Last evening I felt that I’d been kicked in the stomach. Physically sick when the news broke that Somerset have been deducted 12 points with a further 12 suspended. Hit by a realisation that the dream of being crowned county champions in 2020 had been made much harder.
Let’s start by making one thing clear from the outset. Somerset must accept a portion of the responsibility for the ECB’s decision to penalise them yesterday. I am as partial in all things Somerset cricket as they come (unhealthily so I am often told) but I have been concerned for a good part of the last two seasons that the pitch preparation at the Cooper Associates County Ground was getting too close to the limit of what is acceptable for comfort.
The fallout from the Middlesex game that concluded the 2017 season and resulted in the previous year’s champions being relegated was significant and, while Somerset avoided censure then, they knew they were on borrowed time.
Fast forward almost a year to the penultimate home game with Lancashire. That game ended in two days in a tie but the wider cricket world was quick to condemn Somerset for another “sub-standard” pitch.
I wrote in another place in the immediate aftermath of that game that I failed to understand why the county was not erring slightly more on the side of caution. Somerset have had, for the last three seasons a bowling attack that is the envy of every other county. Pace, swing, seam and guile are provided by Lewis Gregory, the Overtons, Jack Leach and Dom Bess.
Are there any Somerset supporters who would not back that attack to outbowl their opponents in division one on any surface?
We all know pitch preparation is not an exact science. The best plans can be disrupted by an unexpectedly cold, hot or wet day a couple of days before the start of a four-day game. But it would be remarkably myopic to believe that Somerset were not looking to produce a very specific surface. And once that decision was made, were placing themselves at some risk of punishment. Like Icarus the risk of flying so close to the sun has proved to be not worth taking.
This is not an attempt to apportion blame. But it is a question that, at the very least, needs to be answered internally by Somerset before the club can move forward with confidence. Simon Lee’s departure to Southampton means a change will have to take place in personnel and with that maybe a change in approach.
The fact that Somerset chose to accept the first charge levelled against them indicates to me that there may be some acceptance of fault over the last couple of seasons.
I hate the fact that Somerset, my Somerset have become such an easy target for the naysayers who refuse to accept what a force we are in County cricket. The old argument that Jack Leach could only take wickets in the first division on helpful wickets has been well and truly dispelled.
We all want Somerset to win the County Championship. Many from outside the county boundaries want the same. But not at any price. I want that first title to arrive with no doubt surrounding it as to its primacy. Equally, I want Somerset to be a county beyond reproach on and off the field.
And the fact is we have all the ingredients. As mentioned earlier, a bowling attack as good as anything in the country. A captain who is already one of the very best and who continues to develop at an astonishing rate. And a crop of local youngsters who have a pride in our county.
We do not need to load the dice further in our favour.
Having accepted some responsibility there is no doubt that the vast majority of what we currently know bout this whole business raises a lot of questions.
Principal among those has to be why was this pitch deemed poor? Somerset surely have a significant number of mitigating factors? The technology that has developed significantly in the last few years has made pitches and outfield playable in conditions that would have resulted in abandonments not too long ago. But those developments have not been such that games played on the extreme margins of an English summer are in less than ideal conditions.
It should also be remembered that weekend that immediately preceded the Essex game were autumnal. A fact that certainly meant the pitch was under-prepared for the first day.
And the conditions that severely curtailed the play on the first three days would not have improved the surface either.
The next question, one which I have been thinking about a lot over the last 24 hours is why has it taken so long for this hearing to take place? Something has clearly been going on which neither the ECB nor the club is prepared to reveal to account for the interval between the pitch inspector’s report and yesterday’s ruling.
Imagine if the pitch in question had been mid-season. The whole context of the championship race would have been completely changed by such a belated points deduction.
When the news broke last evening I was astonished. The evidence of my own eyes did not give me any cause for concern. Yes the pitch was not perfect but in the context referred to above and for the time of year it was not poor.
Essex were clearly unhappy before the events of the last afternoon. The Essex captain spent much of the third day in the umpires ears and generally chuntering about the percieved unfairness. The leaders had allowed themselves to get into a mindset before they arrived in Taunton which Jason Kerr and Andy Hurry would not have allowed if the roles were reversed.
The Essex collapse on the last afternoon was the result of a team of great talent who just don’t know when to give up exerting pressure on an inferior opponent. And Essex couldn’t cope.
There is no doubt in my mind that the ECB would have imposed a sufficient penalty if needed to ensure the title, had it have been secured, was taken away. Is it just a coincidence that Essex won by 11 points?
So why now and why has the points deduction been imposed next season? It seems to me that the punishment has been structured in such a way as to make Somerset’s task of winning the title in the next two years if not impossible then very difficult.
The 12 points equates effectively to one win. But it is the suspended 12 points that worries me more. It is not difficult to foresee a situation where Somerset, despite the points deduction, are in contention and the Board finds grounds to castrate us further.
My Dad was a firm believer in there being an anti-Somerset bias in his time. This principally manifested itself in non-selection of Somerset players for international recognition (James Hildreth would be his cause celebre), but there were many other occasions where his beliefs were hard to contradict.
The ECB clearly has grounds to answer in explaining why Somerset have been singled out for punishment for a poor pitch. It is not difficult to find examples of far worse pitches than the Taunton surface for the Essex game from elsewhere around the country. But none have been sanctioned.
The champions themselves were overtly preparing Harmer-friendly tracks throughout the season. But that, it seems, is just fine.
The reaction from the majority in the cricket media has been united in astonishment at this ruling. There is a general feeling that Somerset have been very hard done by. And when Don Topley agrees (again) with something the ECB have done you know they have got it wrong.
So how do we move forward from here? Firstly we need some clarity from Somerset and quickly. We are owed an explanation of what has happened, why the first charge was accepted and whether the appeal will take place. Somerset are perceived as lacking leadership at present and while this may not be the case the addition of a chairman and chief executive wouldn’t go amiss.
We are a resilient bunch us Somerset supporters. We have had enough opportunities over the last few years. And now we are going to have to be even more resilient. We are lucky enough to be supporters of God’s own County.
And most of all we have a team and a leader to be proud of. They have done no wrong and they need our support more than ever.
12 point deduction – pah. Can we do it? Yes we can!