Strife in SomersetMartin Chandler |
Somerset were not one of the eight counties who were involved in the first official County Championship, back in 1891, but they joined the following year, and have been ever present since then. Sadly for their faithful supporters the winner’s pennant has never flown over the County Ground in Taunton. They have finished second three times this century, but in the early days were never serious contenders. Then in 1971 the county made a very shrewd move. Brian Close was sacked by Yorkshire. He was 40 years old, but still a decent cricketer with a proven track record as a captain at both county and Test level. Above all he knew how to win, and he was desperate to show Yorkshire that he could still play. When he finally retired in 1977 the constantly improving young team that he moulded finished fourth in the Championship, and was about to embark on what remains the golden era of West Country cricket.
In 1978 Somerset were runners up in the Gillette Cup. The following year they went one better and won the Lord’s final, and they took the John Player League as well. In both 1981 and 1982 they won the Benson and Hedges Cup before finishing off their winning run with the NatWest Bank Trophy (Gillette Cup as was) in 1983. The main catalyst for these successes were three cricketing Galacticos, Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner.
Botham was not of West Country stock. He was born in Cheshire where his parents were based at the time. His father was in the Fleet Air Arm, and a move to Northern Ireland followed. By the time Botham was three years of age the family were settled in Yeovil, and his cricketing development took place under the auspices of the Somerset club, so he is entitled to think of himself as a native of the county. As many young pros did in those days he spent time on the Lord’s groundstaff in the early 1970s from where he returned in 1974 having made his debut for the County, without it must be conceded any conspicuous success, in the last two games of the 1973 John Player League campaign.
The story of how Viv Richards ended up in Somerset is rather more romantic. A member of the Club’s committee, farmer turned bookmaker Len Creed, decided to seek the young Richards out when he heard that Colin Cowdrey had been impressed. Creed toured Antigua with a club side in early 1973, found his man and brought him back to England with him, despite the 21 year old having averaged just 16 in the domestic season that had just concluded. Richards spent a year playing club cricket but was straight into the Somerset first team at the beginning of the 1974 season. He blasted a matchwinning 81 in the first game of the summer, a Benson and Hedges fixture at Glamorgan, and never looked back. A week or so later Botham joined him. That season Somerset had their best finish in the County Championship for eight years, were semi-finalists in both cup competitions, and runners up in the John Player League. Former stalwart Eric Hill, by then writing the county’s annual report for Wisden, positively purred in his contribution to the 1975 edition.
The arrival in Somerset of Joel Garner was rather more conventional. In 1976 he was contracted to Littleborough in the Central Lancashire League. He took 110 wickets at 12 runs apiece and in 1976/77 made a successful Test debut against Pakistan. If that wasn’t enough to ensure he was noticed he was directly recommended too by Richards. Somerset decided that the 6 feet 8 inch Barbadian was their man and signed him for 1977. He wasn’t available at weekends that summer due to his committments to Littleborough, but endeared himself to the West Country faithful on debut against the touring Australians as he helped the county to their first win over them, at the 23rd time of asking.
Not that Somerset were a three man team. Opening batsman Brian Rose and off spinning all-rounder Vic Marks were also capped by England. Batsmen Peter “Dasher” Denning and Peter Roebuck cannot, at times, have been too far away from Test selection either. Roebuck was a Cambridge graduate, who went on to be an acclaimed writer before, tortured by press interest in his private life, he took his own life in 2011. Roebuck was an introvert, and a solitary man, but in their early years as teammates he got on sufficiently well with the garrulous Botham to have co-written a book with him that they called It Sort of Clicks.
In a history of the club written in 1991 Roebuck wrote of the Somerset committee in 1982 that the old guard had little idea of running a sporting club, especially one containing such powerful egos and such outstanding talents, and they carried on as it was 1957 and not 1982. The great playing success of the late 1970s and early 1980s evaporated, and in 1985 the county, skippered by Botham, finished bottom of the Championship. It was a strange season for the side. Botham’s form with bat was simply magnificent, and Richards’ powers were undimmed, but as a team they were woeful, and at the end of the summer Botham was persuaded to stand down, and Roebuck became skipper.
