130 years and waiting, Somerset’s quest to shed bridesmaid tag goes on

Less famous was Fred Hardy, a journeyman pro if ever there was: 100 first-class matches

Less famous was Fred Hardy, a journeyman pro if ever there was: 100 first-class matches in the dozen years up to the First World War but never a regular, always one to be omitted when the amateurs were free in the hols and fancied a game.

Hardy caught the train to London in March 1916 when he had to return to the Western Front. On his final journey, a native of Dorset bound for Flanders and its mud, he might have remembered some of his 91 wickets taken with medium-pace, or catching Victor Trumper at slip in 1902, or his innings of 91 against Kent. The inquest found he had been fortifying his nerves, like the shot of brandy before going over the top. Perhaps in his mind’s eye, looking out of the train window, Hardy played a couple more cover-drives to the boundary then took a quick single against Kent, before he walked down into the lavatories at King’s Cross and cut his throat.

How Farmer spun a web Down Under

Somerset have been joined with Northamptonshire for a simple reason: these two counties, along with Worcestershire, had the smallest populations until county boundaries were re-defined in 1961. At least Somerset’s population is spread over a wide area, with space to breathe and play, outside south Bristol at least. Before Covid, the county had 250 cricket grounds; and part of the population has always been farming stock, bringing their physical and other attributes to the table.

The most effective spinner England have had in an Ashes series in Australia in the last hundred years has not been Hedley Verity, nor Jim Laker, nor Graeme Swann – and you cannot count 1978-9, during World Series, when Australia’s naifs gave themselves up artlessly to off spin. It is Jack White, or “Farmer” as he was known. Tough. Real tough. Farmwork from an early age, not sitting in front of a screen, enabled him to average 80 overs per Test in the heat of 1928-9 and gave his captain control over Australia (less than two runs an over). White took 25 wickets as England won 4-1.

Robertson-Glasgow tells us perfectly what Farmer was like and how he bowled: “Jack White is the yeoman, four-square. His work on the field, either cricket or farm, is conducted with an unhurried certainty and an unsurprised understanding of natural obstacles. Whether it was cows or batsmen, he had the treatment for the trouble.

“The secret of his bowling could be seen, if never quite understood, only from very close. For, besides the length and direction and the variety of flight, he made the ball “do a little” each way on the truest pitch without any advertisement from his fingers; and he made the ball bounce high.” 

I did a bit of research on how Australia’s batsmen tackled White and was surprised to learn that they focussed on playing him to the off side – so he could pack his field on one side of the wicket – except for a young fellow who made his debut, then was dropped mid-series, before returning to make his first Test hundred, called Don Bradman. 

Success through diversity

England, 20 years ago, went through a similar cycle. Under the captaincy of Nasser Hussain they stopped losing, then started winning under Michael Vaughan. Somerset stopped losing under Brian Close and started winning trophies under Brian Rose – and boy, had they done some losing. They were bottom of the championship every year from 1952 to 1955.

Desperate to avoid the stigma of appointing a professional as captain, the Somerset committee cast around for any amateurs: a solicitor in Bath who had gained his Second XI colours at school but had not played since? Just the ticket. Gimblett – another of farming stock, who hit the ball hard from his debut innings, which was the fastest hundred of the season – had gone to a public school, the same West Buckland boarding school that nurtured the Overton twins, Craig and Jamie, but he played for Somerset as a professional. Impossible! “This lack of continuity (i.e. so many amateur captains) has naturally discouraged teamwork,” Bailey observed wryly. 

It was only when the grandfather of the England fast bowler Chris Tremlett was appointed in 1956 that Somerset deigned to become competitive. Maurice Tremlett did such a good job that by 1958 they came third, their highest yet. The county’s connection with Australia had begun with Sammy Woods, and continued with Colin McCool, Bill Alley, Greg Chappell, Kerry O’Keefe, Jamie Cox and Justin Langer.

But it was an Antiguan more than any Australian who infused in Somerset the self-belief to become winners under Rose. Wherever Viv Richards went, he transformed his team into winners: no cricketer has had such a wide and beneficial impact. In a pub in Bath, the Somerset committeeman Len Creed dined out for the rest of his life on how he had heard about this teenager in Antigua, brought him to the Lansdown club and unearthed cricket’s Koh-i-Noor. In an entertaining new history of Lansdown, to be published in mid-November, more stories are told about Richards: like how, and why, he used to visit a friend every day in the hospital next to the ground.

Hence the five trophies around 1980. The bigger the occasion, like a Lord’s final, the bigger the innings by Viv Richards. Failure was no option. Somerset’s off-field organisation had vastly improved as well. The committee was kept in place by Roy Kerslake, the chief executive – or secretary in those days – who had been a player himself.

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