Gloucestershire await true test of mettle after promotion that never was

Gloucestershire’s dressing room is a scene of celebration. It’s September 2019, and a rain-affected draw against Northamptonshire in the final round of County Championship fixtures has ensured both sides’ promotion to Division One. With the two squads arm in arm, spraying champagne for the cameras, seamer David Payne leads the chant of “We are going up!”

Eighteen months later, one question remains: where are they going up to? The rejigged Championship structure has cost both clubs the opportunity to test themselves against the best players in the country, and while the official plan is to revert to two divisions in 2022, there is a sense that clubs might persevere with the conference-style system for this summer if it is deemed a success.

“The fact that we got promoted in 2019 and haven’t had our day in the sun is frustrating,” Will Brown, Gloucestershire’s chief executive, admitted. “We’re intrigued by the conference stuff but, having worked so hard to get into Division One… if we were to make a call today, we’d come down on the side of two divisional cricket still. We’re on the clear understanding that the default for 2022 is Division One and Two, based on the results in 2019.”

“I’m pretty mixed with it,” Chris Dent, the club captain, said. “Selfishly as a club, we’d have liked to have played in the first division. We haven’t had that chance to play in it and that is a bit disappointing. I would imagine most first-division teams are more disappointed with it, but we’ve all got to pull together and hopefully it’ll be a good format.”

And much as the squad were disappointed to miss out on the chance to play in Division One last summer, Dent admitted that a heavy defeat against Somerset, the eventual Bob Willis Trophy runners-up, had provided a reminder as to the gap that existed between the two levels.

“If we’d have been in the first division it would have been a pretty tough grind,” he said. “We’d have been looking initially to stay up and then do as well as we can. That loss against Somerset gave us a chance to reflect and have a good look at ourselves and think ‘actually, if this had been a normal season, we probably wouldn’t have been ready’. We probably underestimated what it was like to face those guys.”

The draw for this season’s Championship has not been particularly kind to Gloucestershire, whose group – containing Hampshire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Somerset and Surrey – looks like the strongest on paper. Reinforcements are due soon in the shape of Kraigg Brathwaite and Daniel Worrall, while deals for Tom Lace and Jared Warner were finalised last summer as the club look to add depth to a talented squad.

Heading into his fourth season as captain, Dent admitted that selection would be tougher than ever this year with a slightly bigger squad, with Ian Cockbain and Benny Howell among those likely to miss out on selection at the start of the Championship season. Ryan Higgins has made major contributions with bat and ball and will continue to be the side’s talisman, while Dent’s own grit at the top of the order should prove invaluable once more.

Among those looking to make an early-season impression is James Bracey, who has spent the best part of five months shadowing the England team as a reserve over the last year. He reflected that life in biosecure bubbles involved some “tough days – but that’s not a crime” but is hopeful that he has made a good impression, and that a strong start to the Championship season will edge him closer to an international debut. He has signed a new long-term deal with his boyhood club, and has been appointed as Dent’s deputy for the season.

“1000 runs is always what you aim for,” he said. “I feel like that I still need that big season. With a run of nine games ahead to get into a rhythm… hopefully I’ll have three or four hundreds by the time that first Test comes around in June so that my name is in the hat.

“Those first introductions are so important. Ollie Pope said when he rocked up for his debut, he’d never met half the lads and it all happened very fast so hopefully it’ll be plain sailing for me when that opportunity does come. [England] have made it clear they are looking towards the Ashes and preparations this summer are for that. There’s no saying who’s going to be out there in the Tests in this summer but they’ve certainly made it clear that, if I can put performances together this summer, I’m a genuine option in Australia.”

Off the field, the club recorded a profit of over £300,000 for the last financial year – a remarkable feat in the circumstances, and thanks primarily to support from the ECB and the government. However, they are waiting nervously for further updates regarding the return of fans. In the month after the signposted lifting of Covid restrictions on June 21, they are due to host three T20 Blast games – including the derby against Somerset – as well as England men’s and women’s internationals and the Cheltenham Festival: any delay to that date could have major implications.

And there has been a big change within the coaching staff, too. After six years in post, head coach Richard Dawson left the club this week to start his new role at the ECB, with his assistant Ian Harvey stepping into the breach as interim head coach. The club will advertise for the full-time role towards the end of the season and insist they don’t want to make an appointment “behind closed doors”, but Brown accepts the year will serve as an “extended job interview” of sorts.

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