From Ian Botham to Jeetan Patel and from Bill Alley to Graham Wagg, championship tussles between Warwickshire and Somerset have delivered some great feats over the years. Brian Halford reports.
In these days of central contracts, England’s top players are seen only sporadically on duty for their counties in the height of summer – and almost never during the course of a Test series.
But it was all a bit different in 1985. Back then the stars played international cricket alongside the demands of the county schedule. Sometimes they would, literally, play for their country one day and their county the next.
And that’s why in late July 1985, even as an Ashes series was unfolding, the Somerset team that turned up for a championship match against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, between the third and fourth Tests, contained Ian Botham.
the Bears took a first-innings lead of 131 courtesy of Robin Dyer’s patient 106 and a breezy 62 from Paul Smith.
Great news for spectators. Not such good news for the Bears’ bowlers, as they discovered the hard way when Botham delivered one of the most explosive innings ever seen at Edgbaston: a 50-ball century on the way to an unbeaten 138 from 65 balls with 12 sixes and 13 fours.
The match had plodded along rather prosaically until them. After Somerset were restricted to 207 by Anton Ferreira’s four for 61, the Bears took a first-innings lead of 131 courtesy of Robin Dyer’s patient 106 and a breezy 62 from Paul Smith.
Somerset’s second innings stood at 249 for five – just 118 in front – when captain Botham walked out to face his first ball. His 50th ball faced took him to his ton after an exhilarating attack which sped him to three figures with just 26 scoring strokes.
The onslaught was all the more remarkable because the pitch was far from perfect for batting; low of bounce and offering some turn. It was Bears spinners Adrian Pierson and Norman Gifford who reaped the whirlwind, though, finishing with one for 164 and four for 128 respectively. Botham’s brilliance was halted only by his own declaration.
The Bears batted out easily for a draw but everyone present banked an ‘I was there’ occasion. And three weeks later Botham, who so often shone at Edgbaston over the years, returned with England for the Ashes Test and delivered a much shorter but also memorable innings: 18, including hitting his first and fourth balls from paceman Craig McDermott for straight sixes.
Warwickshire and Somerset have fought out some wonderful championship matches in recent years – none more gripping than the early-season fixture at Edgbaston in 2012.
The Bears won by two-wickets; a victory built on the skills (with bat and ball) of Chris Wright and Keith Barker and finished off with a flourish by Jeetan Patel.
Put into bat, Somerset mustered only 147, Wright taking four for 47, but when the Bears reached 196 for nine, it appeared their lead would be handy rather than match-shaping. Wright (18 not out) and Barker (46) added 47 crucial runs for the last wicket, though, to engineer a first-innings lead of 96. More than useful.
Somerset fared better with the bat second time around as Nick Compton dug in for 133. But Wright and Barker took their collective match haul to ten wickets as Somerset were dismissed for 354, leaving the Bears 259 to win.
With plenty of time and the weather set fair, the match could take its natural course – the circumstances in which classic first-class cricket occurs. Pinch-hitter Neil Carter struck 26 and Will Porterfield stroked a skilful 84 to put the Bears in control at 145 for two but then came a collapse to 207 for eight: another 52 needed to win from captain Jim Troughton and the tail.
The skipper stuck in there but was out of form. Runs were not coming smoothly for Troughton so Patel took the initiative – and how. He launched into fellow spinner George Dockrell, smiting 15 off four balls which changed the flow of the match for the final and decisive time.
Patel ended 43 not out, Troughton on 15 and Warwickshire had taken the first step along the path which, 144 days later, on a sun-kissed afternoon at New Road, would bring them the County Championship title.
It’s always fascinating to see the first budding of new talent at first-class level. When Somerset visited Edgbaston in the championship in 2002 two young Bears made their debuts.
Wicketkeeper/batsman Ian Clifford made a quiet entry to the first-class scene. All-rounder Graham Wagg announced himself noisily, with runs and wickets.
Those runs and wickets were crucial to Warwickshire’s 88-run win in an enthralling match. After the Bears chose to bat, Wagg went in with his team struggling on 165 for seven, which immediately became 165 for eight when Neil Smith edged Keith Dutch behind. Wagg responded with an aggressive unbeaten 42, adding 65 with Melvyn Betts to lift the total to 230.
the Bears were victorious and two young players, their whole careers before them, had taken their maiden steps in first-class cricket.
Not a great total, but enough for a small lead after Wagg rattled out the Somerset lower order with four for 43 to dismiss them for 209.
It had been a tricky match for batsmen so far so when the Bears declined to 60 for three second time round, Dominic Ostler decided that attack was the best policy. He bludgeoned his way to 175 with support from Jim Troughton (52) and Wagg who continued his fine debut with a maiden half-century – 51. They lifted the Bears to 423.
Facing a target of 446, the Ciderman fought hard. Micky Burns, Ian Blackwell and Rob Turner struck half-centuries and this time Wagg had to settle for four fruitless overs as his team-mates in the attack – Shaun Pollock, Dougie Brown, Betts, Smith and Jamie Spires – worked their way through the order. Somerset were all out for 357, the Bears were victorious and two young players, their whole careers before them, had taken their maiden steps in first-class cricket.
Somerset’s county championship visit to Warwickshire in 1961 took them not to Edgbaston but to the Griff & Coton ground in Nuneaton – and the outground audience witnessed one of the greatest innings ever played in a losing run-chase.
You must feel a little hard-done-by to smite 221 in the fourth innings of a match and still end up on the beaten side. But that was what happened to Somerset’s Aussie big-hitter Bill Alley whose magnificent 221 included 160 in fours and sixes but was so thinly supported by his colleagues that his team were all out for 341 and beaten by 47 runs.
Two half-centuries by MJK Smith, a typically hard-hit 95 from Jim Stewart and a five-for by Roly Thompson left Warwickshire firm favourites when the fourth innings of the match began. They were even firmer favourites when Somerset, chasing 389 for victory, slumped to 23 for two.
The visitors needed something spectacular. Actually, in 1961, county cricket needed something spectacular, 1960 having been labelled the “sad season” due to a surfeit of slow-scoring, safety-first tactics and desperately dull matches which led to very poor crowds. Warwickshire’s annual report reflected upon the season honestly: “Empty seats, empty litter-bins, empty coffers at the season’s end – a sad reflection on a disappointing season.”
Too many batting orders around the country were clogged up by crease-occupiers, but the burly Alley was emphatically not one of those. He blasted his way to 100 with just 29 scoring strokes and advanced to 200 in under four hours. None of his partners reached 35, however, as Jack Bannister and Basil Bridge took three wickets apiece.
With his team just 47 short of what would have been the ultimate one-man victory, Alley ran out of partners – to the disappointment, perhaps, of even some of the Bears fans who had enjoyed one of greatest innings ever played in the county of Warwickshire.
Warwickshire take on Somerset in the Specsavers County Championship Sunday 8th May at Edgbaston. Gates open at 10am, the toss will take place at 10:30 and the match will begin at 11am. Tickets are available on the gate priced at £15 for adults and all under 16s can come for FREE to every domestic game Warwickshire CCC play at Edgbaston this season.