It is hard to think of James Hildreth as one of the elder statesmen of Somerset. The fresh face and boyish good looks remain but this is actually his 16th pre-season being a professional cricketer for the cider county having made his debut in 2003. And the 33-year-old batsman still looks forward to spring and a new campaign.
“I still get excited at this time of year mainly because we haven’t won the Championship yet,” he explains. “So that is always going to be a goal. So every season we head into it with the expectations and excitement that we might finally win it. That gives us an aim, a focus, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Having come so close to winning a famous first title in 2016, last season was one of some struggle in the Championship but in the last four games the team showed their quality to avoid relegation to the second tier.
“Yes that was brilliant,” he says with a beaming smile. “We had guys who found form at the right time and at the same time, which we rarely had earlier in the year. And we had that goal, we had that focus, so we did what we had to do. But, of course, we need to find that form at the beginning of the season.
“But we had great camaraderie, showed great team spirit and we were winning which always helps.”
Although 2017 was not the most productive for the lad born in Milton Keynes and who schooled at Millfield, but he still enjoyed a decent season that ended strongly with a crucial century in the final match of the season against Middlesex at Taunton. He helped himself to 1,224 runs across the formats, finishing 45th in the County Championship batting averages with 756 runs – the second highest run scorer in red ball cricket for Somerset – at 30.56 including two 50s and two hundreds. His top score was 109. He added 175 one-day cup runs (including 2x50s) and 293 runs in the t20 Blast. And it was his Benefit Year too as he managed to avoid the benefit year blues that some of his predecessors endured.
“It was a nice year and one I will look back on with fond memories,” he admits. “When I started playing for Somerset I would have been happy to be around long enough to have a Benefit Year and the supporters were very supportive. They were brilliant to me.”
But Hildy is still very much looking forward and to new challenges. This is more than a new season at Taunton, it is the start of a new era with the return of old face – the man they call Sarge.
“I knew Andy from his being a coach here for years,” he says. “I know what kind of bloke he is, what drives him on and what he will bring to the club. And I think it is a great role for him, the director of cricket, as he will look after the whole pathway.
“He has a strong work ethic and he will bring the right culture to the club.”
When Hildy broke into the first team he was very much the lone bright young thing amongst older players. There seemed more pressure on him to live up to the billing. These days, of course, the academy is producing so many talented youngsters meaning that few, if any, of the Somerset squad are guaranteed their place in the first XI.
“We have some great youngsters coming through so that gives us great competition,” he says. “Obviously they are trying to knock us old blokes out of the team so we have to perform and keep getting the runs.
“And if and when they do get their chance then that is good for them as they are the ones who will take Somerset forward. So good luck to them.”
Hildy’s batting records sit alongside the greatest batsmen ever to wear the Wyvern. His 39 centuries for Somerset is bettered only by Trescothick (51), Gimblett (49) and Richards (47). Exulted company indeed. And he has passed 14,000 runs and looks set to sit alongside Gimblett and Trescothick again in the top three of highest ever runs scorers for the county before his career is finished. Only injury or a dramatic loss of form will get in his way. And he is happy to be tipped to break more records: “People mention records the more games you play, and I have more games than a lot of people.
“But I am fine with that. It helps me become a more consistent run scorer as you reach more milestones. You tick one off, then another. So in the next four or five years who knows what might happen. I’ll just keep trying to score as many runs as I can.”
And he remains desperate to play all formats for Somerset. “As long as I feel am still contributing and that I am making the team better by being in it then I will carry on, and I still feel I can do that.
“Last season in t20 cricket I had the highest strike rate in the team and was one of the top run scorers with Mybs, so definitely want to play t20.”
And Hildy feels the spirit in the dressing room is good and an important factor in helping Somerset reach his dream of that elusive first County Championship win. “It’s brilliant, really good, because we have seen some of our players representing England now in the Test team. Then there’s Dom Bess who has done well for the Lions and is pushing to play for the senior team too. And the lads in the u19s and winning series. Look at (Josh) Lammonby playing for the 19s at just 17!
“That feeling helps the club massively. We have so many players pushing through and ready to play for the first team.
“This season if we can find form at the same time then I think we will be a strong force.”