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Born at Taunton on July 9, 1923, Eric Hill made his début for Somerset as an amateur at Lord's in 1947. An opening batsman, he later turned professional and received his county cap in 1949. Now his time is fully occupied as a journalist.
Somerset have never been one of the fashionable counties, but from their very beginning they were "The Team of Surprises". Even their birth took place away from home, in Devon, for it was immediately after a match between the Gentlemen of Devonshire and the Gentlemen of Somersetshire that a meeting was held at Sidmouth on Wednesday, August 18, 1875, with the Rev. A. C. Ainslie in the chair. Mr. E. Western, of Fullands, Taunton, was requested to act as secretary and he is looked upon as the founder of the now flourishing county club. A circular letter was sent by him from Ilfracombe to likely patrons and included the following four resolutions passed at that inaugural meeting:
The first captain was the Rev. Stirling Cookesley Voules, born at Middle Chinnock, near Crewkerne, an Oxford Blue from 1863 to 1866, who was then Rector of Rise, Hull, in Yorkshire, and formerly a master of Rossall School. The new club experienced various changes of fortune, but progress was made when the freehold of the present ground and headquarters at Taunton was secured in 1886. Down the years many wonderful matches and notable performances in the annals of first-class cricket have been seen there.
It was at Taunton in 1895 that Archie MacLaren hit 424, the highest individual score ever made in England, for Lancashire against Somerset. Previously, in 1892, H. T. Hewett and Lionel Palairet had engaged the then best first-wicket partnership, 346, for Somerset at the expense of Yorkshire. At Taunton, too, in 1925, Jack Hobbs hit two centuries in the same match, to exceed W. G. Grace's record of 126 hundreds.
Through this diverting chronicle of flickering fortune, colourful characters have liberally spread their talents over the pleasant rural grounds that abound in Somerset. From the early days when the lion-hearted S. M. J. Woods, a massive all-rounder from Australia, allied his enormous talents to the graceful attributes of that prince of stylists, the aforesaid L. C. H. Palairet, Somerset's ambition has always been to play cricket for fun. They knew their limitations but from the time of their acceptance as a first-class county in 1891 their form was quite unpredictable.
The first season in the highest grade was a pointer. Quickly, the wisdom of their newly won promotion was held in doubt; the giants, Surrey, bowled them out at The Oval for 37 in each innings to win by the mammoth margin of an innings and 375 runs, but Somerset proceeded to end a long unbeaten run by Kent. They beat Yorkshire at Bradford, avenged the Surrey debacle, and perhaps best of all they succeeded against their neighbouring rivals, Gloucestershire.
Probably what stamped Somerset most as a shock team were their performances at the turn of the century. From 1900 to 1903 they beat Yorkshire three times. In two of those seasons Yorkshire, who were champions, admitted defeat only twice, and each time their colours were lowered by Somerset. The 1901 match at Leeds was the most famous and in fact the score-card still adorns most pavilions Somerset way. At the end of the first day after Rhodes, Haigh and Hirst had skittled Somerset for 87, the story goes that at the Mayoral dinner a civic dignitary offered £100 to the club if Somerset won. L. C. Braund and L. C. H. Palairet, both out for 0 in the first innings, each made 100, putting on 222 in only two hours twenty minutes and the final total reached 630. Then Braund, one of the best all-rounders of all time, joined forces with B. Cranfield and the mighty Northerners were humbled for a paltry total of 130. "We never got the £100," said Woods, "but I won £10 on the game as I took ten to one that Palairet would make a hundred." Palairet's off-side play was a by-word of the day.
