Somerset recently awarded a new four-year contract to opening batsman Tom Abell, which will keep him at the club until 2019. Jeremy Blackmore profiles the rising star and speaks to those who have followed his progress from a schoolboy prodigy to first class cricketer.
Few at Taunton Cricket Club will forget the first glimpse Tom Abell gave of just how special a young talent he is.
The 21-year-old, who has just been awarded a four-year contract by Somerset, has played for the league club since his childhood and as the club’s current vice-captain Ben Orr says, it was clear from the outset that he was a cut above most young batsmen of his age.
“A fantastic technique and a natural ease to run scoring on the pitch, partnered with a well-mannered, friendly approach off it, made it hard not to be enthusiastic about a decent young man,” says Orr.
But no-one was prepared for the innings Abell played at the age of 17 on a scorching summer’s afternoon in August 2011. Playing away to Warminster, Taunton lost the toss and were made to toil in the field as they conceded well in excess of 300.
Few in the visitors’ dressing room gave much for their chances, but having given the bowlers plenty of support throughout the heat of the afternoon, Abell was straight back out with bat in hand.
Orr takes up the story: “Now none of us expected to come close to the target, and whether Tom went out there to chase down those runs or just have a bat only he will know, but we came awfully close. Tom scored exactly 150 and, as has become the norm, there was nothing in the air.
“After an innings of bashing, big hits and massive sixes from Warminster, the way Tom set about tackling the huge total was mesmerising, just pure class and timing; back foot drives, square drives, the tuck off his legs all yielded beautiful boundaries, which raced away for four.
“Truth be known it was probably only Tom from our side that was disappointed that we had not chased down the runs [Taunton lost by just 17 runs] as the rest of us were in awe of his innings.”
Fast forward three years and it was a similar story when Abell made his first-class debut for Somerset late last summer against Warwickshire at Taunton.
The stage was perfectly set. Playing in the town of his birth for the club he supported as a boy, the match situation demanded someone to demonstrate the kind of application and concentration that had been much in evidence throughout Abell’s fledgling career with Somerset Seconds, Taunton Cricket Club and Taunton School.
If the weight of expectation weighed on his young shoulders, it didn’t show. Despite losing his partner Nick Compton to the first ball after Abell arrived at the crease – and wickets continued to fall regularly at the other end throughout the remainder of the day – the young debutant calmly made his way to a maiden first-class fifty.
By late evening, he was in sight of becoming the first Somerset man since Harold Gimblett in 1935 to make a century on debut when he chipped Jeetan Patel to William Porterfield at short midwicket, an agonising five runs short.
It had been an extremely mature knock under real pressure as no other batsman, with the exception of Lewis Gregory, had been able to apply themselves and make a score of any size.
In all Abell batted for four hours 40 minutes, facing 188 balls and gave some of his more experienced team mates a lesson in how to occupy the crease and build a score.
He went on to contribute two more half centuries in his next three Championship matches at the end of last summer, including the final game of the season away to champions Yorkshire at Headingley.
His talents were honed during his time at Taunton School where, as a prolific scorer, he was awarded the Young Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year honour for a 2012 season in which he accumulated 1,156 runs at the extraordinary average of 193. He made seven hundreds in 11 innings that summer and passed 50 every time. He also won the Cricket Society’s Wetherell Award for best all-rounder in school’s cricket in 2012 and found time to have an England trial for hockey at under 16 level.
But it was more than quantity of runs which was attracting attention; it was the way he scored them, his temperament and application.
Simon Hogg, master in charge of cricket during Abell’s time at Taunton School had the “pleasure and honour” of watching Abell score more than 3,600 runs for the first XI, including 17 centuries.
Hogg said: “He has always been a very elegant batsman, who rarely hits the ball in the air, but is capable of scoring runs all around the wicket. From a young age, his timing and placement have been outstanding and his intelligence has helped him to understand his own game particularly well. Thomas’s powers of concentration have enabled him to bat for long periods of time.”
Abell’s club chairman at Taunton, Jon Kerslake agrees: “I’ve been lucky enough to play with some wonderful emerging cricketers over the years, including the likes of Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash and Aftab Habib, but I’ve never seen anyone stroke the ball with such purity, grace and timing so consistently and from such a young age as Tom.”
