Somerset imaginations stir even as Essex and the rain conspire against them
Somerset 75 for 4 (Cook 2-5) v Essex
James Hildreth gets inside the line of a ball from Simon Harmer and sweeps it to the boundary just to the right of Gimblett's Hill. The locals at the County Ground applaud the stroke and are momentarily buoyed by fresh hope. But it is a rare reverse for Harmer, who will shortly trap Hildreth and Tom Banton leg before wicket in the space of three balls. The offspinner has now taken 80 wickets in the Championship and is a bowler of rare skill and subtlety. He dismissed Hildreth for 32 when bowling round the wicket to cramp the batsman for room and then accounted for Banton in more conventional style from over the wicket. Both balls turned appreciably but this pitch has not yet behaved sufficiently erratically to send the pitch inspectors into a ferment.
Despite a dismal weather forecast there is a large crowd at Taunton, which is only fitting on the first morning of the match which will decide the destiny of the County Championship. Sky are covering the game and there is a bevy of radio commentaries, both local and national. Everyone is focused closely on the immediate moment and the destiny of the greatest prize in English domestic cricket. In order to accommodate other media, the written press are housed in Portakabins, just as they were when Tom Abell made his maiden first-class century four sweet summers ago. That rehousing was necessitated by the construction of the Somerset pavilion, which is only the latest of Taunton's new buildings and, in a glorious piece of eccentricity, the fourth of its pavilions.
And yet, even on a ground so obviously clothed in modernity, the past exerts a powerful hold, an effect achieved not simply by the large pictures and brief biographies of Somerset cricketers which are placed every few yards on the perimeter wall and inside the Ondaatje Pavilion. Somerset's history is fondly remembered partly because the county has been freakishly lucky in the quality of its cricket writers, many of whom worked in the old press box with its high desks and its scant acknowledgement of technological change.
This was a good day for Essex. Sam Cook removed Murali Vijay and Steve Davies inside the first 20 minutes of the morning and when the predicted rain arrived at 12.10pm Somerset were 75 for 4. Their chances of posting the sort of total that might help them to embarrass their opponents in the remainder of the game have been significantly damaged. Yet this has still been a fine season for Somerset cricket and one wonders what men like David Foot and Alan Gibson might have made of it.
Foot worked mainly for newspapers in the West Country and also for the Guardian. His books of essays, Beyond Bat and Ball and Fragments of Idolatry, are as good as that form has produced. Rich in knowledge and insight, they capture a cricketer's character in a phrase. Take this, for example, from "Twelve O'Clock Low", Foot's brilliant essay on Bill Andrews:
He was the most popular figure Somerset cricket ever had. Certainly Sammy Woods, who also liked the raucous chatter of a skittle alley and possessed the classless bonhomie that becomes an Aussie, was his only rival. Lionel Palairet's popularity was largely confined to the hotel lounge, Gimblett's to the Taunton (and Frome) grounds and fourth-form romance, Farmer White's to the harvest suppers around the Quantocks and Botham's to the pulp forests of the tabloid devotees.
Andrews' bowling action was known as "Twelve O'Clock High". The title of the essay refers to the depression with which this fine cricketer was cursed. Foot knew Andrews so well that he was able to see how an apparently extrovert character also suffered the sideswipes of fate.
The old wooden stand from which Foot watched countless days of county cricket is gone; the famous Stragglers Bar is gone; and the old press box with those desks and its hot water urn chuntering in the background is gone, too. Yet time was when at least one journalist used to sit in that box comforted by the fact that it was where Foot and Gibson had worked.
Alan Gibson's reports in the Times were favoured both by those who played the game professionally and those who simply watched it. Sometimes he did not write about the play so much as the experience of attending a match. Railway stations featured as frequently as pavilions, a fact beautifully reflected in Of Didcot and the Demon a glorious and very honest book, written and edited by Gibson's son, Anthony, and lovingly produced by Stephen Chalke's Fairfield imprint.
There were occasions when all the inspiration Gibson needed was a chance meeting. Take this from 1971:
I knew it was going to be a good day when I passed Jeremy Thorpe at Taunton station. "So do great ships pass in the night," he said, a remark I hereby pass on to my grand-children, with supplications to the compositor for no misprints. I might even have guessed that it would be a good day for Brian Close, another man who has been bludgeoned by fate but repeatedly emerged unbowed and unbloody, except in the strictly technical sense. Both, also, are not afraid to hit out at bowling of the slow left variety.
Gibson concocted fine soubriquets for his favourite cricketers. Robin Jackman was the "Shoreditch Sparrow"; Colin Dredge was the "Demon of Frome". As one watched Somerset battle away in this game they must win to take their first title, one wondered what Gibson would make of today's cricketers. Would the Overton twins be "The Instow Monoliths"? Would Jack Leach be "Sainsbury's Archivist"?
But that's the point about writers so rich in human sympathy and so bounteously endowed with talent as David Foot and Alan Gibson. Their writings live on, even through their palest imitators and even on damp days when the title may be slipping away from Somerset. "The past becomes the present inside your head," says Margrethe, Niels Bohr's wife, in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen .