28 April 2018


‘It’s disgraceful what they did. I’ve never seen such a doctored pitch. The intent was there, so the combination of a below average pitch and intent, that changes things. There are guidelines for counties to produce the best possible pitch for matches. It was a dreadful pitch. In 35 years of cricket I haven’t seen many things like that.’

These were the words of Middlesex’s Director of Cricket (and England selector) Angus Fraser after his team lost at Taunton last season, a result which condemned them to relegation. The preparation of spinning pitches at the County Ground has proven highly controversial on the English county scene, so there was much interest in January when the former Somerset Chief Executive, Lee Cooper, announced that Somerset would be discontinuing the practice.

For many Somerset fans, this seemed like madness; the turning tracks had, they argued, offered the best chances of home victories over several seasons. No doubt visiting teams breathed a sigh of relief. Even neutrals took a view, arguing that the England cricket team needs at least one county ground to step up and act as a ‘spin clinic’.

A brief history of spin in the south west

The whole saga began at the end of the 2015 season when Somerset won a remarkable victory against Warwickshire on a pitch which was drier than intended. Jack Leach had taken two wickets for 217 at Taunton that season; now he took 11 for 180 as 24 wickets fell to spin. Jeetan Patel took a career-best seven for 38 and batsman Tom Cooper – who had previously taken fewer than ten first class wickets – claimed five for 76. At the last gasp, Somerset had survived a relegation battle. ‘Ciderabad’ was born.

How wickets have fallen at Taunton (2015—2017)
To spin
% to spin

Over the next couple of years, it seemed that Somerset could do no wrong as long as the pitch was dusty, so dustier and dustier it became. Spin repeatedly overwhelmed entire batting orders: in 2016 SurreyDurhamWarwickshire and Nottinghamshire were all beaten by Leach, whose spin wizardry cast spells in league with either or both of Dom Bess and Roelof van der Merwe. Somerset came within a cat’s whisker of winning their first ever Championship title. The autumn wicket harvest was plentiful and life was good.

Somerset’s spin attack at Taunton (2015—2017)

van der Merwe

Naturally, they took the same approach the following season, but the plot took a twist. When Somerset travelled, they were confronted with green-tops. Opponents came to Taunton better prepared and took wickets. The Somerset batsmen were struggling to score runs, at home and away. Somerset’s average first innings total fell from 412 in 2015 to 266 in 2017. Now they were being beaten at home. Dawson and Crane came to Taunton with the Hampshire team and beat Somerset at their own game. Simon Lee was instructed to prepare the biggest Bunsens of his life for the final two home games against Lancashire (against whom Somerset fielded only one seam bowler) and Middlesex and only then – and to the fury of Angus Fraser – did Somerset manage to survive relegation.

Average totals at Taunton (2015—2017)

1st innings
2nd innings

Average innings totals (2015—2017)

Towards a greener future

Memory is selective. In reality, ‘Ciderabad’ didn’t serve Somerset so well as people imagine. In 2016 and 2017, it earned them the six victories mentioned above, but they also lost four home games, three of which were last year. Their batsmen were so short of time in the middle – and faced so much spin at home – that they risked faltering against seam attacks when travelling, which is exactly what happened at the Oval and Old Trafford.

Mindful of Lee Cooper’s words spelling the end of ‘Ciderabad’, while commentating on Somerset’s opening match against Worcestershire last week, I spoke to their management about the policy of preparing spinning pitches. 
‘In the past, it was a way for us to give ourselves the best possible chance of winning,’ said Andy Hurry, the newly-installed Director of Cricket. ‘And yes, for the players, it was an opportunity for them to test themselves against spin. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But if we’re going to win the Championship, we need a strategy that gives us the best possible chance of winning any game, at home or away. Our skill levels have to be better than the opposition in all areas, whether that’s batting against spin or batting against pace.’

Jason Kerr, the Head Coach, agrees. ‘In the Worcestershire game, we produced a seaming pitch on which Renshaw and Hildreth found opportunities to score that Worcestershire couldn’t find. We outskilled Worcestershire on a seaming pitch. We only bowled two overs of spin in the whole match.’ Hurry and Kerr believe that the ‘Ciderabad’ approach cannot bring home the elusive first class trophy because it focuses on two skills – bowling and facing spin on helpful pitches – to the near-exclusion of all other skills. A Somerset team thus drilled should be easily beaten on a seaming track or a flat deck. Moreover, it risks limiting players’ development.