The following season, that of Botham’s two month ban for admitting in a newspaper article to have smoked cannabis, there were a few moments when it looked like things might get better, but flashes of individual genius did not stop Roebuck writing Things fell apart within the team. Men screamed their anger and frustration in the dressing-room.
What happened next was the sacking of Richards and Garner, as a consequence of which Botham resigned. The immediate cause was Australian skipper Alan Border, albeit indirectly. Border had played for Essex in 1986, but decided against returning for 1987. Essex wanted to sign Martin Crowe, who had played with great success for Somerset in 1984 when Richards and Garner were with West Indies, and who was pencilled in again for a similar role in 1988 when the men in maroon were due to return. Before making a decision about Essex Crowe sounded out Somerset about their position as far as 1987 was concerned, and a decision had to be made.
To make the club’s dilemma rather more tricky, prior to Crowe’s approach the expectation was that Richards and Garner would be retained for 1987 ahead of their expected unavailability the following year. So in an effort to placate an increasingly unhappy Richards, he had been told he would be offered a new contract for the following year. The committee were between a rock and a hard place, largely as a result of the attitude of skipper Roebuck.
Roebuck believed that he was unable to work with Botham and Richards, and that they were stifling his efforts to mould a competive side. He felt that showing Richards the exit door, which was always likely to lead to Botham following, was the only way ahead. As far as Garner was concerned he was never particularly close to Richards or Botham, and had in any event indicated a desire not to be considered for Championship cricket for 1987, so whilst he was inextricably linked with the problem as he and Crowe could not both have played, the considerations were less “personal”, at least as far as the club was concerned.
The biggest mistake the club made was not communicating their decision to those concerned before the news was released to the press. Thus, astonishingly, Garner found out about his sacking when listening to a radio programme. When the “Big Bird” telephoned the “Masterblaster” to talk about the sacking Richards simply sympathised with his teammate, not realising straight away, having not unreasonably assumed that the promise given earlier in the season would be honoured, that his own services had been dispensed with as well. Some years after Garner told the story Richards gave a slightly different version, but the gist was the same. Whatever the detail it was a breathtakingly insensitive way of dealing with two loyal servants.
Garner, whose autobiography Big Bird Flying High was published shortly afterwards laid the blame fairly and squarely at the door of Roebuck, who he described as a man who lacks sensitivity and good sense. I’ve never met a man who has read so much and knows so little.
According to Botham’s autobiography his days at Somerset were over as soon as the news was relayed to him by Richards. Garner did not figure in the side again after the news broke, and Richards just once when he and Botham showed their professionalism. Richards scored 53 and 94 against Essex as, despite that and Botham dragging himself to the middle from his sick bed, Somerset just failed to reach their fourth innings target. The county proceeded to lose three out of their last four Chmpionship fixtures.
Predictably there was widespread outrage amongst the rank and file of the club’s supporters. The almost feudal way that Somerset were run meant that the decision had to be ratified by the large and unwieldy General Committee. It was duly approved, but seven members resigned in the process.
Against that background it was inevitable that there would be a requisition raised for a Special Meeting of the club with a view to achieving a vote of no confidence, the General Committee stood down and, presumably, the reinstatement of the two West Indians.
On the day of the meeting, on a Saturday in early November, the roads of the normally sleepy town of Shepton Mallett were chaotic as the best part of 3,000 members descended on the place in order to express their views. The “rebels” were well organised, and in the nature of such movements it is easier to marshall the protesters, than those content with the status quo, so the outcome was not certain.
In fact there had been, over the preceding weeks, a growing acceptance, however badly the episode had been handled, that on cricketing grounds the decision was correct. If there ever was any doubt it was dispelled when Nigel Popplewell came to speak. The son of a High Court Judge Popplewell had himself left the playing staff at the end of the 1985 season to concentrate on his legal career. He had been a promising batsman, not unlike Botham in his approach at the crease, and spoke eloquently on behalf of the Committee, and expressed the view that the big three were indeed divisive, and that they were not always prepared to put in the hard yards that they expected the younger members of the side to do consistently. If the final outcome had been widely anticipated the margin of “victory”, comfortably in excess of 2:1, was a surprise.
