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PUBLISHED: 10:31 30 July 2017
Although Sidmouth is a comfortable 20 miles away from the Somerset border, the town can justifiably claim to be the place where Somerset County Cricket Club was born. It was in 1875 that the Gentlemen of Devon played host to their Somerset counterparts and, after an easy victory for the visitors, the Somerset team and their officials held a meeting in the town and decided to form a county side. And the rest, as they say, is history.
By 1998 Sidmouth was an established centre for cricket. The club’s beginnings can be traced to 1923 when the Gentlemen of Sidmouth started hosting matches, having chosen the Fortfield as their home ground. A wise choice. So with the club celebrating 175 years in existence Somerset CCC returned ‘home’ to East Devon in May that year to help Sidmouth’s celebrations with a game in front of a bumper crowd.
Somerset were a team on the up after some disappointing seasons during the ’90s. In their squad that season they could boast England regular Andrew Caddick, former England stars Dermot Reeve and Mark Lathwell, with a future England legend called Marcus Trescothick available for selection too.
Sidmouth were a Devon Premier League club having won the A Division the season before, but they were far from the established Premier League title winning club that they are today. Sidmouth’s first title win was the A Division in 1988 but, far from being a springboard to greater success, the club endured some volatile seasons after a dramatic loss of half-a-dozen or so key players, leaving the Fortfield side somewhat struggling. A new breed of young players came in and a return to the top flight followed with another A Division win in 1992, but they yo-yoed between the top two tiers for several seasons with further second tier title successes in 1992 and 1995 before the aforementioned 1997 season success.
The club prepared a brochure for the game which pronounced Sidmouth as the ‘ancestral home of Somerset cricket’ with contributions from players and officials from both clubs.
The game went as expected with the first-class team always likely winners as they brought a strong side to the seaside. One player who turned out for Sidmouth has some memories of the day and the key performers as Anthony ‘Griff’ Griffiths recalls the game having a strange start: “Andy Caddick came and batted early on for Somerset,” he reflects. “But he was due to play for England against the Rest of the World, so left for Lords straight after his knock. Unfortunately for him, when he got there he was named 12th man!”
Sidmouth’s overseas player that season was West Indian paceman Tennyson Roach, who had taken all ten wickets in a Devon League game against Bideford in Westward Ho! one season earlier, thereby joining an exclusive club of Sidmouth players to achieve that feat. He had a good game as Griff remembers: “Tennyson didn’t look out of his depth at all and gave the Somerset batters a tough time and took a couple of wickets. But they were different class; Stefan Jones scored some runs and Mike Burns looked handy, hitting one huge six onto the terrace”.
When Sidmouth batted there were some useful contributions: “Ian Gambles, the chairman’s son, hit 30-odd and looked good. A few scored some runs. But they were very professional and Graham Rose bowled well. In fact, I think he got me out!”
It was a good day enjoyed by all who were there, with the result insignificant. The connections between the two clubs remain intact even all these years later - with many players representing both clubs.
Frank Irish was one of those who made his mark playing at the Fort Field and he caught Somerset’s attention after two impressive seasons with bat in hand in 1948 and 1949 when he averaged 86.33 and 63.44 respectively. The player took a gamble putting his business interests to one side when Somerset offered a deal for 1950, and this looked a good move as his early form at Taunton suggested a new career was opening up, but after a poor run Somerset rather prematurely lost interest in Irish. They did, however, offer a contract for 1951 but Irish declined, preferring to play for Sidmouth and Devon and return to his business.
Eric Hill played 72 times for Somerset between 1947 and 1952 while also captaining the second XI. He then carved out a reputation in the press box as an honest and brave commentator of the game never scared to take on the establishment, especially in defence of his beloved Somerset. Hill played many times for Sidmouth and made no secret of his love of the club.
Promising pace bowler John Harris was just 16 years old when he made his Somerset debut in 1952. However his time as a pro cricketer was hindered by injury and he lost two years to National Service before his career ended prematurely in 1959. After working in Suffolk, for whom he played Minor Counties cricket, John moved to Sidmouth as captain and groundsman. His best season was 1972 when he hit 2,356 runs, at an average of 62, and his spin bowling accounted for 87 wickets. He then enjoyed many seasons as a first class umpire. A sprightly 81 he keeps himself busy these days running Drum Kennels.
Reserve wicket keeper Peter Eele was understudy to Somerset legend Harold Stephenson in the early 60s, deputising occasionally but good enough to score one century against the touring Pakistanis. When it looked like his chance had finally arrived Somerset signed Lancashire’s Geoff Clayton instead and Eele was released in 1964. Disappointed, he came to Sidmouth and played many seasons scoring runs consistently and practicing his spin bowling. Like John Harris he too became a first class umpire.
In the late 50s several players played occasionally for Sidmouth to gain some match practice. These included batsman Geoff Keith and fast bowler Ken Biddulph, both of whom had short careers for Somerset.
One of the most controversial figures in Somerset history is former captain Peter Roebuck. His first port of call after leaving Taunton was Sidmouth, for whom he played in the Devon League while also captaining Devon who enjoyed major success under his leadership. Roebuck made Sidmouth his home for a while becoming a respected journalist and commentator of the game. His death in suspicious circumstances in Cape Town, South Africa in 2011 was much documented and continues to be in the news today.
In the 80s Somerset gave Sidmouth two former players. Neil Russom played only four times for Somerset but was part of a strong Sidmouth side in the early part of that decade. Jeremy Lloyds played in Somerset’s glory side of the late 70s and early 80s. He played in the 1983 NatWest Trophy final and is one of only seventeen Somerset players to score a century in each innings of a County Championship. He came to Sidmouth after a stint at Gloucestershire. He is another that became a first-class umpire, making the international list in 2000.
Russom played alongside Steve Palfrey, a feared fast bowler who took many wickets earning himself a Somerset trial. But after a few second XI games Somerset decided not to offer a contract.
Fast bowler Ian Bishop joined Sidmouth in 1998 having left Somerset the previous year after playing just once.
Sidmouth legend Neil Hancock hailed from Australia but his form for the club attracted Somerset when they found themselves short of seam bowling options. He played enthusiastically three times for the cider county in 2004 with little to show for it but pride.
It all looked so promising for Adam Dibble when he made his Somerset bow in the second XI in 2009 and 2010 and made quite an impression. The following season he made his first-class debut for the county and, in October, travelled to India and played well in the last two games of the Champions League, including the narrow semi-final defeat to eventual winners, the star-studded Mumbai Indians. Injuries hampered him throughout –and often just as he was gaining some momentum - and he was released in 2015 and he followed his father Mike into Estate Agency.
The most recent player to represent both is Dom Bess, who continues to earn rave reviews and was recently called up for the England Lions team aged just 19. But with such a flourishing set-up and youth development programme Dom is highly unlikely to be the last player from Sidmouth to wear the colours of Somerset. n
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