‘We have a number of excellent seam bowlers,’ Hurry explains. ‘We’ve seen Craig Overton make the test team and we have others who will push for Lions and senior honours this year. Lewis Gregory would be at the forefront of that. Spinning pitches marginalise their role in the game, and they also alienate the batsmen who have strong techniques against the seamers. Our strategy is to make sure we’re developing all our players.’ In other words, the batsmen struggle against spin at home and against seam away, the seam bowlers don’t bowl as much and the spinners find things too easy.

The Somerset Chairman, Charles Clark, has a pithy way of putting it: ‘What’s the point in paying money to employ very good seamers just to have them bowl three overs to take the shine off the ball, and then loiter at short fine leg for the rest of the day?’ This is an observation no doubt familiar to Lewis Gregory, whose contract expires this year, and who is currently considering his future – another county has made him an offer, and his departure would be a major disappointment for Somerset, who grew him from a cricketing seed.

Hurry wastes no time in describing his ideal Taunton pitch. ‘I want a pitch that has pace and bounce and carry, that will bring the seamers into the game. The batters enjoy the ball coming onto the bat too. And I want that pitch to deteriorate over four days, that brings in the other elements and skills that are essential to winning the game.’

Somerset have a superbly balanced bowling attack. They have four fit fast bowlers – Gregory, Craig Overton, Tim Groenewald and Josh Davey – and contrasting spinners in Bess and Leach. All of them have career averages under 30. Hurry and his team want the seamers to do the damage in the first innings, and the spinners to wrap the game up in the second. They have asked their managers to support them in this aim, and they have received wholehearted support.

It is arguably Lee’s team of groundstaff who face the stiffest challenge. The County Ground is naturally a benign, flat pitch with a long term reputation as a bowler’s graveyard. It can be left grassy to create a seamer’s paradise and – as everybody now knows – it can be dried out until it turns square. It will take some persuading to become the sort of pitch that Hurry, Kerr and Clark desire. ‘It’s not as simple as just telling a groundsman to prepare a certain type of pitches. It’s an art. And sometimes the weather acts against you,’ admits Clark. Kerr acknowledges such difficulties: ‘I hoped that the pitch for the Worcestershire game would bring spin into the game later on, but the weather leading up to the game meant the pitch was too damp, too soft for us to get out of it what we wanted.’

But what of the wider point? English cricket needs a centre of excellence for bowling and facing spin. It is abundantly clear that ‘Ciderabad’ helped Somerset to develop the two best England-qualified finger-spinners in the domestic game (no opposing rival has outbowled either of them, at Taunton or anywhere else). To abandon the policy is surely a backward step as far as the test team is concerned.

Wickets taken by spinners at Taunton (2015—2017)

by Som
by Opp

Clark clearly sees the greater good, and he thinks the ECB management does too. ‘I think Andrew Strauss would like to see spinning pitches here. It’s good for the England team to have spinning pitches to develop their skills on. But they never came.’ Why fill the trough if the horse never comes to drink?

In any case, Hurry believes that his new approach – ‘upskilling in all areas’ is an expression he and Kerr use repeatedly – will ultimately prove more beneficial to England. ‘If we become a successful team, that means our players will have been successful, and I expect to lose successful players to the international squad. I’m comfortable that we have the players who can fill the breach.’

If Leach does play for England this summer, Somerset have not only Bess but also van der Merwe – like Leach, a left-arm finger-spinner – to take care of the slow bowling. Kerr identifies Paul van Meekeren and Ollie Sale alongside Jamie Overton – now sidelined with a side strain – as the next cabs off the rank in the seam bowling department. Certainly he has the bowling quality and depth to win the Championship. If it is to prove even remotely possible, it seems that the batsmen will need to be freed of the torture of trying to get in and stay in on a raging turner. If Somerset are to keep their title hopes alive, then it is perhaps for the best that Ciderabad is dead.

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