he teach Somerset how to win? Ever since their last trophy, the Twenty20 Cup in 2005, Somerset have routinely and painfully come within a stump's width of glory, in all forms of the game.
They have nearly regained their Twenty20 title, losing the final in 2009, 2010 and 2011, before going out at the semi-final stage last year. They came second in the NatWest Pro40 in 2009, and were runners-up in the Clydesdale Bank 40 in 2010 and 2011. And then, of course, there is the County Championship, in which they were runners-up last year and in 2010, and have finished in the top four for the last five years. They begin their First Division campaign away at Durham, hoping to finally go one better.
Somerset, clearly, are the best nearly men in cricket, a team always on the very brink of success but never quite able to complete the job. The issue cannot be technical – their cricket must be good for them to get that close that often – but psychological instead.
So Nosworthy, their new director of cricket, knows exactly what he has to do at Taunton. "That is one of the areas we have discussed most – how to get across that line," said the South African soon after his winter appointment. "Unfortunately, it hasn't been achieved in recent seasons, so it is definitely a goal for all of us – to get across that line and get a few trophies in the cabinet."
Last year's failure to clinch the County Championship was particularly frustrating, as Somerset are still to win the title and there seems to be some psychological block, which Nosworthy must eliminate. "The County Championship is obviously a big one for everyone, because it has never been done by the club before," he explained. "Focusing too much on that can lead to you under-performing, so it's important to follow the processes and allow the players to play with freedom and get on with the job. If you focus on doing that, more often than not, you will end up being successful."
Somerset will hope to produce the same weight of runs that was so important to them last season. They had the two top-scoring batsmen in first-class cricket, in Nick Compton (1,494) and James Hildreth (1,214). Compton is now an England Test opener and while he should be available for three of Somerset's first four games, they will start to miss him when New Zealand and Australia begin their respective Test series this summer. Alviro Petersen, their overseas player, will not arrive in time for the game but eventually should be a good like-for-like replacement for Compton.
And then, of course, there is Marcus Trescothick, their 37-year-old inspiration, who is returning from winter ankle surgery and scored 106 in a warm-up game against Derbyshire last week. If that is not enough firepower they have Craig Kieswetter and Jos Buttler further down the order, depending on commitments to the England one-day set-up.
If they all combine successfully, Somerset will score a lot of runs very quickly. What might be harder, along with the obvious mental issues, is taking 20 wickets.
Their attack leaders, Steve Kirby and Alfonso Thomas – who did turn down a lucrative IPL season with Pune this year – are 35 and 36 respectively and at risk of picking up injuries. Peter Trego took 50 first-class wickets last season but cannot be guaranteed to do so again this year. Gemaal Hussain has done not very much at all in his two years at Somerset and needs to do far more in 2013.
So Somerset may have to look to their younger bowlers as they attempt to assemble an attack which can win them enough games through what may be a weather-afflicted season. George Dockrell, the 20-year-old Irish slow left-armer who has played 30 ODIs and 19 T20 internationals, will certainly be called upon, as will the thrilling Overton twins, both of whom turn 19 on Wednesday. Jamie is an opening bowler and Craig is an all-rounder – they are both 6ft 6in boys from Devon, for whom the word "strapping" was invented. They have both played for England Under-19s and Craig played in Australia for England Lions earlier this year. There is a lot of excitement around the pair.
For Somerset to convert their talent to trophies they will have to beat champions Warwickshire, taught to win by Ashley Giles, who is now with England. Angus Fraser is also building something impressive at Middlesex and has signed up the promising bowler James Harris, while Nottinghamshire will challenge once again.
Surrey, the galacticos of the First Division, should be in a position to improve on last year's painful season and challenge for the title now South Africa captain Graeme Smith is at the helm.
However, all the ingredients are nearly there for Somerset, who open up against Durham at Chester-le-Street. Trouble is, "nearly" is not a word Somerset like very much.
