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Vic Marks: A rivalry years in the making

Journalist and Somerset supporter, Sam Dalling has submitted a number of articles to the Club which we will be posting during the next few weeks.

His second article focusses on Vic Marks.

For a while now, Somerset’s rivalry with Essex has simmered along nicely.

Friendly and good humoured off the pitch, fiercely competitive on it. The land’s two finest sides, although inescapably, the Chelmsford gents have nudged ahead on net-run-rate.

The parallels between the two clubs parallels are stark. Both are bastions of county cricket, thriving in their respective outposts away from the humdrum of big city life. Both are inextricably integrated with the local community and fervently followed by passionate fanbases.  And, without the riches afforded by hosting Test matches, both have become home-grown talent conveyor belts, operating Generation Game speed.

Back in 1978 there was another similarity: if either had erected a trophy cabinet, it sat bare.   A combined 205-years in existence and nothing, bar the odd 2nd XI honour, to sip cider from. That would soon change. Vic Marks, a man who oozes Somerset, recalls an epic semi-final clash between two teams anxious, and supposedly destined, for silverware.

It was mid-August and the last four of the Gillette Cup.  Impartial observers felt the victor would ultimately lift the trophy, such was the talent on display. Ian Botham, Viv Richards and Joel Garner pitted against Graham Gooch, Keith Fletcher and John Lever. A heavyweight bout, with a not-too-shabby undercard of Marks, Brian Rose, Ken McEwan and Ray East etc. al.

“We were very conscious that, by luck or judgment, we suddenly had a very good team,” explains Marks. “We had Joel, Viv  and ‘Beefy’ was just starting to be ‘Beefy’. Three fantastic cricketers. We had a few near misses before that and knew we should be capable of breaking the duck. But there was still the burden; the anxiety; the desperation almost. Essex were in the exactly the same situation: they had never won anything either. ”

By 9am the County Ground was standing room only. Back then Taunton was, save for the Old Pavilion’s cinematic comforts, an uncovered hotch-potch of wooden cricketing haven, fenced in by a dog track. “There was an epic feel,” Marks recalls. “Taunton was jam-packed. It was standing room only and they were hanging off balconies. It encapsulated the passion that was growing amongst the players and fans. A possibility of that first trophy on the horizon…”

The gates were locked. And then they were re-opened. Paul Bulbeck – a former police inspector who served as ground safety officer in the early noughties – would have been pacing, walkie-talkie primed. “Our chairman Herbie Hoskins, a farmer from Sparkford, worked on the basis that you have got to make hay while the sun shines, so he went and opened the gates to let a few more in. There was no space in there at all!”

Rose, in his first season as skipper following Brian Close’s retirement, won the toss and batted. The move surprised plenty, common thinking being that Somerset were stronger in the chase, but the logic was simple: pile pressure on the visitors.

It started badly. First, Phil Slocombe, in for the injured Pete ‘Dasher’ Denning, was trapped LBW for a golden duck. Then Rose played an uncharacteristic knock, batting as if he had swapped roles with another of Weston-super-Mares’ favourite sons, John Cleese. He was shelled twice early but Essex may not have minded.

“How about this for oddities,” begins Marks.  “They had a guy called Stuart Turner. He was a medium pacer, no more than that. In some ways a glorified club bowler as he wasn’t quick. He bowled five maidens to Rosey who would have been uptight.

“It shows you the tension of the day: Rosey at that stage was a very free flowing batsman, but couldn’t get him away.  He had started his career as a blocker but freed up once they made him captain. It was out of character for him but a semi-final does funny things to you.”

Fortunately IVA Richards was at the other end. ‘Viv’ had arrived in the Westcountry in 1973, an unknown with just a handful of First Class outings to count on. That year he topped Lansdown CC’s run-scoring charts, while playing the odd game for Somerset’s U-25s. A two-year deal swiftly followed and if he glanced back over his shoulder from then, it was too fleeting to be noticed.

“Those who played with him all say he was the best of that era by a margin. Imagine how exciting it was as young pups to be there at the same time?” says Marks, speaking from his Exeter study, the twinkle in his eye somehow audible through his voice.

“You are looking on and suddenly recognise ‘hang on this bloke is astonishing’. We had the opportunity to see that about three months before the rest of the world knew. By hook or by crook,  we had ended up with one of the batsman in the world in our team. No one knew that when he turned up in 1974 but within a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of innings, we all knew that he would be world-class.”

That day Richards was his at his brilliant best, combining grace and brute force as if separated at birth and destined to reunite. Peter Roebuck (57) provided able support but the West Indian – as he so often did – stole the show. He departed having made 116, a lofted maximum off East’s left-arm spin after some fancy footwork living long in the memory.   “I remember he came down the track and hit him inside out over extra cover – that sort of shot wasn’t commonplace back then. He played with freedom and brilliance as ever.”

Marks and Dennis Breakwell finished the innings with a “skittish partnership – a nice little flurry” to add 79 vital runs in the last ten overs: 287-6.

Even with 60 overs to get there, it was still a formidable chase. Somerset made an early breakthrough – Mike Denness (3) pouched by Marks at midwicket off Colin Dredge – but Essex were otherwise steady. “Sadly I can remember the one over I bowled . It was just before tea and was appalling. Gooch took me for 13.  Not very clever. I was hopeless!”  By scone and cream time, they were 114-2 and well placed.