Sammy Woods was a real character. As a fast bowler and a hitter he made vivid contributions to the game. Born at Glenfield, near Sydney, and educated at Brighton, he captained Cambridge University in 1890 and had the unusual distinction of playing for Australia against England and for England against South Africa. K. S. Ranjitsinhji, in his Jubilee book, suggested that although Woods's bowling was going off a bit in 1897 it was still good enough to beat the Players for years to come, and added, "there is no better man to go in when the pitch is bad or things are going wrong, although he does sometimes play forward to a straight ball with his eyes turned full on the square-leg umpire--a stroke he repudiates and never fails to use successfully once or twice an innings." This remarkable man scored 12,000 runs and took 500 wickets for Somerset. In those days Woods shared most of the Somerset bowling with Braund, one of the first leg-breakers, and E. J. Tyler, a slow left-hander. Besides his prowess as a cricketer, Woods earned equal fame in the Rugby football world. As a forward he gained thirteen caps for England between 1890 and 1895. His quick breaking and relentless tackling set a new style and now a days he is regarded as the Father of wing-forwards.
From 1901, Braund performed the double three consecutive seasons and played 23 times for England, going on three tours to Australia. Tyler took 869 wickets in his career. He and J. C. White shared the distinction of being the only Somerset bowlers who have taken all ten wickets in an innings. It was in 1895 that his ten for 49 in 35 overs put out Surrey at Taunton.
After their encouraging and spectacular start, Somerset faded as the 1914-18 war approached. The increasing burden began to tell on the old players. Nevertheless, some staunch professional stiffening was forthcoming in the persons of E. Robson and A. E. Lewis, both all-rounders. Robson's fine career spanned thirty years and gave Somerset 12,000 runs and 1,200 wickets. At the age of 51 he gained Somerset the surprise victory of the 1922 season when in the last over of a tense match with Middlesex at Weston-super-Mare he made the winning hit for 6 by lifting the ball clean out of the ground. This feat earned him £50 from an anonymous donor.
We have jumped ahead. Interest waned when the county three times finished last in the Championship between 1910 and 1913, but there were at least two silver linings. W. T. Greswell, a lively pace-bowler who had discovered the knack of the inswinger, was home from Ceylon and took 100 wickets in 1912; next year came J. C. White, a farmer from Stogumber, who announced his ability to bowl left arm slow to a perfect length with subtle variation of flight by taking 96 wickets at less than 20 runs each. He was to serve Somerset sublimely.
After the war Somerset, as in the past, relied heavily on an influx of gaily-capped amateurs from the Universities, where John Daniell, the new captain, was always active. Here again was a rumbustious character; an International Rugby forward who became a legend with cricketing beliefs and vocabulary to match. A born leader, Daniell made two centuries in a match with Essex in his 47th year (1925). He is credited with one classic story. When he approached the New Zealander T. C. Lowry about playing for Somerset, he was told that the birthplace was Wellington. Quickly realising there is a town of the same name seven miles from county headquarters, Daniell is said to have closed the deal to the satisfaction of M.C.C.
Somerset were involved in an extraordinary finish with Sussex at Taunton in their very first home match after the war--the experimental two-day season of 1919. Sussex needed a single to win when their ninth wicket fell. Some of the Somerset fielders thought the match was over as H. J. Heygate, the number eleven, was suffering from rheumatism and the effects of a war wound. He had not fielded and was not expected to bat. Indeed, he had not changed, wickets having gone down so suddenly, but wearing a blue lounge suit he limped out to bat. There was a friendly consultation between the captains, H. L. Wilson and J. C. White, but so slow had been his progress that the umpires, A. E. Street and F. G. Roberts, decided he had exceeded his two minutes and pulled up the stumps, declaring the result a tie. This decision was upheld by M.C.C. after widespread comment on the most controversial situation which had occurred since Taunton became a cricket centre.
