2017 ~ Championship Dream

This is the first of the series of posts about Somerset’s 2017 season which will be published at approximately weekly intervals during the winter of 2019/20. To set the scene for 2017 the first set of reports and articles is about the experience of being a Somerset supporter during and just after the dramatic and controversial final two days of the 2016 season. The actual reports and articles posted at the time appear in a darker font and each begins and ends with quotation marks to differentiate them from the explanatory material added subsequently.

CHAMPIONSHIP DREAM

~   2016   ~

“In that same flash the dream that had sustained us through the last four days was no more. The Championship was gone.”     

The story of the 2017 season really began at the end of the 2016 season. Somerset had come within an ace of winning the County Championship for the first time in their history having drawn the first six Championship matches of the season. It had been a tremendous charge up the table and there are references to some of the matches in the post below. In the end Somerset were pipped at the post by Middlesex who beat Yorkshire, the third team still in contention for the Championship, at Lord’s in the final round of matches. That result was controversial, particularly in Somerset, because a result was only made possible by a contrived declaration. The contrivance, apparently involving Yorkshire chasing an agreed target irrespective of wickets lost, oddly perhaps in retrospect, was something that few in Somerset had foreseen.

At the end of the third day of that last round of matches Somerset had comprehensively beaten already relegated Nottinghamshire in Taunton by 325 runs to go top of the table. In Somerset’s first innings James Hildreth had batted for over four hours for 135 having had his ankle broken by a thunderbolt from Jake Ball when he was on seven. At the end of the third day the score at Lord’s had been Middlesex 270 and 81 for 2. Yorkshire 390. If either side won on the last day they would be Champions. If the match ended in a draw Somerset would be Champions.

Given the situation at Lord’s hopes were high in Somerset, and wherever they were in the world Somerset hearts beat fast. At the end of the third day, apart from the opening paragraph, I penned not a match report on the final day of Somerset’s match but my thoughts on the day to follow when Middlesex and Yorkshire would determine the destination of Somerset’s Holy Grail, the County Championship.

 

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Taunton. 20th, 21st and 22nd September 2016. Somerset v Nottinghamshire. 

22nd September. Final Day.

“A day of cricket of “such stuff as dreams are made on.”*  At the season’s start such cricket was but the stuff of dreams. The talk in the stands was of relegation and the dream was of relegation just avoided. And yet, tantalisingly, the real dream hangs there still. Yorkshire have one hand on it, Middlesex but a fingertip and we who dream can but watch and wait. And yet perhaps, just perhaps, they may in their eagerness wrestle themselves to a standstill and the dream fall to us.

Tomorrow, hopes and dreams will be our watchwords. A wait in purgatory our fate. And like no others who suffer purgatory we must hope our wait in its clutches is interminable for a short wait tomorrow will not suit our cause. If the wait stretches towards the end of the day our seconds will become minutes, our minutes hours and our hours days. The agony will grow, our breathing become laboured, the palms of our hands will sweat as never before. And all the time our fate will be at the whim of a well-directed ball, an intently swung bat or worst of all the human frailty of an umpire.

And while we wait and hope and dream let us not talk of points won and points lost; of decisions good and decisions bad; of opportunities taken and opportunities missed and above all let us not weigh such things in the balances for such talk gnaws at the very soul and profits us nothing.

Let us rather talk of such deeds as James Hildreth’s matchless heroism on the first day of this match; of the monumental win at Headingley; of the Renaissance of Marcus Trescothick; of the Torquemadian spin of Jack Leach and Dom Bess against Warwickshire; of the third morning seventeen minute miracle against Durham; of the 31 run last wicket stand of Jack Leach and Tim Groenawald that sank Surrey; of Tom Abell’s miracle hundred on a minefield at Edgbaston; of the deeds of the Overtons with bat and ball; of Trego’s thousand runs and Leach’s sixty wickets; of Rogers’ captaincy that wrought the transformation and of a Somerset team that has scaled heights not dreamed of a few short months ago. Indeed, this was all “such stuff as dreams are made on”.

And if the dream ends tomorrow savour the making of it in a season of exploits beyond dreams. And then dream on, for next year may really be the year in which we all wake up and discover the dream is realised.”

*Prospero, ‘The Tempest’ Act 4 Scene 1. William Shakespeare.

Result. Somerset won by 325 runs. Somerset 23 pts. Nottinghamshire 3 pts. Somerset 365 (JC Hildreth 135, CJL Rogers 132, DM Bess 41, JT Ball 6-57) and 315-5 dec (CJL Rogers 100*, RC Davies 59, PD Trego 55, SR Patel 3-95). Nottinghamshire 138 (JD Libby 42, DM Bess 5-43, MJ Leach 3-42) and 215 (WT Root 66*, MJ Leach 4-69, RE van de Merwe 3-59).  

