Somerset Cricketers: a very personal review

The much anticipated (by me) third volume of this wonderful series landed through my front door on Wednesday. For me this one has special significance – it is the one that ends with my first season watching Somerset and chronicles the names I grew to love and longed to have watched when my Dad regaled me with his memories of the 50s and 60s.

I’ve been working my way through volumes 1 & 2 by Stephen Hill and Barry Phillips since the first volume was published late in 2016. I’ve found that these are books that are best approached with regular dips in and out rather than a cover to cover attack. I tend to just pick up where I left off, read half a dozen biographies and savour the richness of the individual stories. I’ve found constant solace in dipping in and out as the mood takes me, whether over the long winter months or on a summer evening.

The dedication, research and detail that has gone into all three volumes is mind-boggling. Truly a labour of love. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of time that has been invested in this project but what is most admirable is the determination to track down every one of the individual’s stories. There must have been many frustrations along the way and times when the authors thought they’d been beaten.

One overriding thought that this series brings to the forefront of my mind is how lucky we are as Somerset supporters to follow a county club with such an identity, such a rich tapestry of characters certainly unparalleled in world cricket. But also a club at which, until sometime in the 60s, the thought of being competitive of trying to actually win something didn’t occur to the powers-that-be!

Interestingly each volume has, to me, a different flavour. The first is as much social history of Taunton and Somerset as it is a series of mini-biographies. The second has a slightly more sombre feel dealing as it does with the dual cataclysms that were the world wars and the period in between. It is impossible not to feel the heavy hand of conflict’s effect on the county club. Fortunately, there are many fantastic stories and great names to bring back a smile and the thoughts of summer sunshine and the crack of bat on willow fresh to the mind.

This third volume begins with the players who represented the county in 1939 re-assembling at the county ground. Remarkably pretty much all that season the playing staff was made up of returnees, players who had had the best years of their careers taken away from them. And yet, as ever with Somerset, there was a joy obvious to all in the way the county played.

The years just after the war coincided with my Dad beginning to follow Somerset closely. Apart from his national service in the early fifties he was a regular at the County Ground throughout that period. Long suffering he clearly was as the county reeled off wooden spoon after wooden spoon but whenever we talked about the club’s history and those years (which was very frequently) the love he had for those players, for his team was evident.

So for me this is a hugely emotional read. I’m not ashamed to say that I have been in tears already as I have leafed through this book and am holding them back as I write this, but this one is for my Dad and his voice is everywhere as I read.

When I was seven he took me to my first game – a Saturday, the first day of a championship game – almost 48 years ago to the day – against Warwickshire. He imbued in me the reason why we are Somerset, our identity, our pride. In those days there were occasional glimpses of promise, fleeting runs in the Gillette Cup or a run of Sunday League wins. But over the many long summers of my childhood every trip to a game, home or away was a mixture of the here and now and a retelling of the lore of the past of our great club.

Dad was a lifelong Tauntonian so he knew a large number of the players quite well. I was often left speechless as one of the current or past Somerset XI would stop and chat to Mum and Dad in Taunton on a Saturday morning.

But there were many names that he told me about in such a loving way that I longed to be able to go back and see them play. Wellard, Gimblett, Andrews, Buse, Hazell, Stephenson, Tremlett and many many more. 

The timeline also means that I have my own personal connection with several of the names in this book who coached and mentored me in my formative playing years. 

But I’m going to pick out just one who, apart from my Dad, was the biggest influence of my childhood academically and on the cricket field. Roy Smith. He and Dad were contemporaries at Huish’s and he taught me maths when I went there in the 70s. For four years he made maths my favourite subject with his bubbly personality and flair for helping us remember important concepts. I can still picture him introducing us to trigonometry with the never to be forgotten way to remember sines, cosines and tangents. “It’s easy Soh-Cah-Toa – its New Zealand for aye up there’s an emu coming.”

Roy Smith was a wonderful cricket coach. He probably saw that I was never going to be good enough to make the county staff but that didn’t stop him pouring hours after school into my coaching. Converting me from spinner to seamer after a winter growth spurt and trying to get me to concentrate on my batting and “stop throwing it away when you’ve got a start”.

He would always end net sessions by batting with prizes on each stump, off was a pasty, middle a doughnut and leg a bag of crisps all from the school tuck shop. I’m pretty certain most of those snacks were not entirely earned on merit.

But the real measure of the man was his modesty. He never told us of his trials for Liverpool or Spurs, never mentioned that innings against the Aussies, rarely spoke about his contemporaries despite frequent pleas to do so. He even took my constant ribbing that his only first-class hundred was at Frome which was said to be the smallest of the ground Somerset played on, in good heart.

Roy Smith epitomises everything that Somerset Cricket is about. 

Volume 3 ends in 1970. The next arrival to be documented will be Brian Close and that is when the story truly changes. I can’t wait.