Marcus Trescothick is back in action for Somerset in time for their Friends Life Twenty20 quarter-final against Essex at Taunton on Tuesday – and that will delight no-one more than Alfonso Thomas, Somerset’s stand-in captain throughout the group stages.
As Somerset bid to reach a fourth consecutive T20 final, Thomas, the leading wicket-taker in both the 2009 and 2010 tournaments, and an ever-more seasoned campaigner at 35, will be happy to focus on the powerplay and death-bowling skills that have made his name.
Cricket South Africa were so aware of the end-game expertise that Thomas brings to the table that six weeks ago they investigated the possibility that he might make himself available for World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. It would have been quite a turn-up for a player whose international career extends to a solitary T20 international in Johannesburg more than five years ago.
“A month-and-a-half ago, they wanted me to do a u-turn and make myself available for the T20 World Cup and one-dayers,” he said, “but there were a couple of speedbumps we came across along the way. At the age of 35 you have to think family more than bright lights and glamour. It was one of those things where your heart said ‘Yeah, do it’. But after a couple of days to think it through, I thought that at my age it was too big a gamble.”
In a format initially believed to favour youth – the first victorious captain, Adam Hollioake, thought, rather quaintly, that the team that scampered the most singles would win – Thomas believes that experience now often holds the key.
This is a view shared by Paul Nixon, who famously bowed out of domestic cricket with a full-length diving catch for Leicestershire in last year’s final against Somerset to dismiss Kieron Pollard.
“You have to think on your feet when you’re batting in T20 and take the right options to the right bowlers at the right time,” Nixon said. “It’s the same when bowling – the simple fact is that senior players have made those decisions more often.”
With T20 proving less ageist than first imagined, it also creates a dilemma for counties as they study their player-salary budgets and the age profile of the squads. Chasing the ECB’s age-related incentive payments rather than investing in the sometimes priceless knowledge of seniors is not the attraction it once might have seemed.
While a bowler of Thomas’ seniority, with reputation and market worth established, can attain a composure in T20 arising from self-understanding, at the other end of a cricketing career it is often not long before the audacity and impudence of youth can take a knock.
After a staggering performance at Trent Bridge at this stage of last year’s competition, Jos Buttler became the Next Big Thing only to be dismissed in consecutive T20Is in the UAE attempting his signature ramp shot. Thomas sympathises. “All of a sudden, from having this fearless way of playing, he’s now thinking ‘how are the England selectors thinking?’ ‘How do I play this? How do they want me to play this?'”
Thomas is sure, though, that Buttler, a player he rates alongside Eoin Morgan as the most disturbing to bowl at, is in safe hands, both with Somerset and England.
“I’m sure Andy Flower would have said: ‘Listen, we’ve picked you because you do hit the ball 360 degrees, and that’s how we want you to keep on playing, the way you’ve been very successful’. It does take time for youngsters to work it out. He’s got a couple more years to develop and I’m sure he’s going to be in the England blue for a very long time.”
Does Thomas feel he himself has grown cooler under pressure down the years? “I wouldn’t say I’m more relaxed, exactly”, he chuckled. “But I definitely know my game better. I have four or five deliveries I can bowl, probably with my eyes shut. First of all, you’ve got to be clear on what you’re going to do. I always give myself an option where I can bowl two balls to any one field. Once you’ve made up your mind, then you have to commit to it 100%.
“Coming to Taunton as a bowler – which most guys don’t like doing if they’re not on top of their game – you can’t just run up and bowl length. You’re going to get found out. That’s something I’ve had to learn down here.”
Essex failed to beat either of the two teams the qualified above them in South Group, but the compact dimensions at Taunton ought not to faze a side used to defending a small playing area at Chelmsford.
They also have the considerable benefit that two England batsmen, Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara, have both been made available. Even so, if the game pivots less on mobility than bowling sang-froid and power-hitting, then the Eagles will lament the absence of Owais Shah just as much as Somerset miss Pollard.
In the first of two quarter-finals scheduled for Tuesday, Sussex also have Matt Prior available after England duty against Gloucestershire at Hove. But England’s unsuccessful bowlers will be rested after their exertions at The Oval and on Wednesday that means no Tim Bresnan for Yorkshire against Worcestershire and the exclusion of Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad from Nottinghamshire’s tie against Hampshire.