The home crowd was nervy. They knew that Essex had two of their finest at the crease in Gooch and Fletcher, between them the getters of more than 85,000 runs for the club. Rose yearned a breakthrough. Garner delivered, nicking Gooch (61) off with a slower ball soon after tea.  Fletcher ploughed on, gaining invaluable support from Brian Hardie (21) and then Keith Pont.

52 needed,  eight overs left,  six wickets in hand: surely Essex’s to lose? Botham believed otherwise, first running out Pont (39) with a fizzing throw from third-man and, just two runs later, deceiving Fletcher (67) into offering up a return grab.  By then ‘Beefy’ was a bowler of some repute but that had not always been the case.   “When he started playing for Somerset he bowled dibbly-dobblers”, explained Marks. “When he was on the ground staff at Lord’s it pissed him off that they treated his bowling as a bit joke. They hardly let him bowl, even in the nets. He was there as a batsman and he couldn’t understand that.

“In his first season back at Somerset, Derek Taylor would stand up to his gentle away swingers, but Brian Close encouraged him to bowl more quickly as did Tom Cartwright, who was a terrific player-coach by then. Those two nursed and encouraged him a lot. Beefy would have listened to listened to Tom, even though he didn’t often give that impression! Within two years he had evolved into an aggressive hostile bowler who swung it both ways at pace. It was quite a transformation. By 1978 he was fantastic, simply fantastic.”

The very next ball Norbert Phillip was run out. From 246-4, Essex had slipped to 288-7. Botham dismissed Turner (12) and Garner bowled a tidy penultimate over.  12 off the last, eight down. Dredge had the “dubious honour” of delivering those six balls.  Neil Smith took one and East got a steaky boundary. Eight off four. The Demon of Frome exercised revenge to bowl East. A no-ball and a buzzer gave Essex three. Four from half an over. The visitors had foot in the final. Dot; single; three required off the final ball. “In those days you could have everyone on the boundary and we all were,” said Marks. “I was at deep midwicket thinking about where he would hit it. I thought it was bound to be to me –  ‘I am not sure I want this, I don’t want the ball to come to me!’

“Fortunately it was sliced out towards the square cover boundary where Rosey was. He seemed to take an age to locate it and to hurl it back to Derek behind the stumps. Their wicketkeeper, Neil Smith, was about a yard out. Given he was going for the third that is not that far. It was not dissimilar the 2019 World Cup Final. I think Derek ended up diving at the stumps although not quite so elegantly as Jos Buttler – but it was good enough. We were there in the final.”

Somerset were warm favourites heading to Lord’s but Sussex, having sacked Tony Greig as captain the previous winter and struggled at the start of the season, were comfortable victors.

The wait for a trophy continued, although only for another 12 months. In fact, both Essex and Somerset secured doubles in 1979.  The County Championship and the Benson and Hedges Trophy went to Chelmsford, while the John Player League title and the Gillette Cup headed to Taunton.

Once the taps were open, the golden, apple-based nectar flowed freely. Five titles in total in a five year spell, largely under Rose’s expert stewardship.

“He was not the obvious heir apparent when Closey finished in 1977,” Marks explained. “He was a clearly a damn good player and had worked really hard to make sure he got in the team to start with, taking a lot of thrills off his batting to make sure he scored the runs. That is how he got picked for England first time, not by blazing it, but through volume of runs.

“But he was quiet and kept himself to himself. You never knew quite what he was thinking. However,  it soon became apparent that he was the best choice of captain. He was tough, a strategists rather than a tactician, and was desperately keen for us to win. He took a lot of brave decisions to back the younger blokes. He wasn’t elbowing out the older guys viciously but he was quite happy to take a punt on the next generation. He had faith in us.

“He had Viv and Both when they were young too – they were desperately hungry to show what they could do and he managed them extremely well. It also became apparent that he wanted us to be meaner. He thought we had been a bit soft before that – typical sort of Westcountry ‘not to worry’ type of thing. He wanted us to toughen up. He wasn’t the ‘up and at ‘em’ type but he was shrewd and incredibly determined. Within a very short space of time everyone recognised he was the man to have in charge.”

Marks was one of the youngsters to benefit from Rose’s confidence. Between 1975 and 1978 he would spend the first half of the summer donning the whites of Oxford University before heading back west to pull on a Somerset jumper. From 1979 until his retirement a decade later, the off-spinning all-rounder was a permanent fixture.  525 appearances saw him amass 13,000 or so runs and collect 964 wickets. There were of course 40 England caps too. The local boy had done just fine.

“Whenever Somerset have been successful they have fostered a lot of their own. It is one of the attractions as a supporter. They can say ‘I was talking to his uncle the other day’ or whatever it is –  it helps. It adds to the identity of the club. It is great now. In our first team, whoever they pick, there are eight or nine locals. That keeps the bond between supporters and players.”

Cricket journalist Sam Dalling (@sammyd767) is a Somerset fan who regularly writes for The Cricketer.

Sam grew up a Junior Sabre and is among a small category of Newcastle United season ticket holders that are also Somerset fans. Now based in London, he is trying to write about cricket, and will do so for anyone and everyone that replies to his emails.

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