|Specsavers County Championship Division One, Cooper Associates County Ground, Taunton (day four):|
|Somerset 203: Van der Merwe 60; Harmer 5-105, S Cook 4-26|
|Essex 141: Cook 53; Leach 5-32, Van der Merwe 4-41|
|Somerset (9 pts) drew with Essex (8 pts)|
Essex were crowned county champions, while Somerset missed out again, as their title decider concluded in a dramatic draw at Taunton.
Somerset had to win, but rain on all four days left them needing to take 20 Essex wickets on the final day to clinch their first Championship title.
Jack Leach’s 5-32 helped dismiss Essex for 141 in their first innings and the hosts forfeited their second innings.
That left 63 to win for Essex, who managed to see out the last hour.
As Essex’s first innings did not finish until 16:15 BST, Somerset were left with little choice but to bowl again with no time to set a bigger target.
Somerset have now finished second in Division One in three of the past four seasons, while Essex have won the title in two of the past three years.
With more than 200 overs lost to the inclement conditions over the first three days, Essex knew at stumps on Wednesday that, barring a calamitous collapse, the title was theirs.
Despite Somerset director of Cricket Andy Hurry insisting his side “would not wave the white flag”, another 90-minute delay on the fourth morning seemed to have wiped out any remote chance of forcing a victory.
When play eventually got under way at 12:00, Somerset bowled their three spinners from the off, with most fielders surrounding the bat.
Essex were content to block, aided by a couple more rain showers, with Alastair Cook nudging his way to 53 off 148 balls.
The former England captain’s dismissal by Leach sparked a flurry of quick wickets as Essex went from 102-1 to 141 all out either side of tea.
However, with just over an hour left to pick up another 10 Essex wickets, openers Cook and Nick Browne snuffed out most of the spin threat second time around.
With the game drifting to a draw, Somerset legend Marcus Trescothick came on as a substitute fielder for one final time before his retirement, but the 43-year-old could only watch Essex bat out the game.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight with the state of the wicket,” Essex captain Ryan ten Doeschate told BBC Test Match Special. “We knew it was prodigiously turning and needed some calm heads at the end there.
“I wasn’t nervous, but you never know when the wicket is spinning like that.”
What made the difference?
Three defeats to one
Essex only lost one match all summer, compared to Somerset’s three.
In the past five seasons, no champions have lost more than once, while Middlesex and Essex went unbeaten in their victorious campaigns in 2016 and 2017.
Essex also beat Somerset at Chelmsford in June – the second victory in a six-game winning streak either side of the T20 Blast.
Essex’s top six batsmen outperformed Somerset’s.
Cook averaged more than 45, while Dan Lawrence, Ravi Bopara and Tom Westley averaged just under 40 and made valuable contributions.
In contrast, Somerset skipper Tom Abell (31.50) and George Bartlett (31.21) topped their batting averages.
Their overseas batsmen – Azhar Ali, Babar Azam and Murali Vijay – scored a combined total of 426 runs at an average of just 20.29.
James Hildreth, a rock in Somerset’s line-up for the past 15 years, also endured his leanest ever season, scoring 553 runs in the Championship at 23.04.
Most of Essex’s title-winning side in 2017 are still in their starting XI. They have also been boosted by the availability of Cook for the whole campaign following his retirement from England duty at the end of last summer.
South African off-spinner Harmer has arguably bettered his outstanding season two years ago by upping his number of wickets to 83.
For Somerset, their cause was not helped by losing leading wicket-taker LeWIS Gregory with a foot injury at the start of August, along with key spinner Leach to England.
It is the second time in four years they have been pipped to the title in the final round, following more heartbreak in 2016.
The penultimate week
In short, Essex dished out a pasting to Surrey in the previous round, beating them by an innings.
Somerset, on the other hand, were undone by Kyle Abbott’s masterclass at Hampshire. The seamer’s match figures of 17-86, the fourth best in County Championship history, resulted in a 136-run defeat and Essex moving 12 points clear.
A unique double
Essex have lifted their eighth County Championship trophy just five days after winning a maiden T20 Blast title, and become the first county to win both in the same season.
In his post-match interview at Finals Day, Harmer said people still thought of Essex as a “small club” and did not take them seriously.
“We’ve played out of our skin for nine games, and you still come to the last game of the season and you need to play well to win,” ten Doeschate added.
“It’s very rewarding. The team’s come a long way in the last five or six years.”