There’s much to love about watching cricket at the quintessential County Ground in Taunton, Somerset. Typically beautiful English scenery combines excellently with one of the best teams in the country, which can be enjoyed with two West Country favourites: a pint of the world’s best cider and a succulent pork sandwich.
It’s almost perfect. Almost.
Taunton has been lavished with the great and the greater over recent decades. Sir Vivian Richards, Joel Garner, Sir Ian Botham, Sunil Gavaskar, Mushtaq Ahmed, Graeme Smith and Chris Gayle are just a few who have donned the Somerset jersey.
There’s just one problem: they struggle to win anything.
Founded in 1875, Somerset have never won the County Championship and have accrued just seven titles in their history – four of which came during the Richards and Botham days of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But even they couldn’t hoist the cherished Championship silverware Somerset have longed for.
Post-1983, only two cups have made it to Taunton – the 2001 C&G Trophy and the 2005 Twenty20 Cup, which South African stalwart Graeme Smith guided them to. That such a talented club has endured everlasting leanness has led to mighty frustration in a part of the world famed for its relaxed, unbothered approach to life.
Middlesex deny Somerset on dramatic final day
On a surprisingly sunny day in September, this frustration reared its ugly head again in the elusive County Championship. Only this time the last act didn’t even involve Somerset – one thought this would make things easier. Alas, it did not.
No, the Taunton triers had taken care of their own business, demolishing Nottinghamshire in their final game, capping off a red-hot tear which saw them win five of their last seven matches. Messrs Middlesex and Yorkshire were to decide their fate at that famous old ground: Lord’s.
The various permutations soon condensed to two after Yorkshire secured a vital bonus point courtesy of reaching 350 in their first innings. From thereon, Somerset’s hopes were left hanging on a draw, with a win for either side enough to push them past the 226 points which had been set.
And, midway through the final day, a draw was beginning to look nailed on. Around 160 miles away, players and fans dared to dream. Hosts Middlesex had meandered to a lead of 100, Yorkshire couldn’t force the required breakthroughs, and only 50 overs remained. With both counties in need of a result, one of the sport’s unsightly but legal occurrences entered the fray: declaration bowling.
Yorkshire proceeded to toss up 10 overs of uncompetitive filth, which Middlesex lazily bashed to the boundary, to manufacture a lead of 240. The home side then declared, leaving Yorkshire, in pursuit of their third-straight County Championship, the chance to chase, and themselves 40 overs to take 10 wickets. Both were happy.
Somerset, however, were left fuming.
Not that their fairy tale had been dashed yet. Yorkshire’s inability to accumulate runs and Middlesex’s failure to make significant inroads brought the draw that they had sought to avoid, back into the equation. With 37 balls left in the match, Yorkshire were still 68 short but, crucially, only six down, the draw looked increasingly likely. Surely, surely, it was Somerset’s turn. Surely.
However, the Cidermen had read this script before, and in the back of their bruised minds, they might have known they wouldn’t be spared hearing it again. Four wickets fell in nine balls, three of those in three balls. Middlesex were champions, and Toby Roland-Jones finished off with a hat-trick. They’d been stunning, Somerset were just stunned.
Somerset lost just one game all season. Against Middlesex. Who could have guessed in July that blemish – caused by an aggressive declaration which tempted Middlesex into a victorious 45-over 300-plus chase – would cost them their first Championship?
A painful tale of agonising defeats
Success has been sparse yet agonising defeat has not. Between 2009 and 2011, Somerset were denied in three Twenty20 finals, two 40-over finals and lost the 2010 County Championship by virtue of winning one fewer game than foes Nottinghamshire.
Only by traipsing through the pain can the extent of the dismay begin to be felt, and these five near misses over a two-year span capture the height of Somerset’s exasperation.
Heartbreak has often come with a dose of the bizarre for them. The 2010 T20 final against Hampshire came down to a farcical last delivery with the aforementioned needing two runs, with a tie sufficing due to Hampshire losing fewer wickets – yes, of course, there should have been a Super Over but English cricket and marketability never did go hand in hand. Oh, and there was a runner on the field promising chaos too.
