I was recently writing a short biog of Somerset’s 2001 campaign for another project I am working on. I started the piece by saying, ‘this was Somerset’s most successful, and arguably most satisfying season to date.’ The reason for such a profound statement was that the club had won a trophy for the first time in 16 years that summer by beating Leicestershire at Lords with Keith Parsons starring. But what probably made the year satisfying was the second-place finish in the County Championship – the highest finish to date beating the five occasions Somerset had finished third.
The County Championship was then, and remains now, the Holy Grail for the vast majority of Somerset supporters.
As I finished writing I wondered if I had served an injustice to the players who had played for Somerset forty years ago this summer. Don’t get me wrong, I stand by my positivity for Jamie Cox’s team of 2001; a team with no stars, one that had to cope without its two England internationals for long periods, one that employed a strong work ethic, one that had a fabulous team spirit and one that adopted a never-say-die attitude that won games that would simply have been lost in the sometimes barren years of the 90s. A great side. But 1979 was the year that changed everything for Somerset.
In 1978 it was obvious the Somerset team were going places. Brian Close had come to sleepy Somerset in 1971 and grabbed hold of the club by the throat and showed everyone what had to happen if Somerset were going to turn promise into trophies. Not everyone at Taunton appreciated this gritty northerner coming down to carrot-crunch land telling us how to run our club. Some – most – were happy to just amble on and survive. But Closey knew and, in his first season after his retirement, the team he had mentored and developed entered the last weekend of the season facing Sussex in the Gillette Cup final and having to beat Essex on the Sunday to win the John Player League. This writer was at both games as a 13 year-old boy and watched as Somerset lost both. It was heart-breaking. The losing streak continued and the club would have to wait for that elusive first trophy success.
But one year later Somerset bounced back. Captained by the cunning Brian Rose, and able to call on the combined abilities of the world’s best batsman, fast bowler and all-rounder, a return trip to Lords saw Northants overpowered and I was there again and, with victory complete, joined the thousands that bellowed Blackbird into the St Johns Wood sky while the shepherds and wurzels sang Drink Up Thy Zider. The South West had taken over London – it was marvellous. It was all too much for a 14 year-old boy to take in – and grown men around me were crying their eyes out – but offered memories to last a life time. And one day later victory at Trent Bridge handed the club the Sunday League title. After about 100 years of underachievement unfashionable and sleepy old Somerset had won two trophies in two days. Have a bit of that!
It would be unfair to compare that team to the current crop of outstanding players. The 1979 vintage were swashbucklers, showmen. Aside from having Richards, Garner and Botham to call on the support cast was awash with experienced characters who could stand up and perform when needed; Dredge, Burgess, Rose, Denning, Jennings, Taylor, Marks, Roebuck, Moseley, Slocombe, Breakwell, Popplewell.
But let’s not do an injustice to the current crop as Somerset have a fantastic squad to call on, a team that has been crafted over a length of time, built and not just bought. And to complement their abilities is a love of being Somerset – cut some of them in half and I swear there would be cider running through their veins. This, I think, gives them an extra edge. Talking to a few of the players at Media Day this team wants success, this team is ready for success, this team knows what winning a trophy means to the supporters. So many came of age in 2018 and I think are ready to move up a gear and onto a new level.
And we have two fantastic, young captains to lead us into battle. Although both Tom Abell and Lewis Gregory are in their mid-20s they have maturity that defies their youth and both led their teams well last season.
So many of their team have enjoyed the highs and suffered the lows of being a professional cricketer. Relegation dog fights followed by nearly winning a first County Championship. Abell’s team looked like taking an expensively assembled Surrey team to the wire before that disappointment at Guildford. But they will have learnt from that and will be wiser as to what it takes to maintain a successful campaign. And Tom will be wiser too.
Gregory’s side played brilliantly to make finals day only to baulk in the semi-finals. But let’s not forget the cricket they played to get there which gave Somerset fans the best 20-over cricket we have seen since the heady days of Keissy, Jos, Tres, Kieron and Tregs. And they too will have learnt from last season’s experiences. And Lewis led from the front performing with bat and ball. He will be wiser too.
I’m not even going to whisper it, I am going to shout it out loud, this is the most excited I have felt heading into a season for a very long time. In fact I can’t remember when I felt this positive.
Ask the majority of supporters and they would say the County Championship remains the number one priority. Whilst I would wholeheartedly agree I think we need to understand that the objective for 2019 must be to win a trophy – any trophy. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think Tom Abell’s team will compete in the four-day stuff because I do. Frankly it matters not to me whether it is Abell or Gregory hoisting aloft the silverware, but 2019 is the year that Somerset must break this bridesmaid hoodoo and bring success home to Taunton.
And I think they will. And, when they do, they will write themselves into the county’s folklore and create history of their own. And once again Blackbird and Drink Up Thy Zider will be sung loud and proud by Somerset supporters. Just like 1979.
It all starts today. Bring it on!