It is a Monday morning and the Cooper Associates County Ground is covered in glorious sunshine. And, with the playing area looking green and immaculate, you could be forgiven for thinking for the briefest moment that the umpires are about to ring the bell, lead the players onto the field of play and the first ball be bowled. Then the chilly wind hits and serves as a reminder that this is December and Christmas is a mere fortnight or so away.
I’m here to meet George Bartlett who, like so many of the current squad, grew up in the south west aspiring to play for Somerset. He is one of us is George Bartlett – a fan, and a player I have wanted to speak to for a while and I am excited that now is my chance to do so. He arrives on time, offers a firm handshake and politely introduces himself. He looks remarkably fresh-faced as it is easy to forget that this young man, who has been in or around the Somerset first team squad for three to four seasons now and achieved much, is only twenty-one summers young. We sit and he starts to talk of the season past with justifiable pride; one where he was Somerset’s second-highest run scorer in the County Championship and played in a Lords final.
“Personally I am pretty happy with how it went,” he says with a smile. “Of course during a whole season you are going to get those inconsistencies with peaks and troughs, but overall I made some winning contributions to the team.
“It helps when you are in a team where winning becomes the culture and everyone works hard for each other,” he adds. “You grab momentum from the start of the season, and we did that and managed to carry it on throughout the year. And this made things a little bit easier for me.”
But George’s introduction to first-class cricket could hardly be described as easy. In September 2017, with his club heavily embroiled in a relegation battle, and looking highly likely to drop out of the top tier of the County Championship, he was handed a debut at Edgbaston, and would feature in all of the final four matches that would determine Somerset’s future. It was a baptism of fire for the young man. Somerset famously won three of these games to guarantee safety and George scored his first first-class runs – 100 to be precise – including three useful scores in the twenties to make his mark.
Prior to his county debut George made a name for himself representing England at under-19 level. On 26th July 2016, on his Youth Test debut, he hit India for 131 at Fenners. And then in February 2017 he scored 179 off the same opponents at Nagpur to record the highest individual score for the u-19 team on foreign soil, thereby beating a record previously held by Nassar Hussein. His 630 runs coming at 57.3.
And he has gone from strength to strength. In 2018 he played six times for Somerset and, in the second game of the campaign, scored a maiden first-class century at Old Trafford whilst sharing a partnership of 134 with the legend that is Marcus Trescothick. And in 2019 he featured 14 times adding two more hundreds and three fifties to his career stats. His haul of 718 runs bettered only by skipper Tom Abell. So did he feel he was now a firm fixture in the first team?
“Yes I guess, but you always know you need to keep performing, especially at a club like Somerset, because there are people that can easily take your place,” he says honestly. “So you know there’s a need to keep getting better. But I was lucky enough to get my opportunities in red ball cricket and found a bit of form in white ball cricket too, so to be a part of that for a whole season was great. It was an eye-opener and really good fun.”
One odd statistic is that all of George’s championship centuries have been achieved away from home. That maiden century against Lancashire was complimented by tons at Trent Bridge and Guildford last season, so is it an obvious ambition to get a century at Taunton now?
“It is, and I do think about that actually,” he says smiling. “But as a batsman you take them (centuries) wherever you can get them but I would love to get one at Taunton. This season I got to 60 or 70 against Hampshire here and I was eyeing it up but unluckily got out. But it is something I want to do and hope there’s a few to come very soon.”
His success is richly deserved and achieved after much hard work and dedication. He has been around the county set-up for years and has had to adapt to the physical and mental demands of the game, practicing a positive mindset and self-belief: “I was at Somerset from a very early age in the under-10s, so have been here a long time and worked with most of the coaches,” he recalls. “But there comes a time around 15 or 16 when you need to push on, become part of the academy and get more one-on-one time with the coaches.
“It’s not always an easy transition, and there were various stages where I wondered if I was good enough, and whether the coaches liked me especially with other players doing well. So there’s always question marks even at a young age. But you just have to make the most of every opportunity.”