Kerslake, who’s known Abell since he arrived at the club as an eight year old says he cannot speak highly enough of him in the way he conducts himself both on and off the pitch. “The great thing about him is that he’s such a fantastic young man – extremely hard-working, modest and kind. He’s an absolute credit to himself and his family and friends. He’s held in so much affection and there’s so much good will for him to do well.”
It’s a theme repeated time and again as you speak to people who’ve known and played with the young batsman.
Ben Orr: “It wasn’t hard to see Tom was destined for big things. As always though, Tom went about his business with humility and class. He is always the first to play it down and bring the focus back onto others or the game at hand.”
Taunton School Director of Sport Hayley Mortimer gave her assessment: “Tom was and always has been a very focussed and hard-working player, modest of his talents across the board in all sports. He is an excellent role model to all current pupils at the school and I am pleased to see that his hard work has paid off. It is thoroughly deserved.”
Somerset Director of Cricket Matt Maynard has acted quickly to secure Abell’s talents for the long haul. “I’ve seen something I really like in Tom. I like his character, I like what he has to offer and he’s got a lot of talent. We are delighted that he’s signed a contract that will keep him here until 2019. He is highly thought of and hopefully in the years to come, we will see him go onto big things, because he certainly has the temperament to do it.”
Abell, who has recently completed a degree in French and sports science at Exeter University, was delighted to sign his new contract: “To say that I’m chuffed to bits is an understatement,” he said. “Matt Maynard took me to one side when we were heading up to Durham [for the County Championship fixture] and outlined the club’s plans, so I was over the moon to sign.
“It’s been a bit surreal to be honest. Playing for Somerset is always something that I have wanted to do and this gives me the platform to hopefully progress over the next few years and establish myself in the team.”
He quickly rewarded that faith in him, by scoring back to back seventies in the County Championship victory against Nottinghamshire at Taunton, which helped kick start Somerset’s season. In the first innings, Abell defiantly carried his bat and was the only batsman to make a sizeable score as Somerset were shot out for 200. He faced the media at the close of play press conference that day with great maturity, answering questions about a difficult day’s play and the team’s position, languishing at the foot of Division One.
As he had at Warminster four years earlier, Abell expressed confidence that his side could chase down a huge score – this time in excess of 400 – to win. His belief turned out to be fully justified and it was fitting that it was his second innings half-century which set up the platform for Somerset to achieve the second highest run chase in their history.
Abell followed that up with an innings of 88 as Somerset overwhelmingly beat Hampshire at Southampton a week later. If he is yet to reach three figures in first-class cricket, it is surely only a matter of time.
Speaking after that game against Hampshire, skipper Marcus Trescothick, who now also coaches at Taunton School, said: “Tom Abell is a pleasure to watch from the other end. He got runs in the first innings and was not out in the second and his fielding and catching were superb.”
Typically for such a grounded young man, he still finds time for his old team mates at Taunton, where he has been a prodigious scorer, even though his appearances for his league club are likely to become fewer and fewer as his first-class career takes off.
Last year he made 770 runs for Taunton in the West of England Premier League, with a highest score of 185* at an average of 128.33 to help the club earn promotion.
Ben Orr: “It won’t come as a surprise to any that know Tom (even just a little) that whenever possible he is down supporting the boys. Never shy to show his support, you will often find Tabes popping his head round the Vale sports hall door on a cold February night to dish out some encouragement to the keener among the TCC ranks.”
Jon Kerslake recounts a recent example: Typically on the back of his runs against Notts, he was down at Gipsy Lane the following evening, copping a bit of stick from our boys about his ‘jug evasion’ on missing out on three figures. No doubt he’ll have a bit more of that to look forward after his 88 against Hampshire! One thing’s for sure though, that maiden first-class hundred for Tom is only just around the corner and when he gets it, there’ll be many, many more to follow.
There is no doubt among those who have watched his progress that Abell has the ability to go all the way in the game. Somerset are making a wise investment for the future in securing his services for the next four years.