Last year's champions are favourites to retain the title despite losing director of cricket Ashley Giles to England. Dougie Brown is in charge with the same talent, including Rikki Clarke, Chris Woakes, Keith Barker and Varun Chopra.
Captain Jim Troughton
Title-winning odds 4-1
Yorkshire may pay for winning promotion back to the First Division. Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root played for England this winter and, with Anthony McGrath retired, there could be a gap in their batting. Liam Plunkett may strengthen the bowling.
Captain Andrew Gale
Surrey's aim to bring in more experience went beyond Vikram Solanki and Gary Keedy to include two genuine modern greats – Ricky Ponting and Graeme Smith. Whether they can win the title, time will tell but it will certainly be worth watching.
Captain Graeme Smith
Sussex is a good place for cricketers to develop and Rory Hamilton-Brown and Chris Jordan, signed from Surrey, should bring youth and talent. A more likely threat in one-dayers than the Championship, Sussex should still be able to stay up.
Captain Ed Joyce
Powerful batting should make Somerset competitive. So the challenge this season is for last year's runners-up to bring through their young bowling talent and overcome the psychological issues which have seen them so close to trophies so often.
Captain Marcus Trescothick
Third in 2012 was a stark improvement after years of underachievement. With young seamer James Harris from Glamorgan bolstering a dangerous pace attack and new captain Chris Rogers, they could be a good bet for a first crown since 1977.
Captain Chris Rogers
Some interesting additions to the squad including Australia opener Ed Cowan and former England ODI bowler Ajmal Shahzad, but still appear to be lacking in the pace department to be able to mount a serious title challenge.
Captain Chris Read
The surprise winners of the Second Division last year are back in the top flight for the first time since 2000. Former academy director Karl Krikken has overseen the transformation but survival will be their priority under new captaincy.
Captain Wayne Madsen
Paul Collingwood helped turn the 2008 and 2009 champions' season around when relegation looked likely. This time, much will depend on the form and fitness of the seam attack led by another former England player, Steve Harmison.
Captain Paul Collingwood
After winning just two Championship games last year Northamptonshire needed to improve their attack. Trent Copeland, the big Australian fast bowler, will need to make a quick impact, because he is being replaced by Cameron White in June.
Captain Stephen Peters
After relegation, Worcestershire must now rebuild. Without Vikram Solanki, there is real responsibility on the shoulders of talented youngsters Alexei Kervezee and Moeen Ali, as well as overseas player Thilan Samaraweera.
Captain Daryl Mitchell
After their Championship triumph in 2011, Lancashire looked so drained last year that they were relegated. Now they must rebuild a team befitting the revamped Old Trafford. Simon Katich and Kabir Ali should be wise additions.
Captain Glenn Chapple
After finishing ahead of only two other counties last time, Leicestershire will hope for some meagre improvement this season. Youngsters Shiv Thakor, James Sykes and Nathan Buck will have to lead the way.
Captain Ramnaresh Sarwan
Last year's promising campaign ended with Rob Key's young side just missing out on promotion. Now with England reserve spinner James Tredwell calling the shots, they should be in the mix again.
Captain James Tredwell
After the glory years of numerous one-day titles at the turn of the century, there is a more realistic air to proceedings this time, despite the return of coach John Bracewell. Will do well to avoid the wooden spoon again.
Captain Michael Klinger
The glamour of Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen may have long departed but there is something brewing at the Rose Bowl under the captaincy of Jimmy Adams. Overseas imports Saeed Ajmal and George Bailey will help.
Captain Jimmy Adams
Disappointing campaign tailed off towards the end of last season. The England captain, Alastair Cook, will be available for the first couple of fixtures but the onus will be on Ravi Bopara to prove he still has something to offer.
Captain James Foster
The loss of James Harris to Middlesex has underlined the difficulties of keeping home-grown talent and the retirement of Robert Croft will also be a big blow. A repeat of last season's sixth place may be the limit of their ambitions.
Captain Mark Wallace
Odds 16-1Reuse content