Somerset finished fifth in 1919, but in the early 'twenties, when White, Robson and J. J. Bridges virtually carried the bowling, amateurs of standing were too often unavailable, but occasionally they strengthened the side, especially in August. Notable performers were four opening batsmen, J. C. W. MacBryan, who played for England in 1924, P. R. Johnson, and the twins A. E. S. and A. D. E. Rippon. M. D. Lyon, another University recruit, was a high-class wicket-keeper and a batsman of decided attacking inclination. His great day came during the 1926 Australian match. Somerset, set to make 302 in three hours forty minutes, began badly, but Lyon, with a burst of sustained hitting, gathered 136 in two and three-quarter hours and took them to within 57 of becoming the only side, other than England, to beat the touring team.
From 1924 to 1931 Somerset were never higher than thirteenth in the table, but still the amateur strain was rich. R. C. Robertson-Glasgow, a delightful personality and clever seam bowler from Oxford University, reinforced the attack. Later he gave pleasure to many with his writings on the game. MacBryan, White, Lyon and Robertson-Glasgow all appeared at Lord's in 1924 for the Gentlemen against the Players.
During a long and honourable span--1909 to 1937--White took for his county over 2,000 wickets and scored 11,375 runs, including 100 wickets each season from 1919 to 1932. His effortless bowling played a decisive part in England retaining the Ashes in 1928-29. Carrying on the Somerset tradition of longevity, White was 37 years old during this tour and although by repute his power of spin was slight, this opinion has been repudiated by M. D. Lyon, one of a splendid line of wicket-keepers beginning with the Rev. A. P. Wickham and A. E. Newton. Newton was actually wheeled to the pitch to keep most creditably for Somerset Stragglers on his 75th birthday. Later, W. T. Luckes and H. W. Stephenson, from Stockton-on-Tees, shone behind the stumps.
Following J. C. White in the captaincy came R. A. Ingle, who hit two centuries in the same match against Middlesex, and E. F. Longrigg, a talented left-handed batsman. For many years Somerset constantly took the field with nine or ten amateurs, but in the late 'twenties, when fewer of them could afford to spend so much time away from business, the county was compelled to rely more on professionals.
In passing, it is well to note that the increasing emphasis of professional players brought in its train more administrative problems. One of the most successful and highly regarded of Somerset's secretaries was A. F. Davey, who was appointed from seventy-nine applicants in 1923. A happy and useful association with Somerset ended in 1932, when Mr. Davey gave his undoubted organising abilities to Surrey. Two of his early assistants are still intimately connected with the club. They are T. Tout, the present scorer, and E. H. C. Wood, the secretary of the Somerset Supporters' Club.
The County found the schoolboy's dream cricketer when they engaged A. W. Wellard, a Kentish man born at Southfleet. His native county had seen him in action, yet never encouraged him, but for Somerset he made his presence felt as a fast bowler and fearless hitter in his first year, 1929, when his wickets numbered 131. That was the start of a wonderful career which gave him 11,000 runs and over 1,500 wickets. As many as 3,000 of his runs were obtained from 6's. He also developed off-spinners to augment his great-hearted pace-bowling. The brothers Lee, right-handed J. W. and left-handed F. S., now a famous umpire, formed a successful opening partnership with Frank continuing his invaluable contribution after the war. A. Tom) Young, another doughty performer with a bat and ball and like Wellard a wonderful slip-field, made sure that the years would not find the county wanting for typical Somerset cricketers.
Opening the attack with Wellard was W. H. R. Andrews, a classic type of inswinger who aims the half-volley at the off-stump and relies on movement not position of delivery from the return crease. With Luckes behind the stumps Somerset could call on a most useful nucleus of professional craftsmen. This team often shocked the big boys. Witness 1936, when having beaten the ultimate champions, Derbyshire, in two days at Ilkeston, they went on to complete an astonishing double at Wells, by a single wicket. In a relatively low-scoring match, Wellard took nine wickets for 136 and scored 103 runs. With Somerset in trouble when they needed 271 to win, Wellard, dropped at one, punished Armstrong for five successive 6's in the same over, hit two more 6's, and ended with 86 out of 102 in sixty-two minutes. Two years later, on the same ground, Wellard repeated his prodigious effort at the expense of the noted Frank Woolley of Kent, off whom he made 31 in an over, again including five consecutive 6's.