And chaos commenced. Forgetting his pulled hamstring, Dan Christian ran a single and forgot that he had runner. Only a spritely Jos Buttler seemed to know the rules, pleading with his teammates to run Christian out – pleas which went both unnoticed and unanswered. Champions: Hampshire.
The coveted Championship was next and Somerset had their fate in their hands going into the final round of matches, but the inability to see off Durham away from home gave Nottinghamshire the slimmest of glimpses, who were left battling both Lancashire and rain.
Downpours scuppered hopes of a Notts victory, but the weather abated long enough to give them the opportunity to snaffle the bonus points needed to take the total. They edged to 400 to secure maximum bonus points nine wickets down to keep their hopes alive, ensuring they would have to take just three Lancashire wickets and not six in the final hour of the match.
But no way could Lancashire lose three wickets in 15 overs with the irremovable Shivnarine Chanderpaul in their ranks? Twenty-eight balls later, the scorecard read 11 for 3. Game, set and match to Nottinghamshire.
The unwanted hat-trick of second places was then completed just two days later at Lord’s.
Warwickshire awaited Somerset in the 40-over final, boosted by the presence of then-England big guns Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell. Somerset’s task became even harder after imploding from 176 for 3 to 199 all out.
But 200 proved to be a tricky target under the lights, especially after Trott was ousted cheaply. However, Bell, the classy captain, crafted a majestic ton to carry Warwickshire home.
The 2011 season left two more savage scars in the white-ball formats.
After Alfonso Thomas managed to outfox Shahid Afridi in a Super Over in the Finals Day semi-final to exact revenge over Hampshire, Somerset could have been forgiven for thinking the final versus Leicestershire was their time to shine.
On paper, Leicestershire were good, but Somerset were better. How Somerset wish games were played on paper. The Foxes made a mere 145 from their 20 overs, but it was 18 too many – a royal choke to end a day that had otherwise gone exactly to plan.
Surrey were the newest county to humble them on the big stage. Another batting shambles was half-rescued by Jos Buttler’s 86, but a rain-adjusted 186 in 30 overs put Somerset in terminal strife.
They fought and teased but were always behind the eight ball, and the south Londoners ultimately celebrated in north London, as the oh-so-nearlys cast another dejected figure in the background.
2016 promised before jilting Somerset at the last
More recently, the winning window has been narrower. Bowling has looked less potent while batting has been decidedly shakier. But soon after 2016 got under way, it was clear things were different. This team had a chance. This team could right the wrongs of the past.
The right mix of youth and wily veterans Marcus Trescothick and Chris Rogers – along with Mahela Jayawardene for the 50-over competition – brought back the assured aura that had faded. It just wasn’t quite enough, and the 50-over story was almost as excruciating as the Championship tale.
After gliding through the group stages of the One-Day Cup winning all but one (the best record in the tournament), the prospect of another Lord’s showpiece final loomed again. Worcestershire were crushed by nine wickets in the last eight to bring it closer. Then on-field and off-field happenings conspired to slam the door shut.
Odd scheduling meant that despite being the Cup’s most prolific team, Somerset’s semi-final venue was decided by luck of the draw, rather than a fairer seeding system. It went against them, and Edgbaston staged the showdown against Warwickshire instead of Fortress Taunton.
Add that to losing Jayawardene, who had to return home due to personal reasons, and Somerset were on the back foot before they started. But this plucky, re-emerging outfit still nearly prevailed. It was just too much like the old days, though, with the choke making a cameo appearance. With 140 wanted from the last 20 overs and just three wickets down, the middle-order stumbled and crumbled, as Warwickshire pinched an eight-run win.
Another season ends with Somerset flat on the canvass, bloodied. So close in the Championship, so near in the One-Day Cup. Over the next few months, these gluttons for punishment will pick themselves up for another crack at glory. A maiden County Championship will forever be the top prize, but right now, any trophy will do for a team smarting after more than a decade of rejection.
One day the dam will burst. One day Somerset’s cabinet will be appropriately decorated. One day the perpetual bridesmaid will become the bride. One day. Until that day, the Somerset faithful will continue to debate whether it’s better to have reached and lost, or never to have reached at all.