Donohue looks back on season of progress for Devon

Devon before the win over Cornwall at Sidmouth

FIFTH place in the Western Division and a semi-final in the one-day Unicorns Trophy represented a turnaround for Devon in the Minor Counties season just ended.

Devon had a thoroughly miserable time in 2015: finishing winless at the bottom of the Western Division and going out of the Unicorns Trophy in the group rounds.

It had been more than 30 years since Devon had picked up the wooden spoon and it was a sign of changing times on the Minor County scene.Matt Golding - nine wicket match against Wiltshire. Photo: Pinnacle

Devon, who had won the overall title as recently as 2011, were not the force they had been as retirements and availability problems took their toll.

A run in the Unicorns Trophy lifted spirits at the start of this season and, after a defeat by Wales at Pontardullais in the three-day opener, came a tie with Herefordshire at Eastnor followed by a win over Wiltshire at Sandford.

Devon’s Matt Golding had nine wickets in the match and Jamie Stephens took seven on his debut.

Devon defied the odds to beat Cumberland at Barrow in the cup quarter-finals, fielding a side cobbled together from who could be scraped up to play. Herefordshire put Devon out at Sidmouth in the last four, but they exited with heads held high.

Devon were largely outplayed at Alderley Edge by Cheshire where the inexperience of a young side caught them out. Not for the first time though batsman Jack Dart caught the eye.

The game against Oxfordshire at Exeter was lost, but only after a contrived finish after more than a day was lost to rain.

And so to Sidmouth for the last game of the season, which was over inside two days and won by 10 wickets.

It will be remembered as Zak Bess’s game for his 166 not out in Devon’s first innings and five for 35 to bowl Cornwall out second time round.

There can’t have been too many occasions since Devon joined the Minor Counties ranks in 1901 that one of their players scored a century AND took five wickets in the same day. Answers on a postcard please.

Devon announced at the start of the season they planned to register former Somerset paceman Alfonso Thomas as a player-coach, only to run into mountains of ECB and MCCA red tape over the South African’s  eligibility. He never played a game.Zak Bess - ton and five wickets on same day

Thomas was seen as the person to provide some direction to an ostensibly young group of players. It is an open-ended question whether Devon would have fared much better with him.

Hours of committee time were expended on trying to resolve the Thomas question, with next-to-no success.

Keith Donohue, Devon’s director of cricket, stayed well out of it and concentrated on who he could pick a team from.

“As we never had Alfonso we didn’t miss him and the longer it went on the less likely it seemed we would have him at all,” said Donohue.

“I was resigned to not having Alfonso this season, but he would be a good acquisition for us if we can get him registered next year.”

Donohue said If Thomas does feature next year he will find Devon are far different set of players than they were at the start of this season.

“By the end of the season you could see we were picking the right people judged on performances,” said Donohue.

“Lots of players have had opportunities over the last two years and it is inevitable not all of them will be ready or will make it.

“What we have seen is there are young players with talent and potential out there who, given opportunities, will gel into a side that can take us forward.

“You can’t expect young players to become a championship-winning team overnight, but we are definitely moving in the right direction.

Donohue said Zak Bess was an obvious example of an improving  player, but he was not alone.

“In two seasons he has gone from complete Minor County novice to the leader of our attack,” said Donohue.

“Zak was our best bowler last year and the stats (14 wickets at 26.21) say he is right up there again.

“He consistently gets good players out and is a quality handful for our opposition. He has set a benchmark for other players to aspire to.

“Josh King is not far behind him now – what big strides he has made since coming into the team last year – and we are going to see a big performance out of him soon.

“We just seem to have a bit more depth this year. Matt Golding (17wkts) has improved as a bowler and we have seen Jamie Stephens come in and Toby Codd show he has got it too.

“Charlie Miles, our best off-spinner for the past two seasons, couldn’t get in the team by the end of the season. The challenge for him is to come back stronger.”

Devon’s one who got away this season was Heathcoat bowler Jamie Drew, whose debut bowl of seven for 15 against Herefordshire was the best ever for the county by a newcomer.

Drew didn’t play again due to sore shins, but Donohue has high hopes he will feature in 2017.

Devon’s batting remains a work in progress, but progress there definitely was in 2016.

Zak Bess toppled the aggregates and averages – 329 at 47 exactly – although the figures were skewed slightly by his 166 not out against Cornwall.

Josh Bess, back after a season in Australia, Max Curtis, Jack Dart and Dan Pyle all got 200-plus and played key innings at difficult times.

Curtis had a mixed season, Josh Bess is an established player already and Pyle an under-19 still learning the rigors of three-day cricket and the mental and physical fitness required to compete.

Dart caught Donohue’s eye because: “He has scored runs in all situations for us, sometimes when we have been in a crisis.”

There were times in 2016 when Devon were struggling to find players to pick. Donohue said it was a sign how the talent pool has expanded that is no long the case.

“By the quality of our performances this season we have upped the ante for players who want to get into the side,” he said.