When one mentions prolific Somerset hitters the name of G. F. Earle must be included. Tall and proportionately broad, he was not a stylist and came to the fore as a fast bowler for Harrow against Eton in 1908 and three following years, including Fowler's match. He made fleeting appearances for Somerset and no one hit the ball higher or farther. He never wasted time on preliminaries but believed in attacking the bowling.
Somerset were fortunate in having a professional ready to step into J. C. White's shoes in H. L. Hazell of Brislington. He gave many years of splendid service, but the most memorable event of the 1930's as far as this county was concerned was the début of Harold Gimblett--born in a small triangle of West Somerset which includes the birthplaces of White and Greswell. Gimblett was a late choice to play against Essex at Frome in 1935. Batting number eight and played mainly as a bowler and lively fielder, he astonished the world and tested credibility by making 123, with three 6's and seventeen 4's, reaching the quickest hundred of the year in sixty-three minutes. It was a début to confound the pundits, and his illustrious career marked by only three international caps and no M.C.C. tour, ended in 1954 when 21,142 runs of the highest calibre had flowed from him at the average rate of 36 an innings.
Gimblett, whom many averred was not a natural opening bat, hit no fewer than 265 sixes, something no other regular number one has ever accomplished. Gimblett holds almost all the Somerset batting records. Among them one finds his 310 against Sussex at Eastbourne in 1948, and a wonderful 184 against Kent on a turning Gravesend pitch which gave Somerset an unexpected win. His uninhibited and powerful shots often gave lustre to many an otherwise dull first day and even first over. Cricket was the poorer for his retirement due to ill-health. His international career hardly started after a characteristic not out 67 against India at Lord's in 1936. The complement to his remarkable first century was the hundred he made in his benefit match against Northamptonshire at Glastonbury in 1952. Gimblett scored forty-nine centuries for the county and one on the Commonwealth tour of India. Twice he hit two hundreds in the same match.
In the period before the last war, Wellard performed the conventional cricketer's double on three occasions and Andrews did it twice, and as war approached, Somerset flickered entertainingly, in tradition, on either side of the middle of the table.
The 1939 war made few inroads on Somerset's strength. With J. Lawrence, a googly bowler and useful batsman from Yorkshire, the only regular addition to the staff, Somerset made full use of their preponderance of skill and experience in 1946. Under E. F. Longrigg, who had been captain since 1938, when another Somerset all-rounder in H. T. F. Buse had joined the staff, the side reached a record fourth position in the table, with twelve Championship victories. The seal was set on a magnificent season of rehabilitation when they scored over 500 in successive innings at Taunton against India, Middlesex and Yorkshire, winning the first two matches with an innings to spare. Also, it was pleasant to note the return of the University influence in the form of M. M. Walford, a triple Blue and batsman whose immaculate technique and temperament made him a leading scorer in August for several seasons. Other gifted amateurs appeared in the team to give occasional strength in R. J. O. Meyer, H. E. Watts, F. Castle. Meyer took over in 1947 when Longrigg retired from the captaincy.
Meyer was another character in the Somerset mould, but unfortunately he had been away during his most productive years. A splendid all-rounder, he had an unhappy season, partly through a series of severe back ailments, and as his side aged, replacements of the necessary calibre were not forthcoming.
True, the nucleus of the professional staff was far from finished, but although G. E. S. Woodhouse, a solid batsman from Dorset, led them to ninth position in 1949 and S. S. Rogers, a Londoner, helped them to seventh in 1950, the old strength was slowly fading away.
Of the considerable younger brigade given trials, M. F. Tremlett alone had really arrived. Tremlett started work in the county office on leaving school in 1938 and he made a marvellous contribution to winning his first match at Lord's in 1947 by taking eight wickets and making the winning hit with number eleven at the other end. A natural all-rounder, Tremlett went with M.C.C. to West Indies in 1948 and to South Africa the following winter, but not with the happiest results, especially as far as his bowling was concerned. Efforts of coaches to improve him met with exactly the opposite results.
