My favourite cricket ground is Taunton. Chesterfield, Worcester, Lord’s and Canterbury are right up there, but Taunton is my favourite. Or at least it was up until 2007.
You see, Derbyshire’s absence from the First Division of the County Championship and the vagaries of the draw in the one-day competitions means that Derbyshire has not played there in a competitive fixture since 2007, since when, major redevelopment of the ground has taken place.
Accordingly, until we enter the old ground for the four-day game tomorrow, I won’t know if it has retained those special features which gave it that topmost place in my cricketing heart.
My first experience of Taunton was in 1979 when, as a 17 year-old, I traveled on a Derbyshire Supporter’s Club coach to see a Gillette Cup Second Round match in mid-July.
Derbyshire made 224 in 60 overs with David Steele scoring an unbeaten 81, but Somerset chased it down for the loss of just two wickets with Brian Rose batting throughout the innings for 88 not out, with the great Vivian Richards making 73.
The scores, though, aren’t what linger in my memory. That honour goes to the atmosphere created by a crowd of around 6,000 in a ground designed to hold about 5,000 in any degree of comfort. We were jammed in and the noise was deafening every time Somerset did anything half decent - which was most of the game.
We took banners to away games in those days – a Union Flag with ‘Derbyshire: Peak Power’ and a bed sheet with ‘Hendrick bites yer bails’ – and would parade them around the ground during the lunch interval, usually to good-natured banter. On this occasion we were greeted with apple cores, beer cans (empty), cigarette butts, half-eaten sandwiches and anything else that was to hand.
What we experienced on that day was a partisanship towards the home team usually renowned only in other sports. It was the beginning of a remarkable and exciting era for Somerset as they dominated limited overs cricket with Richards, Joel Garner, Ian Botham, Peter Denning and Brian Rose to the fore.
Subsequently, annual visits interspersed with alternative trips to out-grounds like Weston-super-Mare and Bath were nothing short of a real pleasure. The Four Alls and Ring ‘o’ Bells pubs beckoned and welcomed cricket fans who then mingled with their – usually Somerset – heroes at the bar.
The ground itself with the new Pavilion and Ian Botham Stand was modernised but retained the elevated cinema seats that offered a wonderful degree of comfort.
And the memories kept on coming. Bob Taylor given a standing ovation all the way to wicket when announced it was Taylor’s farewell appearance at the ground in 1984; Ian Botham’s astonishing decision (following a bet in the bar the evening before) to attempt to score a century just by hitting boundaries – no other scoring shots – he made 36 with nine fours before being dismissed; Derbyshire’s record-breaking totals of 707-7 and 801-8 in 2005 and 2007 respectively with four players making hundreds in the latter game and Graham Wagg’s 6-38 on a flat track to hand Derbyshire victory in 2006.
My personal highlight was the remarkable RAL Sunday League 40-over game in 1990 when Adrian Kuiper – with Derbyshire needing one to win – smashed the ball out of the ground and walked off with bat under his arm while the non-striker, Chris Adams, was head down and still sprinting the required single.
Of course it helps that the people who follow Somerset happen to be some of the most keen and friendly in cricket. The ground, nestled beside the River Tone, is now overlooked by 65 luxury retirement homes, while the new Somerset Stand was opened in 2009 so there are bound to be significant structural differences when we return. But one hopes that the traditional warm welcome will still be forthcoming down in the South West.
Our recent return to Hove after 17 years saw a magnificent triumph over Sussex, and this was followed with a famous win at Derby against a title-chasing Middlesex side. For Derbyshire, this has offered a real hope of Division One survival – and the game at Taunton will be every bit as crucial.
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