He adds: “There is a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. You have to have confidence and have that something about you as you can’t shy away from things especially in the first team environment. You have to always be up for the challenge. And when you have done well…this breeds a belief. But equally you have to stay grounded too.”
As well as his successes in the four-day game, 2019 was ground-breaking for George as he played List A cricket for Somerset for the first time, making his debut at Sussex on 24th April, and featuring in a further eight games including the final of the Royal London One Day Cup when he held two vital catches and was at the crease when James Hildreth hit the winning runs. It offered lasting memories for the young man: “It was fantastic. Those catches were hanging in the air for ages but you have to keep as calm as you can. Once you get under it you just have to back yourself. Hearing the crowd roar behind me when I held them was something else. Everything about the day was exceptional and something I will never forget.”
In all George helped himself to 207 runs at 34.5 during the campaign including an unbeaten fifty against Surrey. With everything that is happening in the game in the next year, Somerset are likely to field a primarily young side in the fifty-over tournament in 2020 and George will be one of the more experienced heads in the Somerset camp. He is looking forward to it and hopeful of extending his one-day appearances.
“Yes definitely looking forward to that,” he says emphatically. “It’s weird to say I will be one of the more experienced players having played just one season, but this offers all the guys who will be in the 50-over squad a chance to put some runs or wickets on the board and hopefully we will win the competition with that younger side.
“We will certainly play to win with whatever side we put out – that will always be our ethos. And I want to break into the T20 team as there is a lot more white ball cricket to come from me.”
Playing for Somerset, as with any professional sport, can carry huge demands, especially with such a large and passionate fan base. But George appreciates the Somerset crowd and in particular two members of his family whose support is constant. “I was lucky to grow up here and watch Somerset as a boy so know what it’s like to be a fan here…and the exceptional support we get,” he says. “You can almost take it for granted. Then you go to those away grounds and even the support we get away is fantastic as our fans travel in numbers.
“It really does help us and potentially gives us an extra edge with so many people who come to watch us week in and week out. And they appreciate the cricket we play too.
“My parents are always there to support me. They come to watch most games and are proud that I am out there playing for Somerset. It’s great to have that support…especially when things aren’t going your way which happens in cricket at times. But they know what makes me tick and what to say to pick me up.”
George has opted to winter at home this year despite offers to venture to sunnier climes. Although the training continues and remains demanding, a winter in the UK offers him the opportunity to rest body and soul. And relax. And follow his football allegiance, Chelsea. But he does admit that it is strange having so few of the players around the CACG in the winter months. “It’s nice to have a bit of a break from cricket occasionally,” he insists. “I’m staying here to iron out a few niggles that I picked up throughout the season, so hopefully I’ll be fully fit for Abu Dhabi, so I’m working with the few (players) that are here. There aren’t many around – about six or seven of us – as most are around the world at the moment experiencing different things, which is great for them.
“The brilliant thing about winter is we get weekends off and you can see friends and family because summer is jam-packed and so full on. Our training is only until two-ish on weekdays so after that the players have a coffee somewhere in Taunton or go to each other’s houses. Things like that. Normal stuff.”
He adds: “I went to Perth a few years ago, which was a really good experience for me, and I loved every minute of it and want to go back. But the last few years haven’t been the right time. I had a shoulder operation last year. But I hope to go away over the next few years and experience different things.”
And with that we shake hands again and, being the class act he is, he thanks me for my time. Here is a young man with a bright future in the game ahead of him and he easily impresses upon you that he feels privileged to do a job he loves and doesn’t take anything for granted. And he is grateful to Somerset supporters for their backing and leaves me with a simple message for them: “Thank you for all your support throughout last year. Please keep supporting us as it means everything to us as players. Hopefully with a good, young squad we will be bringing home more silverware for years to come.”
Spoken like a true Somerset fan. He is one of us is George Bartlett.