~ 

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Lord’s. 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd September 2016. Middlesex v Yorkshire.  

In my next post following Middlesex’s defeat of Yorkshire and the dashing of Somerset’s 2016 hopes I made much reference to the last round of matches of the 2010 season when Somerset also failed to win the Championship by a whisker. On that occasion Somerset drew with Durham at Chester le Street and sat momentarily on top of the Championship on that fateful final day.

Meanwhile in a badly rain affected match at Old Trafford with the first innings of the match barely started Nottinghamshire started the final day one hour late on 89 for 2 in their first innings with Lancashire yet to bat. Nottinghamshire needed to achieve six bonus points in 80 overs to pip Somerset for the Championship. The day ended with Nottinghamshire 400 for 9 dec, Lancashire 11 for 3 and Nottinghamshire as Champions on equal points with Somerset but having won one more match. Several hundred Somerset supporters, me among them, were at Chester le Street.

In 2016 a large gathering of Somerset supporters descended on The Straggler’s bar at the Cooper Associates County Ground to watch that last day of the season on television fervently hoping for a draw at Lord’s and the Championship for Somerset. I was among them too. A win for either side at Lord’s would deny Somerset. There was an air of rising tension as the morning unfolded and into the early afternoon as Yorkshire and Middlesex ground each other down. That atmosphere was blown asunder when it became apparent that Yorkshire and Middlesex had contrived a declaration and abandoned hard nose to nose play for ‘declaration’ bowling and an agreed target.

In my post I tried to capture not the match, for every Somerset supporter on the planet knew the course and outcome of that, but the gamut of emotions that ran around The Stragglers that day.

 

23rd September. Final Day. The Straggler’s Bar. Taunton.

“And so it came to pass that the spirit of Chester le Street 2010 stalked the Stragglers today. And it fashioned the day in much the same pattern. A morning and early afternoon of steadily growing hope tinged with a deep foreboding that something lurked that would dash that hope. Hope and expectation not quite aligned. An uneasy feeling.

Middlesex slowly repaired an unpromising position though it seemed with little hope of getting far enough fast enough to help their cause. Yorkshire stuck hard to their task but made little enough headway. So Nottinghamshire on the TV in the Members Lounge at Chester le Street in 2010. Half way into the day, both days, Somerset were half way to that elusive Championship or so it felt save for that nagging doubt. That little voice whispering, “This will not be. Not this year. It is not your time”.

At Chester le Street the realisation that the whisper knew the fates dawned slowly as Nottinghamshire’s controlled acceleration gradually picked off the batting bonus points; one, two, three, four, five; they needed. In the Stragglers today the realisation came like a thunderbolt despatched by some malevolent spirit as Andrew Gale, the Yorkshire captain, walked off after a drinks break only to return to unleash upon us the despond of declaration bowling.

Shrieks of horror, anguish and protest rent the air as our carefully built hopes crashed around us in the face of a target which Yorkshire would surely walk more easily than they would the local park. At Chester le Street the horror grew more slowly yet the final destruction of Somerset’s hopes arrived just as surely as the three Lancashire wickets Nottinghamshire needed fell like skittles in a strike.

And so at Chester le Street the dream died. At The Stragglers the spirit that sent the thunderbolt had not finished its work. As Nottinghamshire had bowled to get those three deadly wickets on the screen at Chester le Street so the spirit drove Middlesex to bowl like men inspired in The Stragglers. Yorkshire were pegged back, miraculously wickets fell, and hopes rose with the run rate. Middlesex were doing Somerset proud. Then the final realisation dawned. Yorkshire were going to chase to the last wicket, the last wicket did not tarry and in a flash a light went out in all our hearts.

In that same flash the dream that had sustained us through the last four days was no more. The Championship was gone. Memories of Chester le Street lost in the numbness of the dashing of another dream.

As can only happen in cricket our loss and the means of it brought forward a kaleidoscope of contradictory emotions in an explosion of noise. Despair at our loss, dismay at its means, burning pride for our team, grudging admiration for our opponents’ and their fight to the finish, anger at such connivance in the Championship, excitement at the spectacle of the chase, numbness at the realisation of its consequences and exhaustion from the ebbing and flowing tide of raw emotion that swept up and down The Stragglers all day.

And so at the end of the day, when all has been said and done, like a latter day Phoenix from the ashes the dream faintly rises. It will germinate and grow through the winter as wounds heal and spirits rise. Spring will bring hope renewed and the dream revived with added vigour. The Stragglers 2016 and Chester le Street 2010 heroic defeats to be avenged. And this time the avenging to be done by a team seasoned in the heat of this year’s incomparable challenge, sharpened by the rise of our young blades and stiffened by the example of James Hildreth’s unimaginable bravery.

