How Essex and Somerset share values that English cricket squanders at its peril

ESPN Cricinfo

ESPN Cricinfo

Author 2019-09-27 06:15:22

Of course, at the end of this ridiculous season, we had a ridiculous finish.

Of course a summer that gave us that World Cup final and that finish to the Test at Leeds promised to serve up another miracle.

Just as it seemed even the most optimistic Somerset supporters had given up hope, we saw a collapse that was remarkable even by modern standards. From the moment Alastair Cook turned one to short leg, Essex lost nine for 39. Less than 90 minutes after he was out - a spell that included the tea-break - Cook was back at the crease having been set 63 to win in 67 minutes by a Somerset side that forfeited their second innings in desperate pursuit of that maiden Championship title.

Maybe, had Cook been given out leg before in the first over of the final day (as he should have been), or Nick Browne been caught at leg-slip by Murali Vijay in the first over of the fourth innings (as he should have been), Somerset may have been able to force victory. In the end, though, the fact that the first three days realised just 72.4 overs and another 90 minutes was lost on the final day proved decisive.

In years to come, some may look at the scorecard and wonder why Essex, with just 18 more required, were so happy to shake hands on the draw. They had nine wickets in hand, after all, and the best part of 10 minutes remaining. But we had seen how quickly wickets could fall on this surface and, as an endearingly nervous Cook put it: "You don't play on a wicket like that and expect to cruise through. When Somerset offered to shake hands on a draw I was more than happy."

It felt like the right thing to do, too. Essex's primary objective had been achieved and Somerset, for their fight and bravery, didn't especially deserve to lose. And it afforded Marcus Trescothick, on the pitch for the final moments as a substitute fielder, the chance to lead both sides from the field through a guard of honour. To see how much victory meant to the likes of Cook and Simon Harmer - or, indeed, to see the extent of Jack Leach's disappointment - was to be reassured of the importance of the Championship to modern players. Both sides emerged with credit from this final day. So, too, did county cricket.

And maybe it's just as well that Essex held on. Somerset took quite a gamble with this surface and, while they probably judged it perfectly - the regulations specify that excessive turn is rated only as 'below average' and such a rating does not carry a points penalty - had they won, the season would have ended with us waiting for confirmation of the champions from deliberations in committee rooms at Lord's. And that's no way to decide a sports event.

"I've been stressing the severity of how bad that pitch is," Essex captain, Ryan ten Doeschate, said afterwards. "They've really taken a risk here by producing this wicket, but I'm sure we would have done as well."

Besides, this Essex side deserve their success. After defeat in their first game of the season, they won nine matches out of 11 including a comprehensive victory over Somerset at Chelmsford and are unbeaten in 13. Since they won their first Championship title, in 1979, no side has won it more often than their eight times including two in the last three years. They also became the first team to win the T20 and Championship competitions in the same season. Whichever way you look at it, they are an outstanding club.

There is no special secret to their success. Instead, it reflects commitment to their pathway system, a determination to back young players, a nice balance between youth and experience and the occasional outstanding addition. They have a world-class spinner who bears a heavy workload and decent depth to ensure they have three good-quality seamers ready to go at any time. And while there is youth in the side, it is underpinned by experience: Cook, England's record Test run-scorer, topped their batting averages. Later, he confirmed he would play at least one more season, too. Whether ten Doeschate, who was non-committal about his future, or even Ravi Bopara, stay with him remains to be seen.

"The cornerstone of this success is built on our own guys," Anthony McGrath, Essex's coach, said. "The conveyer belt is a superb effort form the club and the young guys get their opportunity. It gives you that loyalty. The family and friends all buy into it and the crowd that come and watch can relate to local guys. The pathway is there for young players and we're not scared to play them. We've played the last three Championship games without an overseas player."

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There are similarities between the clubs in this regard. There were nine home-grown players in the Essex team and seven in Somerset's. Essex's Kolpak recruit, Harmer, has proved his worth by lifting the quality of the competition and helped developing players understand the level required if they are to progress to the next level. Both clubs, based in town-centre locations, feel a relevant part of their community and sell T20 tickets in an abundance that it embarrasses some larger clubs. While some larger clubs swoop on their neighbours - or even the overseas market - every close season in search of short-cuts to success, these clubs invest in scouting, coaching and development. These are, in short, clubs doing exactly what they should be doing: developing players that can represent county and country with distinction and winning trophies in the process. They represent much that is best about the county game.

Perhaps there was a reminder here, too, that there isn't much wrong with our great game that a little nurturing wouldn't fix. Whether it has been the Ashes, the World Cup, the Test against Ireland or any of our domestic competitions, the sport has continued to surprise and delight and thrill throughout the summer. Given just a little encouragement - a bit more exposure here, a little help with the scheduling there - there is no reason it could not enthral a new generation of supporters with the teams and formats it already possess. We tinker with its foundations at our peril. The boos that greeted the appearance of Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive, underlined the impression that spectators have not been adequately consulted.

Yes, of course we must be mindful of the harsh realities. Yes, of course we must adapt. But let us never forget it was county cricket that gave birth to the one-day game and county cricket that gave birth to T20. It has shown a willingness to change without relegating its own teams to secondary status. As soon as sport becomes nothing more than something to invest in, it risks losing its identities, its loyalties and its relevance to the community. Never more than in the last few days has The Hundred seemed such a massive and unnecessary gamble.

For Somerset, right now, there are mixed emotions. There is pride, certainly, in their consistency. And in the fact the season finished with a trophy for the first time since 2005. There is excitement, too, in the quality and quantity of home-grown players that continue to develop through the local systems. This is a region where cricket still matters. Where you see cricket-related items on sale up and down the high street. Where grandparents, children and young people in bars wear gear branded with the Somerset wyvern. It is, perhaps, as close as you will come in the UK to the sense of what cricket means in an Indian town.

But Somerset have now been runners-up in this competition six times this century and three times in the last four years. They have seen Glamorgan (in 1997), Lancashire (in 2011) and now Essex (2019) celebrate clinching the title in Taunton. And it is starting to really hurt. Rumours have it an open-top bus had been put on standby. Sometimes you wonder if they will ever need it.

While history may suggest it was last week's match at Hampshire that cost Somerset - the hosts recovered from 88 for 7 in one innings and 103 for 8 in the other - their head coach, Jason Kerr, was not so sure. "We were out-played in that game," he said. "Kyle Abbott bowled exceptionally well."

Instead, Kerr looked back on defeat at Yorkshire, when Somerset squandered excellent bowling conditions in the first innings and conceded 520, as a key moment.

"But I still believe 100 percent that we are the best team in the Championship," he said. "The weather hasn't been kind to us this week and if we had been given more opportunity to play, I think the result might have been different." In time, he may reflect that a side without a batsman averaging even as much as 32 is expecting rather a lot from their bowlers. Tellingly, they lost three of the seven games they played away from home. They will miss their groundsman, Simon Lee, who departs for Hampshire, almost as much as they miss Trescothick.

These is always an element of sadness about the last day of the cricket season. But this year, more than ever, it brings with it an ominous sense of the ending of an era. Domestic cricket is embarking in a new direction in 2020 and many of us are far from sure it is wise. To be in Taunton these last few days was to be reminded and reassured of the value and validity of the county game. It would be a tragedy to diminish or destroy it.

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