Nearly fifty years ago, CR Poole published a short work entitled ‘The Customs, Superstitions, and Legends of the County of Somerset’. Inexplicably, he omitted the foremost of these customs: Somerset will never, ever, win the County Championship.
For a while this week, I and many others dared to dream this year might be different. This could be the week, the day, the moment, history might be made. Somerset have been tilting for the championship since 1891 and only rarely been in with a chance of glory on the final day of the season. More often, as a dozen wooden spoon finishes attests, the situation has been hopeless but never serious.
Today was serious. Today there was a chance. Somerset had done their part, crushing Nottinghamshire in handsome style yesterday. A late season run at history threatened to make believers out of even inveterate pessimists. Which is to say, out of us all.
And yet, even then we suspected fate lurked around the next corner, armed with the lead piping. Or, as it turned out, a Toby Roland-Jones hat-trick. The consolation of neutrals’ goodwill will have to do, even if it is uselessly insufficient right here, right now.
But what a day of drama! What a season! What an epic edition of the County Championship. As play began at Lords this morning, three sides held hopes of becoming the champion county. Yorkshire and Middlesex knew only victory was enough; Somerset pinned their hopes on stalemate – or even a tie! – at headquarters. Hope lived all around but ebbed and flowed with change of end.
Somerset needed equilibrium at Lords and, for a while, Yorkshire and Middlesex seemed destined to slug each other to a standstill. Tim Bresnan’s heroics rescued Yorkshire – and kept Somerset’s hopes alive – in the first innings. But if he was a two-county saviour then, his valiant second innings effort only cheered the northmen.
Middlesex could not be blamed for setting a tolerably generous target. 240 from 40 overs was achievable, but not a certainty. As it turned out, it was perfectly judged, damnit. Viewed from a west country perspective, there was a perilous balance to be struck between Yorkshire runs and Middlesex wickets. Too much of either would guarantee calamity. All Somerset-minded folk prayed, in a very cricket fashion, that nothing would happen at Lords. Sometimes less is more.
Incentives matter. When everything is on the line no-one wishes to die wondering. With six overs left, Yorkshire were, barring a miracle, out of it. Somerset’s hopes rested on Yorkshire blocking at a time when doing so could not assist their own cause. Enter Roland-Jones.
A hat-trick seemed a suitably dramatic finish to a season that, for a spell, had a smell of history about it. The seasons come and go but some things remain eternal: Somerset will be denied.
For a while, though, we had hope. We could allow ourselves to think that in years to come, when we are older and greyer and left with little more than memories, Trescothick and Trego would be our very own Hornby and Barlow long ago.
I began following Somerset in 1981. They have been a part of my life every summer since. It was Botham and big Bird and Sir Vivian who first brought me to Somerset but many others have kept me there ever since.
The county championship has been a comforting part of every summer, too. Checking the latest scores from Taunton or wherever the Cidermen are travelling used to be a morning ritual, the first thing checked in the newspaper. These days, it’s Cricinfo, the last place the championship is still covered properly (with apologies to the invaluable network of local BBC radio stations covering the championship). A summer without county cricket would be a lesser summer and disconcertingly so.
Each spring, after all, hope is born again. This time it will be different; this time it will be Somerset’s year. And even if – or rather, when – it isn’t and hope is extinguished by the end of May there will still always be next year. Hope is the hardiest of perennials. Sometimes it even lasts until the end of June, or July, or August. In banner years it’s not extinguished until the autumn equinox.
The championship is unfashionable to the point it seems a perverse anachronism in this era of crash-bang-wallop-cricket. That only makes those who love it cherish it all the more. Not because there is anything wrong with 20/20 cricket or because following the championship makes you a proper, better, cricket person. But because it needs all the love it can get.
It’s become commonplace to ascribe England’s success in recent years to the advent of central contracts which have, among other things, limited the amount of championship cricket played by England’s stars. Doubtless there is something to this, though I suspect the security of being valued – and expensively so – is just as pertinent a factor.
Be that as it may, where do those who sneer at the fusty, antiquated, championship think England’s players come from? The county championship, that’s where. We are so accustomed to assuming English cricket should emulate how cricket is organised elsewhere that we forget the considerable strengths English cricket, and the traditions of English cricket, already enjoys. Other countries can only dream of being able to support 18 full-time, first-class, outfits.
From time to time terribly serious, practical, modern-thinking, people suggest it’s a nonsense to have 18 such teams. Cull the weaker members of the herd, they say. Who needs Northamptonshire? Or Worcestershire? Or Derbyshire? Leaving aside the fact that it’s a curious approach to “growing” the game that reduces the opportunities to follow your local side, it’s also worth noting that England’s three most recent regular spinners (Monty Panesar, Graeme Swann and Moeen Ali) have each come from “unfashionable” counties. In like fashion, if Durham had not been admitted to the championship can we say for sure all the England cricketers they have produced would have made it anyway?
But English cricket is run by people who know the price of everything and the value of bugger all. Everyone understands that the game must be paid for, that there is a leading role for satellite TV, that the international game underpins everything else. But the international game is also underpinned by everything else. Cricket’s audience comes from the counties, from the leagues, from the villages, from the schools, from fathers passing the game on to their sons (and, increasingly, their daughters).
That’s the rock on which everything else is founded, without which foundations nothing could stand at all. The money comes from the cricketing public. Without a public, there is nothing. But sometimes you get the sense that cricket’s authorities get it backwards. They’re so obsessed with finding a “new” audience for cricket they trample on the audience they already have. If you like cricket you may be part of the problem; if you don’t like cricket you could be part of the solution.
There is an audience for county cricket, it just needs to be honoured and shown a little love and encouragement. Part of that involves not hiding it. I was brought to Somerset by Beefy and Big Bird and Sir Vivian but I was kept there because I could see them – and the others, like Colin Dredge (‘The Frome Demon’) and the Peters Roebuck and Denning – on BBC television. I wonder how a child growing up outside a first-class county is likely to be brought to follow one now. Doubtless some will be, but not enough.
The championship, threatened by administrators who itch to downgrade or curtail it (which are one and the same thing), has been one of those permanent things that make an English summer what it is. From dew-kissed New Road in spring to Scarborough in late July and sun-dappled Taunton as the first intimations of autumn are felt, there is a rhythm to the year. It just keeps rolling on and perhaps its very familiarity makes it too easy to take for granted. It matters because it is there and, in a better world, the reverse would always be true too.
It is out-of-kilter with the spirit of the age. It is easy to dismiss as a hopeless and unwatched anachronism. But it is not unloved. It is a 64 day competition to determine the champion county of England.
And this year, after 180 days of cricket and the best part of 120,000 cumulative deliveries, the fates of three counties hung upon the final five overs in the final fifteen minutes of the season.
To Middlesex the spoils, damn them. To Yorkshire, the consolation of having given it their all. And to Somerset? Just the wistful memory of what might have been and, for a moment, almost was. Another melancholy end to a glorious summer.
Maybe next year. But when it’s been next year every year since Queen Victoria was on the throne you do begin to wonder. We have been here before, you know, and whoever said ’tis better to travel than arrive talked a lot of rot.