Peter Wanless is the Chief Executive of the NSPCC, a lifelong Somerset fan and newest member of the Somerset CCC Committee.
My brother and I had little choice but to follow Somerset. Both our parents were avid supporters and once my Mum had vetoed Dad’s suggestion that we be named after Wild West cowboys, it was inevitable that we would be given cricketers’ names. I am a tribute to Peter Wight and my brother was named after Graham Atkinson. I’d love to know if there is a glut of Marcus’s growing up around Taunton these days. There should be.
Somerset quickly taught me how to cope with disappointment. We lived in Chippenham, so with Taunton being a bit of a trek, most of our cricket watching was done seeing our heroes play on the “out-grounds” at Bath, Street, Glastonbury, Weston Super Mare and the old Bristol Imperial. Bath was closest to home; the Festival a highlight of every summer; and the John Player League game on a Sunday the absolute pinnacle. My Mum would drum it into us that when it came to sport, it was the taking part that counts – an obvious lesson perhaps for fans of a county who had never won anything, ever. But as a young, ambitious lad I wanted more and was constantly let down. Sometimes I wondered if Somerset were even taking part. 1973 was particularly heartbreaking. Having waited a whole year for the Bath fixture, Hampshire bowled us out for 61 and the game was over before we’d even had a chance to buy an ice cream.
And then, gradually, a stronger team spirit began to emerge. An old, bald bloke called Brian Close had arrived and the team developed a competitive spirit. Early in 1976, they came and played a game at Chippenham in the Benson and Hedges Cup, on a wicket I’d batted on myself (briefly, it has to be said, on each occasion!) against the Minor Counties (West). My slightly rained upon scorecard shows that humiliation was on the cards. The Minor Counties quickly had us at 23 for 3 and I feared the worst. But a dogged 70 from Mervyn Kitchen saw us home. I invaded the pitch on my own at the end and secured Brian Rose’s scribble to complete a full set of Somerset team autographs.
Then, later that year, the Sunday League went down to the final game of the season. We simply had to win at Glamorgan to pick up Somerset’s first ever trophy. Even a tie would do. The BBC had Peter Walker in a helicopter, midway between Cardiff and Kent, ready to fly the trophy to its correct destination. The whole family was glued to the TV and – needless to say – Somerset faltered. To our horror, the helicopter set off in the direction of Kent, just as Kitchen and Burgess staged a recovery. I vividly remember Burgess needing to hit 3 off the last ball to tie; 4 to win. Nash was lofted to long on and Burgess began running. Colin Dredge was at the non-striker’s end. “Run Dredgie Run!” we screamed. For some reason he hesitated after 2. He had to get back for the third but he failed by inches to get home and, sure enough, Somerset’s quest for a trophy had failed again.
There was the odd moment of sunshine and glory. I recall a wonderful victory over the Australians in 1977 including a brilliant batting performance from a young Ian Botham. But it was mostly pain and 1978 was the worst of all. The Gilette Cup semi final had been typical Somerset. We amassed 287 against a strong Essex side and, despite a strong response from Essex, seemed to have it in the bag when that man Dredge again, bowling the crucial last over, produced a no-ball which, with an overthrow, left our opponents needing 3 from the last ball. Thankfully they managed just 2 and we were through having lost fewer wickets. Yet on the first weekend in September, we lost the Final to Sussex, easily, and the following day, needing a tie (again) against Essex (again) to win the John Player League, we lost by 2 runs. Dredge was there at the end just failing to get 11 from the last over. Double heartbreak. Younger supporters need to know that tendency to come second goes back a long way.
In 1979 Somerset were double champions. Our first trophies ever. It was the start of a golden period. My brother and I loved it. Our Mum was less sure. It was all getting a bit noisy and over competitive. The crowds were making it a bit of a squash. Ice creams were out of the question with queues like that. She thought we might spend a bit more time watching Gloucestershire at Bristol where everything was a bit quieter and a lot easier on the blood pressure. We quickly put her right.