It's a sad, mad yet glad season
Once upon a time, in a green and occasionally pleasant land, there was a cricket season so lacking in good humour, so overshadowed by allegations of corruption and incompetence, its soundtrack the relentless tweet of ill-tempered Twittering, it was almost possible to forget it. Almost.
The Glad Season was the unflinchingly sunny title of a 1955 tome by that pillar of Australian cricket journalism, Ray Robinson, written in the aftermath of England's crushing Ashes victory Down Under. The subtitle was more specific: "Cowdrey, Archer, Tyson, May and Other Young Cricketers". On the title page Robinson quoted Thomas "Tommy" Carlyle: "Youth is to all the glad season of life." On that score, for all the current temptation to remember it as the Sad, Mad and Bad Season, the English summer of 2010 may yet go down in history, perversely, as another Glad Season.
Jacques Kallis, Anil Kumble and that most zealous of competitors, the uncorkable Dominic Cork, may have been doing their bit for the long of tooth, but more than any other summer I can recall, this one has showcased the callow and the new. Mohammad Amir, Tamim Iqbal, Eoin Morgan, Tim Paine and the three Stevens (Davies, Finn and Smith) have lit up the international stage. County cricket may be almost as easy to find fault with as Israel's foreign policy but I've also clapped first-time eyes on - or read reputable raves about - adaptable openers (Jimmy Adams, Adam Lyth), middle-order artists (Alex Hales, James Hildreth, Chesney Hughes, Ben Stokes and James Vince), belligerent batsman-stumpers (Jos Buttler and Jonathan Bairstow), clever spinners (Danny Briggs and Scott Borthwick) and a veritable stack of quicks (led by Nathan Buck, Maurice Chambers and Chris Woakes). True, run-making is the mission that unites the likeliest lads, Lyth, Hildreth, Stokes and especially the electrifying Buttler, but you can't have everything.
Not that this has been a season to compare in any way, shape or form guide with the one 20 years ago, cited forever thereafter as the Summer of Runs. Indeed, Mark Robinson, the estimable coach who has just coaxed Sussex to an immediate return to the top flight, is just one of those who believes that the banning of the heavy roller after play has started, allied to the return of hostile pitch preparation, have combined to make this a bumper if ultimately flattering season for bowlers - witness the past fortnight's sorry scores of 44 by Derbyshire, 59 by Nottinghamshire and 66 by Middlesex. Yet Derbyshire defied credulity by winning their match. A metaphor, perhaps, for a season from which we have been able, somehow, to sieve a netful of cherishable memories from a sea of tedium and odium.
The most intriguing issue surrounding the selectors' ruminations over their Ashes party, appropriately enough, is one that pits youth against experience - Adil Rashid versus Monty Panesar for the second spinner's slot. Yes, he trails his rival by 126 to none in the Test wicket-taking column, but the fact that Yorkshire's best wrist spinner since Johnny Wardle began the week as the only player within 100 points of Neil Carter atop the overall MVP rankings, and running the evergreen South African allrounder a close second in the Championship pecking order, ought to settle the argument, as would a pennant for Yorkshire's tender-footed squad. While Panesar has the seasoning and the track record, all the evidence is that Rashid is much the better cricketer. Besides, as Robinson so eloquently put it: "There is no column in the averages to show how the dash of youth revivifies a side, but on the field there is no hiding the humiliation awaiting a team, Test or otherwise, that is dragging its feet for lack of it."
Cricket is hardly lax when it comes to giving us reasons to be cheerless, especially now that greed is officially God. How many of these young men turn the deposit of promise into the cash of fruition, moreover, remains to be seen: being the cruel business it is, it won't be the majority. It still seems myopic, not to say daft, if we fail to celebrate the possibility that so many auspicious journeys - along with those being undertaken by the likes of Adrian Barath and Suresh Raina - are beginning. And beginning, better yet, just as a generation of champions is busy trading divided dressing rooms and performance angst for pipe, slippers, commentary box and IPL contract.
NOT THAT INDIVIDUAL ACCOMPLISHMENT is the only reason for gladness. Had just one member of the side remembered, or even been aware of, the regulations regarding runners, and hence won the Twenty20 Cup, Somerset would now be scenting the first clean sweep in county annals. As it is, when the final furlong began on Monday, the two remaining prizes remained within reach. Helpfully, they are not entirely unused to turning big asks into small questions: in 1979, they won the Gillette Cup and the John Player League - the first two trophies in their long and largely lustre-free history - in the space of 24 hours. This week they may have the luxury of an additional day if they are to land their first Championship crown and follow it up with the 40-over title at Lord's on Saturday.
Nothing, not even the news that spot-fixing had reverted to having exclusively laundry connotations, would gladden this heart more right now than the sight of Somerset finally hoisting the Championship trophy, even at the expense of Yorkshire's invigorating youth. And not only because Marcus Trescothick, in his first season as captain, would be the chap doing the hoisting. Where Viv, Beefy, Big Bird and the Demon of Frome failed, Tresco, Alfonso, Charlie and The Other Murali may yet succeed (weather permitting).
At a combined age of 102, Thomas, Willoughby and Kartik, the imported bowlers, have been the key to overcoming Taunton's notorious creperie of a square, though it is the strokes of Buttler, Hildreth, Arul Suppiah, Peter Trego and Trescothick himself that those cider-toking supporters will cherish longest. So long home to a succession of bucolic bumblers, ruddy-faced salts of the earth and troubled souls, today's Taunton stands testimony to the triumph of cricketing excellence over executive boxes.
Should Somerset pip Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire and thus break their duck, no one, I strongly suspect, would experience a warmer inner glow - not Viv nor Beefy nor even Brian Rose, the man who captained the two titans and still serves the club as director of cricket - than David Foot. The county's finest and longest-serving chronicler, the endlessly humane and lyrical Foot is now in his eighties and is shortly to publish a memoir that will doubtless be as short on self-aggrandisement as it will be long on perceptive, judicious and gentle insights into cricket, cricketers and all the eccentricities and endless complexities of Being English.
It was he who wrote of his tragic hero Harold Gimblett: "He never tried to hide his simmering complexes: over the hierarchy at Lord's or a succession of Somerset officials. He could be tetchy, a man of moods and disconcerting vacillations. His team-mates admired his considerable talent and the way he so often held their innings together. But they also knew when to leave him alone with his private thoughts and torment in the corner of the dressing room." And it was Foot who wrote of Botham: "Remember him for the matches he won on his own, the unselfish play, the 1985 sixes that went into orbit to smash Arthur Wellard's long-standing record, the frisson he created… and the fact that he actually did savour the stillness of the riverbank."
For those who have savoured his timeless contribution, both to the game and British press boxes - a sweet Footnote would do much to banish memories of a summer of sourness.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton