Somerset’s cricketing greats

Two new books purport to be about cricket but tell us a lot about the vagaries of life. 

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In the spring of 1974 four young men arrived in Taunton, at the dingy (though charming) HQ of Somerset County Cricket Club. Over the next decade or so they would play a major role in transforming this unserious, rustic outfit into just about the most successful – and certainly the most talked about – team in the country.

Two of them would end up with knighthoods. There was the then-unknown Viv Richards, imported from Antigua on a hunch, who turned out to be one of the greatest batsmen of all time. No mere English imperialist ever bestrode a field so commandingly. And there was Ian Botham, the most charismatic, controversial and newsworthy sportsman of his era, who would mix feats of improbable (sometimes near-impossible) brilliance with on-field failures, off-field roistering and occasional outrageousness. Whatever was least expected.

For counterpoint, there was Peter Roebuck, a gawky, garrulous intellectual almost good enough to play for England himself. But Roebuck and Botham were fated to have a 25-year feud, ended only by Roebuck’s death, from a fall, or a jump, or perhaps a push from a South African hotel window in the presence of the police.

And then there was Vic Marks, good old Victor. Reading his autobiography, the verse Clement Attlee wrote about himself kept floating back:

Few thought he was even a starter. There were many who thought themselves smarter. But he ended PM, CH and OM, An earl and a Knight of the Garter.

Now, Marks has not yet achieved any of that lot. Nor does he have any of the passive aggressiveness that must have lain behind that doggerel. During the eruptions that followed the glories at Somerset, Marks smilingly navigated his way through the lava and debris without making an enemy. A feat that perhaps surpassed any of Somerset’s successes.

No one thought his all-round skills would get him into the England team but they did, 40 times. And Roebuck seemed destined to be the writer: he produced youthful books of blazing promise. But when things went wrong he emigrated to Australia where his writing degenerated towards cod-psychology expressed in staccato sentences.

It was Marks who became the solid presence in journalism – 30 years as Observer cricket correspondent – and now the Guardian as well, which is like being forced to bowl from both ends. On Test Match Special he is always astute, amusing, self-deprecating and still incapable of upsetting anyone. Can I find a fault, having known him about 40 years? Difficult. An unwillingness to confront difficult truths, perhaps. Which brings us to his book.

He warns us at the start: “Don’t expect too many revelations.” Sporting autobiography is an often depressing genre: the flesh-and-blood subject gets lost in the ghosting process. This one is a lovely read: self-written and thus well-written; authentic, genial and full of good anecdotes, mostly fresh. Revelations? Well, he tried to keep his promise. It has been a life with very few setbacks, but I had no idea how upset Marks was that Roebuck got the Somerset captaincy before him.

With Richards and Botham leading the charge, and the other two at the front of the phalanx, Somerset began winning trophies in the late Seventies. The captain then was Brian Rose, an affable local and a Test batsman himself. It happens that Rose’s own book has appeared simultaneously, from the enterprising cottage publisher Fairfield.

Rose’s captaincy lasted nearly six seasons – a good stint until, increasingly injury-prone, he gave way to Botham, whose ego required the validation of official leadership. That lasted two years, at which point Roebuck got the job. Marks was very hurt. But it is Rose who tells the unvarnished truth. Roebuck saw himself as a reincarnation of the great Mike Brearley. “But Roebuck was no Brearley when it came to man-management,” says Rose. “He could be abrupt, acid, self-centred and sometimes deliberately provocative.”

In 1986, with the team’s performances faltering, the committee decided to curb their overmighty subjects. They sacked both Viv Richards and the 6ft 8in fast bowler Joel Garner, in favour of the gifted but more biddable New Zealander Martin Crowe. Roebuck was a co-conspirator and, with the fatuity that attends clever men who meddle in politics, allowed himself to be seen as the instigator. He revealed the plan to a close friend. “In your shoes I would not have done that,” murmured Marks.

The ensuing explosion reverberated round the cricket world. Botham walked out in disgust, and the enmity between him and Roebuck lasted one of their lifetimes: in the one case, a distant contempt; in Roebuck’s, an increasingly enveloping paranoia.

Botham, Richards, Garner and Rose all have stands or gates named after them at the souped-up Taunton ground. Rose and Marks have both served as the club’s chairman of cricket. Somerset are flourishing again: come September they may even be county champions at last. Roebuck died while the police were interviewing him about a young man’s allegation of sexual assault, which remains unproven.

Both these books purport to be about cricket but, by golly, they tell us a lot about the vagaries of life. 

Original Spin: Misadventures in Cricket
Vic Marks
Allen & Unwin, 328pp, £20

Rosey: My Life in Somerset Cricket
Brian Rose with Anthony Gibson
Fairfield Books, 223pp, £16

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order