After a 2019 county campaign in which Essex pipped Somerset in a Championship decider and both sides won white-ball trophies, Ben Kosky reflects on the big stories…
The destiny of the County Championship crown boiled down to a final-game shootout between the two main contenders – and consigned Somerset to the role of bridesmaids yet again.
Alongside Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire, the Taunton side are the only county never to have hoisted the Championship pennant – and the long wait continues after Essex sentenced them to their third runners-up spot in four years.
Between them, the two Championship front-runners also swept the domestic white-ball scene, both fighting back from the verge of elimination to pick up a limited-overs trophy apiece.
We take a look back at the highs and lows of an enthralling county season in 2019…
Essex hold on at Taunton to seal title
Essex had been unexpected title winners in 2017 – and the notion that they might repeat that achievement looked somewhat unlikely after crashing to an innings defeat in their opening fixture against Hampshire.
However, that proved to be Essex’s only loss of the campaign, with spinner Simon Harmer returning a haul of 83 wickets as they won nine games out of 11, including a 151-run victory over Somerset at Chelmsford in June.
Until then, the West Country side had looked unstoppable, but their lead was gradually whittled away and Essex edged ahead of them by 12 points going into the decider at Taunton.
Rain reduced the four days’ play to the equivalent of one and a half and, although Essex bowled their hosts out for 203, Jack Leach’s 5-32 restricted them to 141 in reply.
With time running out, Somerset forfeited their second innings in a desperate gamble, but the visitors batted out the final hour for the loss of one wicket to secure the draw and the title.
Winless Notts go down, Lancashire return as champions
Nottinghamshire’s atrocious form meant that the relegation issue was settled relatively quickly, with only one team going down to Division Two – the Trent Bridge side failing to win any of their 14 Championship matches.
On the flip side, Lancashire returned to the top flight with the minimum of fuss, completing their Division Two campaign undefeated and sealing the title in their penultimate game.
The scrap for the other two promotion spots was more hotly-contested, with Northamptonshire – who had failed to win at all in the first half of the season – storming through to snatch second place.
Alex Wakely’s decision to stand down as captain in favour of Adam Rossington appeared to galvanise the Wantage Road side, while Gloucestershire also recovered from a slow start to finish third and return to Division One for the first time since 2005.
Sibley plays long game, Kent veteran forces U-turn
Only one batsman amassed a four-figure aggregate in Division One – Dom Sibley, whose long hours at the crease for Warwickshire eventually earned him a place in England’s winter Test squad.
Sibley amassed 1,324 Championship runs in a struggling side, averaging almost 70 and including a mammoth innings of 244 against Kent that took up almost 11 hours.
Hassan Azad was the next-highest scorer – despite Leicestershire’s lean year as they picked up the wooden spoon again in Division Two – while Marnus Labuschagne’s five centuries in 10 games for Glamorgan helped to catapult him into Australia’s Ashes side.
Meanwhile, veteran all-rounder Darren Stevens, whose Kent career appeared over after he was loaned to Derbyshire with his contract running out, managed to prompt a change of heart at Canterbury.
Stevens finished the season with three five-wicket hauls and a double hundred against Yorkshire to earn himself a new contract at the age of 43.
Hildreth secures Somerset silverware
There was a neat symmetry to Somerset’s success in the Royal London One-Day Cup as James Hildreth – who had hit the winning runs the last time they won a trophy, 14 years earlier – did the honours again.
Hildreth’s unbeaten 69 from 68 balls steered Somerset to a six-wicket victory against Hampshire as they overhauled the holders’ total of 244-8 in what was largely a one-sided final at Lord’s.
Somerset reached the final the hard way as, having won their first four group matches, they then lost three in a row and needed to win the last one against Surrey to stay in the competition.
Having done so, Tom Abell’s team then racked up successive totals of 337 to triumph in a play-off at Worcestershire before overcoming Nottinghamshire by 115 runs in their Trent Bridge semi-final.
Bopara’s heroics bring Blast success for Eagles
All-rounder Ravi Bopara clinched the first part of a memorable Essex double with an unbeaten 36 from 22 deliveries to guide the Eagles to their first Vitality Blast triumph at Edgbaston.
Bopara’s innings turned the tide in Essex’s favour as they successfully chased down defending champions Worcestershire Rapids’ total of 145-9, with Simon Harmer hitting Wayne Parnell’s final ball for four to seal a four-wicket win.
The Eagles had only scraped through the group stages after having four games washed out, but they gathered momentum by stunning Lancashire Lightning in the last eight.
Essex then saw off Derbyshire Falcons by 34 runs in the second match at Finals Day – Worcestershire having squeezed past Nottinghamshire Outlaws by one run after Parnell somehow defended seven in the last over.
It was a tournament crammed with eye-catching moments, notably Colin Ackermann’s world record T20 bowling figures of 7-18 for Leicestershire against Birmingham Bears and Eoin Morgan’s innings of 83 as Middlesex completed the Blast’s highest-ever run chase of 227-4 against Somerset.
Good Knight from the KSL
England captain Heather Knight brought down the curtain on the Kia Super League as she hit the winning boundary to seal Western Storm’s second title.
Knight hit an undefeated 78 from 53 balls as she and India’s Deepti Sharma shared an unbroken partnership of 71 to guide Storm to a four-wicket victory in the final against Southern Vipers at Hove.
Storm dominated the final edition of the KSL, losing only once in the group stage against Yorkshire Diamonds as they topped the table.
Dani Wyatt, who headed the run charts with 466 in the tournament, top-scored again with 73 to help the Vipers post 172-7, but it was not enough as Knight and Sharma secured the trophy with six balls to spare.
All change for 2020
The introduction of The Hundred, which will be staged in July and August next year, has led to a shake-up of the domestic schedule, with half of the County Championship programme to be completed by late May.
T20 cricket will be the focus for June and early July, with the One-Day Cup running alongside the Hundred and the finals of both competitions to take place in September, along with the conclusion of the Championship.