There has been a mutually beneficial association between King’s College and Somerset County Cricket Club for many years. Based in South Road in Taunton, this independent secondary and boarding school has been producing county cricketers for Somerset for over one hundred years and they are going stronger than ever.
Among the first to represent the cider county were identical twin brothers Sydney and Dudley Rippon, who attended King’s College before making their Somerset debuts in 1914. Both men’s careers spanned the First World War despite both being wounded in action. The twins opened for Somerset and would amuse themselves by changing clothing and head gear to confuse the scorers.
Today King’s enjoys the status of being a Centre of Cricketing Excellence, with current Somerset stars Eddie Byrom and Tom Banton also educated there. Other former players include Alex Barrow, Craig Meschede, Tom Webley and James Regan.
In March the school’s new and highly impressive Sports Performance and Cricket Centre was opened by their most famous former pupil, Jos Buttler, who has been in such fine form for England against the Pakistanis in the recent test series and against the Aussies in the ODIs.
There is also a strong Somerset presence in the coaching team. Phil Lewis is the Director of Sport at King’s, and coaches the 1st XI. He played for Somerset 2nds and first-class cricket for Loughborough. Head of Cricket, Rob Woodman played for Somerset and came through the academy system. He is now in charge of running the cricket programme. Club legend Dennis Breakwell continues to coach many of our pupils and runs a spin clinic throughout the winter which the boys love. Alex Barrow has worked with the batters and wicket keepers and is starting a new role coaching at Kings Hall as well. Ben Phillips has also helped with some Strength and Conditioning and seam bowling sessions but other commitments dictate that he spends a little less time at King’s at the moment.
The sight of the College is impressive enough from the main entrance in South Road, but venture to the rear and the facilities are simply fantastic. Six high quality pitches and first-class quality surroundings. The new Centre impresses from the outside and inside too. It has been in the planning for several years and finally opened earlier this year after a few issues to overcome. The facility offers pupils the unique chance to play games of cricket in various forms throughout the calendar year and this is a definite benefit for King’s.
“We were hoping it would be open over the winter but planning permission delayed it by a number of months”, Phil says, “and even though the weather this summer has been brilliant we have been using the centre a lot as the surface in here is good and we can open it up (the side window vents) all the way along so that it feels like you are training outside anyway.”
“It means we can pull back the nets and have a full five-a-side intense training session, where they run between the wickets and so adds to the intensity of training we can offer here.”
Phil played through the age groups at Somerset, making it to the 2nd XI, whilst attending Loughborough University, where he studied Sports Science, and for whom he played five first-class matches as a seam-bowling all-rounder. But, by his own admission, he was unlikely to carve out a career with bat in hand as injury hampered his playing days. But his brief time as a first-class cricketer handed him a great grounding and he made some good friends and has some great memories:
“One of my best friends is Tom Webley, another former student at King’s”, he says. “We had some great times playing for school and Somerset together and also against each other when he was in the Cambridge UCCE. He wasn’t happy when I got him out a couple of times! We have since coached against each other where he is the Head of Cricket at Merchant Taylors school, Northwood.
“During my playing days I had a huge amount of fun. I bowled to Kevin Pietersen, when he was a youngster at Notts, and Mike Hussey too. And I faced some of my heroes – Devon Malcolm, Phil De Freitas, who were still rapid and did all sorts with the ball!
“And one of my not so happy memories was being hit for the biggest six ever seen at the Oval by Adam Hollioake, who danced down the wicket to me and cleared the stand behind me”.
“I didn’t play for long but was lucky to have experienced what I did as a young player and that was crucial to me as a coach because, although I never got to the very top, I was a real thinker of the game and allowed me to form a great understanding of how to develop players and what they go through.
And if asked to name his hero from his playing days then the answer is one of Somerset’s finest ever: “Marcus for me”, he says emphatically, “although he is not much older. But you see what he has done and just the way he goes about the game and the way he talks about it. He has become a great fellow coach to talk to and we enjoy catching up when he makes the odd appearance on the sidelines.”
Towards the end of his playing days, Phil got a stress fracture in his back and this all but killed his cricket career. But he didn’t dwell on this for too long and soon had in place a plan for the next chapter in his career:
“I landed a cricket coaching job at Sherborne School and was already getting through the various level qualifications. And I played minor counties cricket for Dorset for two years while I was there.
I trained as a teacher then landed the job here.”
