A river around the cricket ground, the hills in the distance framing the Sir Ian Botham stand and the church spires rising to make a pretty picture. Somerset’s County Ground, Taunton, is so English and quaint, you half expect old Wordsworth to be sat at the boundary line distracted from his daffodils.
A wizened lady in bright yellow behind the museum counter guides you though keepsakes from times Grace, Gimblett, Garner and Trescothick. The museum building itself is a refurbished 15th-century structure, the Old Priory Barn, where bones and archaeological finds share counter space with cricket curios and stories of Brian Close’s bad driving. The accompaniment to the tour is a steady clack of rare hand-made bats being knocked in next door. Robert Chambers, expert bat-maker at Millichamp and Hall, is trusted by Sachin Tendulkar and was the go-to man when the India girls needed work done last week.
This ground was where Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid took apart the Sri Lankan line-up back in the 1999 World Cup, during their then world record 318-run stand. Surprisingly, the match was the last men’s 50-over international this ground hosted – and one of only three in its long history. In 2019, when the World Cup returns to England, ODI cricket will return to Taunton, and the excitement is palpable.
In fact, the T20 International between England and South Africa late last month was the first time the hosts played here in 34 years. County officials were confident they could have sold out the game several times over in this cricket-obsessed part of the country.
“Fanatical!” is how Andy Nash, Somerset County Cricket Club chairman, describes the club supporters. “We have the best attendance record in terms of percentage of capacity of any of the domestic grounds.” He says they sold out the 7000-capacity stadium in the last 14 men’s T20s.
Broadcaster Isabelle Westbury, who played for Somerset and is a part of Western Storm, calls it a “territorial, loyal following”. “They were one of the staunchest, the ones most against this move to franchise cricket, because they have such a tradition of their county down here.”
In the past few years, the ground has undergone redevelopment, and the 2019 event will be the marquee. But meanwhile, an integral part to the long-term ambitions of the county and the ground has been women’s cricket.
During the past three weeks, Taunton has hosted seven games of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 and been witness to cricket as divine as the cheesecake from its kitchens. For a place that prides itself as the ‘spiritual home of women’s cricket’, the tournament is a homecoming.
Back in 2006, when Giles Clarke was the county chairman, the England and Wales Cricket Board declared Taunton as the ‘home of women’s cricket’. According to a BBC report from the time, the plan was to stage key matches and major domestic tournaments in the town, with at least one women’s international each year.
The museum here too includes a section for the women’s game. Local girl Anya Shrubsole’s player of the match trophy from the 2014 World T20 occupies space with Charlotte Edwards memorabilia and a replica blue cricket ball (so that, the story goes, the women didn’t swoon from seeing the red one; it was an early failed experiment).
“We recognise that women’s cricket is an important part of the ECB’s strategy to develop and expand the game. So, back in 2007, we decided we would make a major pitch to be host of the 2009 World Cup. That dovetailed in with the expansion and improvement of facilities at the county ground. We saw an opportunity with that specific pitch to earn the title of the ‘home of women’s cricket’, which was conferred on us,” explains Nash.
“Since then, the women’s game has expanded dramatically here in the UK and it’s become professional. Other grounds too have joined in and have done a great job in supporting the women’s game. But we’d like to think at Somerset that we were if not the first one, one of the first ones to really get behind it.”
Caroline Foster nee Atkins, the former England opener and Taunton local, who became familiar with the grounds as a player before moving onto a coaching role with Western Storm, says the England team “always found that people come to watch them play more here”.
“It’s attracted big crowds, got some good results over the years. It became a spiritual home of England women’s cricket. The idea was that without being full time professionals, nobody relocated to Taunton and Taunton was always going to host England Women home fixtures year on year.”
Did the nomenclature and the buzz translate into performances or more concrete grassroots development of the women’s game? That is harder to tell.
“The intention was a good one,” says Westbury. “It was to try and create a separate identity for women’s cricket, a statement of intent. They had some good England players down here. Anya Shrubsole; Heather Knight (the England captain) is down from Devon, this area. But nothing really happened. It was just that, it was a statement, it was an announcement and nothing came out of it.”
With the setting up of Western Storm, though, a Taunton-based women’s Super League team formed in a partnership of Somerset and Gloucestershire clubs, and the University of Exeter, there’s been a renewed grassroots push for the women’s game. “They wanted to make us members of that club atmosphere,” says Westbury. “There’s lots of good intentions, enthusiasm about the women down here.”
The league club, captained by Knight and with Stafanie Taylor (Windies), Lizelle Lee (South Africa) and Rachel Priest (New Zealand) as their overseas signings, finished the inaugural edition second.
That, as well as the ECB’s new All Stars programme, have helped create a new generation of people playing and watching cricket.
“We’ve had the highest percentage take up in the south-west of the All Stars programme. There are going to be about 40,000 boys and girls involved in that this summer,” claims Nash. “There’s no reason to assume (the gender break-up) won’t be broadly 50-50.
“Even if they don’t become regular players later in life, once they become players, they’re fans.”
A verse written in “salute” to the (now demolished and redeveloped) Old Pavilion and displayed at the museum perhaps reflects this lasting connection. “In the middle of Taunton, there is a sign which always makes me glad/ Glad to be alive and well … if just a trifle mad/ ‘County Cricket Ground’ it says, pointing out the way/ Which I shall take with a singing heart, and a glow inside, next May.” The poet, Frank H Stevens, was no Wordsworth, but he too, in keeping with the Taunton spirit, is a romantic.