Why a love affair that began in 1981 has led me to Hampshire’s latest cricket final at Lord’s – SIMON CARTER
THEY are the undisputed kings of English one-day cricket in recent years.
Hampshire have collected six limited overs titles in the last 14 seasons - the same amount they had won in the previous 43 years. In the same period, none of the other 17 first class counties have claimed more than three. And tomorrow Hampshire aim for seventh heaven as they look to retain the Royal London One-Day Cup at Lord’s against Somerset.
And I hope they lose. I will be there, employed by a Hampshire-based newspaper and writing about the game predominantly for Hampshire-supporting folk. And I repeat - I hope they lose.
This is why. Hampshire’s path to their latest Lord’s final may have begun only last month - the RL Cup’s qualifying games are always shoehorned into a short part of the domestic summer - but my path began a lot earlier. Back in July 1981, to be specific.
Though a born and bred east Devonian, cricket-wise my heart has always been with Somerset - Taunton being just a half-hour whizz up the M5. Somerset has never been a byword for glamour or glitz, but for an all-too-brief period in the late 70s and early 80s our star shone like never before. And sadly, I have to concede, like never since either.
There are a handful are sporting trinities revered in the footballing world - the European Cup winning Best, Law and Charlton at Manchester United, the World Cup winning Moore, Hurst and Peters at West Ham and the 1970 title winners Ball, Harvey and Kendall at Everton. At Somerset, we feted our own - Botham, Richards and Garner.
In July 1981, Ian Botham catapulted himself into national folklore - and forever into the heart of this 12-year-old Devonian lad. If I close my eyes, I can still picture him hammering the Australian bowling on his way to an unbeaten century at Headingley almost 38 years ago now. Ian Botham was a national hero, but he was also - like me - pure west country. Ok, he was born in Yorkshire, but he was raised in Yeovil. One of our own, therefore, the greatest all-rounder in English cricket history. The 1981 Ashes series made me fall in love with cricket, and a year later I saw a game at Taunton for the first time.
Botham’s great mate, Viv Richards, was at the time the world’s best batsman in one of the world’s greatest ever Test teams, Clive Lloyd’s West Indies with their ferocious pace bowling battery. Among them was Joel Garner, at 6ft 8in tall one of the world’s greatest limited-overs bowlers.
Look at these Garner statistics. In the 1979 World Cup final he bagged 5-38 to help West Indies trounce England. Later the same year, again at Lord’s, he claimed 6-29 to help Somerset beat Northants in the Gillette Cup final. Two years later, back at headquarters, he routed Surrey with 5-14 off 11 overs en route to Somerset’s - sorry, our - Benson & Hedges Cup final success. And to think he didn’t win any man of the match awards. They all went to Richards - 138 not out in the World Cup final, 117 in the Gillette Cup final, 132 not out in the B & H final. Add in Ian Botham, the man capable of writing his own Boy’s Own scripts, and no wonder we lifted five one-day trophies in as many years from 79-83. Prior to then, the county had never won a single thing since being handed first class status in 1895. And it hurts me to say that we’ve only won two trophies since.
English county cricket is unlike it’s football counterpart, where obscene amounts of cash - via Sky or overseas owners - has produced a product watched throughout the planet but providing the total opposite of a level playing field. Four clubs - Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal - have won 25 of the last 30 Premier League titles, FA Cups and League Cups on offer. In healthy contrast, 14 of the 18 first class counties have won a trophy since 2009. Somerset are not one of them.
Oh, but we’ve been close. Seven times - seven!! - the bridesmaid, never the bride. We lost three successive Twenty20 finals in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as well as the 2010 one-day cup final. In addition, we were runners-up in the County Championship in 2010 (yep, three second places in one season!), 2016 and 2018. In the first of those years, we finished on the same number of points as champions Nottinghamshire, but missed out because we’d only won six matches to Nottinghamshire’s seven. I’ve seen Somerset described as ‘bottlers’ because of that record, when the truth remains we were tantalisingly close to a golden age which would have surpassed even the Botham, Richards and Garner era. Somerset have never won the county championship title. Even in 1981, when we didn’t lose a single game, we still only came third.
There are many contrasts between football and cricket in this country, with wealth being the major one. Manchester City raked in £38m from winning this year’s Premier League. Last year’s county cricket champions, Surrey, banked £500,000 prize money. A fortnight’s wages for some Premier League footballers. Even Huddersfield - one of the worst teams in Premier League history and relegated in March - earnt £1.9m in prize money in 2018/19. English counties rely very much on yearly handouts from the governing body, the ECB - around £2m each - to pay the bills.
