There wasn’t much for Somerset fans to cheer in their recent defeat at the hands of Durham, but a trademark batting cameo from Peter Trego might have gone some way to alleviate the pain. His innings, unlike those he made against Yorkshire a few years ago, was never going to change the game, but at least it provided some entertainment and delayed the inevitable for a little longer. A man who knew plenty about batting cameos, and also batting in a losing cause, was W.H. (or Bill) Fowler.
At first glance, the title of “legend” seems ill-fitting. Fowler played just 26 first-class matches in his career, and only 15 of those were for Somerset. He averaged under 20 as a batsman, and a sliver over it with the ball. If Peter Moores were to “look at the data”, Fowler wouldn’t have a chance. But, of course, data is useless without the context to interpret it.
David Foot described Fowler as “perhaps the earliest Somerset batsman to parade the fundamental skills of slogging”, while the Western Daily Press claimed that he was “possibly the hardest hitter amongst English cricketers.” In Somerset’s maiden year of first-class cricket, he lofted the ball out of each of Old Trafford, the Spa Ground in Manchester, and Lord’s, as well as Taunton – more than once. In an era better known for poor batting pitches and suspect bowling actions, Fowler made his own path.
William Herbert Fowler was a Londoner by birth, and made his first county appearances for Essex, who like Somerset, weren’t a first-class county at the time. He seems to have moved to Somerset around 1879, in which year he played for the “Gentlemen of Somerset” in a match against their Hampshire counterparts. In these matches during the club’s formative years, Fowler was more useful as a bowler than a batsman.
After making his first-class debut in 1880 for the MCC, Fowler played as part of the Somerset team in their first ever first-class match. His scores, on first appearance, were poor: 9 runs in the first innings, and 18 in the second, and yet, he was Somerset’s top-scorer in each innings. But now for that valuable context: the match was being played at Old Trafford, which, as always, was wet! In fact, so wet that the stumps were moved to allow the game to start because the original wicket was a puddle! Lancashire had batted first, and Somerset were facing two of the leading spin bowlers in county cricket (both with suspect actions) on a drying wicket.
In Somerset’s fourth match, played against the MCC, Fowler took 4 for 8 while bowling, including Somerset’s maiden hat-trick in first-class competition. He then struck 23 runs from six scoring shots, including one six which left the Lord’s ground. W.G. Grace reckoned that shot to be possibly the longest hit in first-class cricket at the time, recording it as 157 yards. Despite this Somerset still racked up their fourth loss of the season.
Somerset did get one victory in that first year, to which Fowler contributed four first-innings wickets and little else. A few days later though, he achieved his first, and indeed, only first-class century. Facing the MCC again, this time at Taunton, he reached his century in 55 minutes, to “enthusiastic cheers”. In all, he scored 139, with 3 sixes and 23 fours. Somerset crumbled to two more heavy defeats before the season’s end, and the Western Gazette was light with its praise: “the pick of the talent (if such it may be termed) being Messrs. Newton, E. Sainsbury, and W.H. Fowler.” Fowler finished the year with the best bowling average and the most runs of any Somerset player. Though, as the Gazette points out, that might not really be such an achievement, after all.
Truthfully, his cricket tailed off after 1882; the following year his highest score in eighteen innings was 36, and he played little for Somerset after that, prioritising his banking career, politics and golf. He served as the mayor of Taunton for a time, and later became well-known for designing golf courses, including the Pebble Beach course in California. He died in Chelsea in 1941, aged 84.