H. W. Stephenson had also impressed greatly as a wicket-keeper--he narrowly missed the 1950 tour of Australasia--but by this time Somerset were becoming woefully weak in fast bowling and class batting. Gimblett compiled 2,063 runs in 1949, a Somerset record which Tremlett took in 1951, but the future looked bleak. In turn S. S. Rogers, B. G. Brocklehurst and G. G. Tordoff were given the captaincy while Somerset collected four consecutive wooden spoons. In 1953, the members of the club were roused into action. After a highly unusual public outcry, a determined effort resulted in numerous players being recruited from far and wide. The critics called Somerset the League of Nations, but the policy of going abroad for talent was regarded as a temporary measure while the county was scoured for home-bred material to be developed in the new indoor coaching school at Taunton.
E. P. Robinson, a very successful off-spinner, whose best years had been spent in the triumphant Yorkshire pre-war side, had come and gone, but B. Langford, a local product, P. B. Wight, J. G. Lomax and J. W. McMahon had all shown considerable potential. At last, in 1956, when the amateur cupboard seemed finally bare of leaders, M. F. Tremlett was appointed the first professional captain. He was lucky enough to have a former Australian Test player, C. L. McCool, in the ranks, and the year was marked by a slight move away from the last position in the table to fifteenth. Bryan Lobb, the rangy pace-bowler from Warwickshire, had come in and J. W. McMahon's two distinctive methods of left-arm slow bowling proved useful. In 1957, with Tremlett striking tremendous form late in the season, and showing untutored but majestic straight hitting to its best advantage, Somerset rose to eighth position in the table. Last summer their monumental effort of resuscitation was rewarded with third place, the best in their history.
This achievement, in contrast to some recoveries of the past, was heightened in value by success of a number of young players who had been on the staff since the stormy controversial days of 1953. Gradually prospects like G. Atkinson, K. Palmer, B. Roe and P. J. Eele were given a taste of cricket at its best in company with the experienced elders. Now there are plenty of contestants eager to show their fitness for the roles filled by their illustrious predecessors.
One thing has always run true to form in Somerset cricket history. That is the desperate struggle against financial disaster. Nowadays this has been greatly relieved by the activities and energy of an enthusiastic supporters' club. Unlike similar organisations, this one does not give block grants to the county. Instead, money is provided for specific objects, such as players' houses, stands, youth coaching, pitch dryers, local club ground funds and County second eleven expenses. In this connection, an example of the increased awareness of the problems of running a first-class team lies in the very successful County 2nd XI. In 1954 only six games were played. In 1959 a schedule of 23 matches has been arranged for them. Meanwhile the County Club continues their strenuous endeavours to balance the working profit and loss account, which it has not done for some years.
Somerset, with a small population and a minimum of industry, cannot call upon many amateurs these days, but the side, with such bright players as W. E. Alley, a left-hander, who made a great mark at the age of 38 with his all-round work in the past two years, Wight, McCool, Tremlett and Stephenson enables Somerset to live up to and even exceed the reputation gained so long ago. The happy-go-lucky atmosphere of a few years ago is still there, but now it has the essential backing of applied talent. There is plenty of life, both old and new, in Somerset cricket, and one knows that Sammy Woods would chuckle at the help received from three of his countrymen in lifting his old county out of the depths of despair into the sunny heights. And he, who was one of the heroes of Somerset entry into first-class cricket, would indeed be grateful to see at least one of his deathless phrases borne into continual practice by the modern Somerset heroes. "Draws?" he once muttered mutinously. "Draws? They're only for bathing in." This outlook on the game has given Somerset one of the most respected names in county cricket over the past 67 years.