And it was at Sherborne that Phil first saw a young player who would develop into one of the finest talents in the country and become a future England one-day captain:
“In my first year at Sherborne Jos Buttler was in the third form playing as a first-teamer for King’s,” he recalls. “Even though he was out quite early you could see he had it – I had never seen a 13-year-old look so comfortable at that level. For me part of the excitement coming over to King’s was knowing I had this youngster coming through the ranks.
“He thinks and we think that he would have made it regardless of where he went – he was that good. But it was the grounding he had here; the characters he got to mingle with and how he got to develop in a really strong cricket environment that gave him what he needed to kick on.
“The sportsmanlike way he goes about things is just second to none.
“Jos pretty much started a new era and the production line of Somerset players going through the system from King’s.”
Somerset is a county awash with fine educational institutions. In the town there is Taunton School, Richard Huish and Queens College who offer competition for King’s. Millfield School in Street has produced more Somerset players than any other and there are good things happening nearby at Wellington School. So what Phil thinks hands King’s an advantage over this illustrious competition?
“I think we got ahead of the game with our programme and what we could produce for our players”, he says, “and that gave us an edge over our competitors. But also the environment and the culture is here already. Many other schools have employed some good coaches and in some respects we know that a King’s scalp will be top of most of our competitor’s aims for the season.
“The cricketers that come here train hard, are down to earth and support each other. They are encouraged to have fun and we feel we have got that culture just right for both the boys and girls who play cricket here.
“Every year we have talented youngsters come through so we mix them with the seniors to show them how hard we train, what standards we set and what we expect of our players. It’s something we worked really hard on ten years ago and although there is always room for improvement things continue to work really well here and long may it continue.”
That said, King’s is very much a community operation and not an institution to benefit the affluent only. If a talented youngster is spotted playing for one of the less fashionable local clubs then there are still opportunities available to get involved at King’s. In fact one young player from the midlands has progressed to the Somerset first team this season.
“We don’t want to be too insular and become a closed shop,” Phil insists. “We have this MCC hub scheme where we use our facility and coaching where we provide an accessible coaching environment for local state school kids get to come to private schools and use our facilities.
“They don’t have to pay for it as it is a system that is trying to develop cricket locally.
“We have some who come from non-affluent backgrounds who can apply for bursary’s, which is a support mechanism financially that the school has set up, to give opportunities for families desperate to come here.
“We picked up Tom Banton at sixth form on a minimal scholarship and were so impressed with him – he ticked every box as he was raw, talented but needed a lot of refining – that we wanted to support him into the county system and help him through the process. Things were rocky for him at Warwickshire and he didn’t feel he was getting the opportunities he needed. They had a big second team squad and he wasn’t getting into that.
“He came down here without a view to wanting to kick on but naturally fell into the process, then Steve Snell saw him play and that was it. That was brilliant for us.”
But players will not develop until they face competitive and aggressive cricket. And King’s work with local clubs to introduce the youngsters into club cricket, and the demands of playing league cricket.
“We have a great system where we have a first team squad and we try and get 3-4 of these players playing club cricket as quickly as we can and harden them up a bit by putting them into men’s cricket and out of their comfort zone. And we rotate it that way. This to give them the resilience so they can kick on as players.”
But with the very best will in the world not all the pupils will progress to county cricket, and the likes of Jos Buttler, with all his skill and innovation, will come along only now and then. But the school continues to develop not just sportsmen and women but build people ready for whatever life throws at them. But it satisfies Phil to see players develop into professional cricketers.
“A lot of players do come to us with the hope and dream of playing for Somerset, but we don’t have an allegiance to any one county, and we have had players go on to play for Glamorgan, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire recently.
“Rob (Woodman) and I are such big Somerset fans and we are just trying to help the whole process to produce top players. And at the very heart of Somerset County Cricket Club is the players that are coming through now.
“For us it is a bonus when we produce professionals but what we do is give them the tools so that when they leave here they are the best they can be, with the best knowledge. That is our number one aim with every pupil.”
King’s College is a fantastic facility. To walk the grounds is awe inspiring but it is so much more than some well-tended cricket pitches and buildings. The expertise and commitment from Phil and his team shines through. It is no fluke that this institution has produced such great young cricketers for Somerset and beyond.
And you can be sure that King’s College will be producing more great players in the years to come. More Banton’s, Byrom’s and – we hope – Buttler’s.