It is not surprising that there was an outcry. Any decent human being would have frowned on the way the decision was made, but then it is difficult to see what else could have happened when the issue was before a committee of 12 over a period of several weeks. Any broad based discussion amongst the players would have completely undermined Roebuck, and doubtless exacerbated the problems in an already fraught dressing-room. So I can understand that there were no conversations with Richards and Garner whilst the decision was being made, but at the same time it was clearly utterly wrong that they should have learned their fate in the manner that they did.
Those interested only in the cricketing aspect also had understandable cause for concern, but in truth that was based to a large extent on past glories. In 1986 Richards, who apparently wasn’t always giving 110% (to use Popplewell’s expression for his expectation of others) still scored 1,174 runs at 43.48, but four Somerset batsman, Roebuck, Marks, Rose and Botham, averaged more. Fifth best batsman is not normally what you expect from your overseas superstar.
Joel Garner on the other hand was easily the county’s best bowler with 47 wickets at 23.21. Marks took more wickets, but no one got within ten of his average. The Big Bird was not as dominant as he had been in seasons past, but his knees were not as reliable as they had been, and he had the understandable concern of wishing to preserve them for as long as he could. He also had another problem that no one seemed to have regard to, that being the lack of any support. Scoring runs and avoiding losing your wicket to a man like Garner was fraught with difficulty for all but the very best when he bowled as part of a four man pace pack, as he did for West Indies. It is a completely different game for a batsman who knows that all he has to do is see the fast man off, and then enjoy the easier pickings at the other end, and Garner had no consistently effective seam partner in 1986.
So what became of all concerned in 1987? The Somerset Club did pretty well, particularly after a hugely embarrassing first round exit to Minor County Buckinghamshire in the first round of the Nat West Bank Trophy. They got to the quarter finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup, and fourth was a rise of two places in the Sunday League, by then sponsored by Refuge Assurance. They went from 16th to 11th in the Championship, and with victory just missed in seven matches it might easily have been considerably higher. In short the decision to dispense with the services of Garner and Richards was vindicated.
Martin Crowe scored more than 1,600 runs and averaged not far short of 70. He was forced to miss almost all of the following season because of injury, and didn’t play for Somerset again, but although Botham considered that important, prompted no doubt by the club’s expressed wish to engage an overseas player for the long haul, it doesn’t seem to me to undermine the original decision in any way.
Peter Roebuck enjoyed a decent season with the bat, averaging a tick under 50, and that he forged a better team spirit is surely evidenced by results. He was also involved in the signing of two opening bowlers, Neil Mallender from Northamptonshire, and Adrian Jones from Sussex, both of whom did very well.
Garner returned to the Central Lancashire League, and had a season with Oldham. He didn’t do quite as well as he had a decade earlier for Littleborough, but 90 wickets at less than 10 runs each, and a few runs to go with them, must have made for an enjoyable summer for him.
Vivian Richards was 35 in 1987, and coming towards the end of a great career, and for a while he turned his back on county cricket. But at 38 in 1990 he came back and signed to play for Glamorgan. Understandably he wasn’t quite the Masterblaster of old, but he stayed with the Welsh county for four summers, before finally retiring at the end of the 1993 season.
And what of Sir Beefy? He signed for Worcestershire, not to universal approval amongst the county’s supporters or officials, but the wisdom of his being recruited was evidenced by the fact that his debut for them at the County Ground resulted in the gates being locked for the first time since the day in 1948 when Don Bradman and his Invincibles came to the city for the then traditional tour opener. He was instrumental in the county winning the Sunday League, their first silverware for 13 years. In the Championship though he played in less than half of his new employer’s fixtures, and with one exception his returns were modest. That exception was, unsurprisingly, at Taunton. The weather ruined the game, and only Worcestershire batted, Botham being unbeaten on 126 when the game closed – even Crowe was critical of Botham and Roebuck for turning the match into a purely personal battle. What a shame such intense motivation eluded the great all-rounder for the final half dozen years of his Test career.