So let us dream again. And dream that we have a team that, when it comes to the hazard, has it within its powers to grasp the Championship with both hands and leave all others in its wake.”

Result. Middlesex won by 61 runs. Middlesex 17 points. Yorkshire 7 points. Middlesex 270 (NRT Gubbins 125, JEC Franklin 48, JA Brooks 6-65, TT Bresnan 3-48) and 359-6 dec (DJ Malan 116, NRT Gubbins 93, SS Eskinazi 78). Yorkshire 390 (TT Bresnan 142, Azeem Rafiq 65, AJ Hodd 64, TS Roland-Jones 4-73, TJ Murtagh 3-96) and 178 (TT Bresnan 55, TS Roland-Jones 6-54).  

 

Reflections

The ‘declaration’ bowling and the apparent agreement at Lord’s that Yorkshire would chase their target irrespective of the loss of wickets rankled with many long after I had posted those thoughts and still does with some. I posted some further thoughts two days later. At the end I restated the theme of hope for 2017 which began to germinate in the ‘Stragglers’ post.

 

25th September. In the lee of the Blackdowns.

“The debate unleashed by the contrived declaration at Lord’s, on these pages and others, speaks eloquently of so many things cricket and so many things human on so many levels.

It goes to the heart of the meaning of cricket and to the heart of how each of us sees cricket and perhaps how each of us sees the qualities of integrity, fairness and justice in the world. The debate has therefore been argued with a depth of feeling and an intensity to match the intensity of the cricket throughout the Championship season and the intensity of the cricket in the final session at Lord’s until the point where Yorkshire succumbed and Middlesex prevailed.

High speed intensity in the final session perhaps but will anyone who saw it forget the sustained primeval power of Roland-Jones’ bowling, in his first spell as much as his second, and the tenacity of Bresnan’s batting. Achilles and Hector in whites perhaps. A hard-fought intensity though made possible, in the end, only by a connivance and ended by Yorkshire holding to their word that they would charge to the end come what may.

So many questions arise. Should a competition which has been fought hard throughout the season without connivance end with a connivance to produce a result? If so what value the result? Or should two teams, each with all to lose or all to gain, not connive and as a consequence both lose all and a third team gain all? Was the connivance the antithesis of all that makes cricket great or did it allow two teams to resolve the issue of which of them was the greater? Would such a connivance have been more acceptable had a third team not been involved? Or had the third team simply come up just short of resolving the issue in its own favour? How we each argue these and other points in this debate may say as much about how we each in our own way view the principles which underpin cricket as about the rights and wrongs of this match.

In so many ways this match goes to the core of those principles of fairness, justice and integrity held so dear in cricket. In cricket though as in life principles sometimes collide. There is integrity in a batsman walking but is there fairness and justice if other batsmen do not? We would have all three but the world and cricket sometimes present us with situations where we must choose.

Cricket’s ability to provide perpetual opportunities for us to argue these basic human principles is one of so many things that makes it such a great game. Sometimes in cricket, as in life, we each choose differently and we each hold to the principles we hold dearest and so the arguments do not get resolved and are unresolvable because there is no right or wrong in arguing one principle against another; only personal belief. And so when all have argued their corner and a standstill in the debate has been reached the only positive action is to move on for otherwise the debate becomes static and prolonged and resolves nothing.

In this case let us, as soon as we can, move on to next season and trust that our team carries forward the majestic momentum gained at the end of this season; and develops a determination to use that momentum to propel us into a position at the end of next season where though others may connive all they might they will not catch us.

That for me as far as cricket goes, is the positive lesson of this whole affair. Start each match next season with a clear determination that the outcome of it will play its part in where Somerset intend to be at the end of the season. It will anyway and so we should make every endeavour to see to it that the playing of every match shapes it to our purpose and to that end all should now bend their will and energy.

Onward Somerset.”

 

Coming home

New to ‘grockles’, which had been in existence for two decades, my posts caused some to ask from whence I had suddenly sprung. I posted the following in reply. 

11th October. In the lee of the Blackdowns.

“All these years, or at least for most of the last three decades until this year, I lived in exile in the Eastern Marches of Southern England where my white Somerset hat and maroon and white umbrella walked the streets in splendid isolation to the bemused curiosity of the local inhabitants. With the exception of one woman, that is, who stopped me to ask the meaning of the design on the front of my hat. When I explained that it was a wyvern* and its significance and that I was off to catch a train to Trent Bridge to watch my team she disappeared into the distance exclaiming, “Marvellous! Marvellous! Marvellous!’ I could not have put it better myself.