Against that, though, the system is still expected to produce players capable of giving those cheating Aussies a damn good thrashing in this summer’s Ashes, and also to ending England’s wait for a first-ever World Cup victory.
And therein lies another major difference between football and cricket, and one which would never be tolerated in the former. In cricket, the top England internationals (Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Joe Root - rarely play for their counties any more. Back in the good old days - ie, when Somerset hoovered up silverware - Botham and his England colleagues played every game they could, in all competitions. In those days, the championship team was the one-day team. Not any more it’s not - not at Somerset, not at Hampshire, not with England, not anywhere.
The game has changed so much in recent times, more so than any other major sport you can think of.
Back in 1979, Somerset won the Gillette Cup after scoring 269-8 and the West Indies (with legends such as Viv Richards, ex-Hampshire star Gordon Greenidge, Clive Lloyd and Desmond Haynes in their side) won the World Cup after scoring 286-9. But both those totals were made off 60 overs. Last year England made 481-6 off ten fewer overs against Australia. Two years earlier they had belted 443-3 against Pakistan, again in 50 overs. Yorkshire scored 260 off just 20 overs a few years ago.
The success of Twenty20 Cup has changed everything in this respect. Now, counties bat in 50-over games like they do in T20 ones, with scorecards barely believable a generation or two earlier.
Look at this one - two years ago, in the Royal London Cup quarter final, Nottinghamshire hammered 429 off 50 overs against Somerset at Taunton. We were all out for 405 in reply. Four hundred and five runs off 50 overs - a total never remotely threatened when Richards and Botham were at their peak - and we still lost! That’s not a record, though - Northants belted 425 against Nottinghamshire in the Royal London Cup in 2016, yet finished 20 runs short of their hosts’ total.
The internet tells me my boyhood hero Ian Botham, a man famed for big hitting, struck 111 international sixes. Compare that to current England ODI skipper Eoin Morgan, who has 266 to his name. And compare that to the incredible Chris Gayle, who has blitzed 517 maximums - and that’s just for the West Indies! Another eye-popping illustration as to how the sport has evolved in recent times, leaving some traditionalists (of which I am not one) no doubt appalled.
Is there now an unequal balance between bat and ball in one-day cricket? Former England skipper Michael Vaughan believes so, and it is easy to concur when you consider Hampshire and Somerset’s form in the Royal London Cup this year.
Whoever bats first at Lord’s tomorrow will probably consider it a failure if they don’t pass 300. I’m not joking. This season alone, Hampshire have rattled up scores of 355-5, 331-8, 310-9, 307 and 301-9 when batting first. Somerset, meanwhile, compiled 358-9 and 353-5 in group games, while they also smashed 337 in both winning a quarter final at Worcestershire and a semi final at Nottinghamshire.
It makes you think. Well, it makes ME think anyway. Would the likes of Joel Garner - and his former West Indian colleagues Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall, two ex-Hampshire legends, come to think of it - be regularly carted over the ropes in one day games if they were still around? Of course we’ll never know, because yesterday’s heroes can never play today. But imagine Botham, Richards and Garner playing T20 cricket in this day and age!
It took Somerset a long time to exorcise the ghosts of their cricketing holy trinity, and even now the memories of 79-83 still burn brightly for those that can remember, and for a very good reason. As I said earlier, only two cups have followed since the trio’s acrimonious departures in 1986. Time is a great healer, of course it is, but trophies help as well.
That is why we desperately need to win our first since 2005 at Lord’s this weekend.
Even if you don’t agree, you can understand where I’m coming from, can’t you? You can never switch your football team, not if you’re a proper supporter, you’re stuck with your first love; the same logic has to apply to other sports. I now live and work in Portsmouth - and I enjoy living and working here immensely - but my heart forever belongs in the west country when it comes to professional sport.
I have met Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove numerous times and have always enjoyed his company. I wish him well in his bid to oversee further trophy success, just not this Saturday. I’ve also enjoyed my trips to the Ageas Bowl, apart from my last one when I was charged £5.27 in the Hilton Hotel for a pint of Strongbow.
Drink up thee cider? For tonight I’ll merry be? Not at that price, I won’t. Another reason why I hope Somerset win ...