Marcus Trescothick. Nick Compton. Alviro Petersen. James Hildreth. Craig Kieswetter. Jos Buttler. When all troops are fit and available Somerset enjoy a batting line-up one might compare favourably to this summer’s visiting New Zealanders.
Today they were dismissed by Sussex for 76. At Horsham. Granted, Compton and Kieswetter were absent but, even so, this was a dismal showing. Somerset, damn it, won the toss and chose (rightly!) to bat. At the time of typing Sussex are 241/7.
The best that may be said of it is that this year the Wurzels are not teasing their supporters. A season that began with hopes that – at last! – the Cider Men might become Champions of All England is already doomed. Staving off relegation now seems a more urgent task than chasing that endlessly-elusive first County Championship title. Under-appreciated and refreshingly glitz-free the Championship may be a Maiden Aunt but who really prefers the IPL’s slutfest to the Championship’s venerable decorum? No-one of sense. It remains the pinnacle and the best supported first-class competition in the world.
It is depressing, but hardly unprecedented, that Somerset’s championship ambitions have been dashed before June. It used to be said of Irish rugby that though its predicament was often hopeless it was never serious. In contrast to some other counties – Kent springs to mind – you could say something similar about Somerset. Kent might be the Garden of England and the county of Woolley and Cowdrey but its loveliness should not be mistaken for a lack of passion or ambition or, above all, expectation. Somerset is also lovely; also different.
It is odd how counties assume an identity in your mind. Surrey, correct and imperial; Middlesex the home of cricket but also, somehow, possessing a north London raffishness quite different from their neighbours across the Thames. Leicester and Worcester each, in their own way, the home of the quiet people of England whose voice is rarely heard. Derbyshire, three-jumpered and perpetually eclipsed by all its neighbours; Notts a kind of junior Yorkshire. You get the idea.
The bugger of it is that Somerset have given us hope in recent years. This, not the rosy-remembered era of Botham, Richards and Garner, has been a Golden Era for the county. It was that trio – and Botham especially – who persuaded me to hitch my colours to the Taunton mast (in 1980) but despite regular appearances (and triumphs) at Lords for one-day-finals this trio never threatened to bring the greatest prize of all back to Taunton. The county could perform splendidly on one-off and big occasions but lacked the bottom to sail swiftly through championship waters. More recently, Somerset have specialised in being bridesmaids, even in slap-and-tickle cricket.
I once suggested that Somerset cricket was, in the mind’s eye at least, associated with “carefree late-summer afternoons as some beefy-shouldered local lad entertains a crowd of red-faced rustics with the last lusty hitting of the year”. This is the county of Arthur Wellard and Harold Gimblett as well as Botham and Marcus Trescothick. But there are other strands too. The low cunning of “Farmer” Jack White. The Aussie gumption of Bill Alley, Jamie Cox and Justin Langer. The revolution inspired by Brian Close who swapped Yorkshire for Somerset and proved he could thrive in conditions as different (in every way) as those pertaining in Antarctic and the Sahara.
Then, in my first years following the county, there were figures such as Colin Dredge and the bespectacled Brian Rose who seemed, certainly unfairly, like a housemaster from a minor public school whose summer holidays were spent pottering around the cricket field. Dredge, so lugubrious he could have been a Lancastrian, was one of those stalwarts who so merit the nickname “Unsung” that there is a danger their talents become over-sung. The late Alan Gibson loved Dredge, invariably referring to him as the “Demon of Frome”. Somerset cricket has often, for fear of crying, preferred to chuckle.
As a Man of Letters once wrote it can be better to travel than to arrive. This, I console myself, is true of Somerset cricket too. As a long-distance supporter it is, I concede, easier for me to say this than it might be for the denizens of Weston-Super-Mare. Be that as it may, the Quest can be more deliciously satisfying than the consummation; the agonies of what-might-have-been more enduring than the celebration of final triumph. (And even long-distance supporters can be daft: I once named an entire litter of springer spaniel puppies after Somerset players.)
A large part of the point of being a Somerset supporter is wrapped up in the decades-long thirst for a first Championship title. Actually winning the bloody thing would be as sweet as anything in cricket save an England Ashes triumph but it would inevitably, undoubtedly, irrevocably alter the manner in which we follow the Men of Taunton.
At the end of “The Candidate” Robert Redford, the fresh-faced, long-shot, victorious candidate for a seat in the United States Senate turns to his advisors and asks “What do we do now?” A Somerset triumph in the County Championship would prompt the same question. We might find ourselves in some strange fallow period; buoyed by the memories of recent triumphs and better prepared to meet fresh disappointment but also feeling that something vital was missing from the annual tilt at immortality.
Future disappointments would not cut us to the quick. Not in the same way. We would still enjoy the memory of that historic first title. What would there be to aim for? A second title, though necessary to confirm the first was no fluke, could not possibly prove as sweet. A retreat to mediocrity could only dissipate our enthusiasm for the county.
There is, this is to say, something sweet about rising from no-hoper status to that of perennial-contender-who-always-just-falls-short. It is the sweet sorrow of what could or might have been. There is a measure of melancholy there but the consolations of being a perennial bridesmaid should not be dismissed lightly. What, after their successes this century, do Sussex supporters have to say for themselves?
None of this is unique to cricket. One need only look at Chelsea or Manchester City to see how some triumphs are counterfeited by the manner of their achievement. Sudden and essentially unearned success can compromise the nature of your club and your relationship with it. This is, I think, one of the paradoxes of sport: we thirst for victory but victory can sometimes destroy what made us – or our club – useful or distinct or worthwhile in the first place.
And so Somerset’s failure this year is vexing and much to be regretted. It annoys me. But it is not useless either. Such, perhaps, are the consolations of being inured to failure. We will still have “next year” and there are few things in sport so delicious as next year. Especially when next year never quite arrives.
Even so, there is no need to take this to extremes. Relegation would be a Very Bad Idea. I still want Somerset to win the Championship; I still don’t know how I would feel about it actually happening.
This post was prompted, at least in part, because I failed to be OUTRAGED by anything happening in politics today. [UPDATE: this was written before I knew about the Woolwich horrors.]