And it was marvellous. Craig Overton hit a fifty in 28 balls, took six wickets in the match and Somerset won by 133 runs. In fact, it felt marvellous all the way back. Especially when I and my hat were accosted by a City suit at St Pancras with the words, “Somerset! Brilliant win! Brilliant win!” Indeed it was.

And such, when work was done a few years ago, were all summers for me in that far off land in which I never settled. Somerset cricket was what I had followed in detail from afar in the years of work as I kept contact with my roots. Once free from work I travelled to a dozen or more County Championship matches, four or five 40 or 50 over matches and the occasional 20 over match each season. All were ‘away’ for me, at least as far as travel went, which left me no time to more than read posts on this site.

Post work winters were spent, whilst wearing thermals and layers that had done service watching for the Northern Lights in winter Tromso, walking and sitting and reading on the freezing, windswept coastal mudflats that pass for the sea in eastern parts. Reading that is when I was not dreaming of soaking up the sun in the upper reaches of the Trescothick Stand as the man himself or the incomparable James Hildreth stroked the ball through whatever gap the opposition captain had been forced to leave.

Now I am home in Somerset again looking, as I write, at the Blackdown Hills of my childhood; near enough, it seems, to touch. Or, as I take respite to brew a cup of coffee, the grandeur of the distant Quantocks, from whence a rejected Harold Gimblett strode forth to Frome to win the Lawrence Trophy in his first match; and where I was taken as a child to play among the Seven Sisters on Cothlestone Hill although I am sure we knew it as Buncombe Hill. JC White too went forth from the Quantocks all the way to Adelaide to take thirteen wickets in a Test Match to beat Australia.

What a county this is we are blessed to belong to whether through residence, birth, cricket or whatever else holds our spirit here. Where else can boast such hills as those of my youth and the Brendons, Mendips and Poldens too. And if hills be not enough then what better than Exmoor with Dunkery Beacon from where Weston can be seen. That same Weston that spawned Peter Trego and a thousand runs this last season.

From these great places to the stark austerity of the Levels or the grandeur that is Bath where Brian Close led the County to victory over the Australians in a different cricketing age but bold in the memory still. Think too of the visibly rising tides that wash ashore at Porlock Weir or the waters of the Tone running down the valley twixt Blackdowns and Brendons to receive sixes from Botham and Trescothick over where their stands now mark the boundary. Or the glory that is Glastonbury, not devoid of Somerset cricketing exploits, and the great façade of the cathedral that adorns England’s smallest city near where Arthur Wellard hit five sixes in an over. Twice.

All the while in my exile memories of these great places sustained me as they lived clear in my mind. Somerset cricket though was my lode stone and any match I could get to a precious link with home. I saw some astonishing cricket too. I watched in wonder as Mark Lathwell scored 132 out of 197 all out in a Championship match at Chelmsford. I saw Jimmy Cook cut Waqar Younis either side of gully for two fours at the Oval. When Surrey put in a second gully Cook cut between them for another four. I saw Steve Waugh score 140 not out in a total of 247 for 5 in a Sunday League match at Lord’s and, so my memory believes, never lift a ball off the ground. Sights like those live for ever in the memory.

Yet we that hail from this great county are not satisfied with just our hills, moors, towns, rivers, seas and cricketing memories. We want too a cricket team that reflects the variety and splendour of our county and does justice to our cricketing heritage. We want to win but we want to win in style. We want to win in the Somerset way. We want batsmen who can caress the ball through the gaps and we want batsmen who can clear the ropes. We want bowlers who can blast the opposition out and we want bowlers who can tangle them in knots. We want fielders who can catch the ball spectacularly and we want fielders who can stop it safely. In short we want a team of all the talents.

Well, perhaps, just perhaps with Somerset’s current mix of all the above and of experience and rising youth we might, just might have the team that can realise our dream. We came close this year as many teams do just before the dream is realised. And unlike 2010, when we came so close with a team at the zenith of its powers, in 2016 we came close with a team still scaling the heights. When they reach their zenith may they just look down and see all others below them. And we who now look on may we then look up and see that Championship pennant flying proud above our very own Caddyshack.**

It is a good time to have come home.”

*Wyvern. Somerset’s maroon emblem is known to many supporters including myself as a wyvern. However, it has four legs which means, strictly speaking, it is a dragon. A wyvern has two legs. Never mind. Somerset’s dragon is a wyvern!

** ‘Caddyshack’ is a shorthand term widely used colloquially and warmly by many including myself to refer to the Andrew Caddick Pavilion at Taunton. It is an ironic reflection on the ultra-modern ‘state of the art’ functional design of the building. Towards the end of my 2017 season’s posts I decided to use the term ‘Caddick Pavilion’ which on reflection seemed more appropriate.

 

And so ended the crushing disappointment of the end of the 2016 season with a gleam of hope, for most at least, although some worried 2017 would be a season of struggle.