James Hildreth: An Appreciation

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.

Today he marks James Hildreth overtaking Bill Alley to become Somerset’s fourth highest run scorer in First Class cricket.

Runs, they say, are a batter’s currency: James Hildreth now has 16,647 of them in a Somerset shirt. On a cold, damp April afternoon, the right hander gently drove at Steve Finn and the ball raced away to the vacant third-man boundary.

And that was that. No great fanfare or celebration. It was a moment that deserved to come in front of a hearty Taunton crowd, who doubtless would have acknowledged one of their finest servants warmly.

But then again, in many ways the moment was perfect, fittingly understated as the softly spoken Hildreth so often is. Understated, but in these parts certainly not underappreciated.

He has held the county’s all-time appearance record for a couple of years and now only three men – Harold Gimblett (21,142), Marcus Trescothick (19,654) and Peter Wight (16,965) – have outscored him.

“With society these days and social media the old ‘no, I didn’t have a clue’ answer doesn’t work anymore,” he chuckles honestly when questioned whether he was aware of the milestone. “When your career starts you never think about any of these things, and naturally no-one tells you about them.  But as you get older you get a little more philosophical and start looking back with a bit of pride. These kind of records – they are historical – they’re not seasonal. This one is in the context of the whole history of Somerset and so it is important to me. In 20 or 30 years I will look back on it with immense pride.”

Hildreth has been a papal mainstay of the Somerset middle order for 19 seasons now, and for most of that time the runs have flowed as freely as the apple nectar in the stands.  The facial hair has changed – a beard that gives him a wise if not grizzly appearance is now a staple –but much of the rest remains as it was. For almost two decades now, ‘Hildy’ has been ‘Hildy’.

Many hundreds – 52 at last count – and 118 half-centuries have been notched, and he has spent almost four years of his adult life playing for the Cidermen. Seven times he has made the 1,000 First Class runs a season mark and he has grabbed the best part of 400 catches, the majority at slip.

That he never got an England call will forever remain a mystery – a man with a sweep shot to rival Joe Root might just have come in handy on a recent sub-continent jolly – but this is neither the time nor place for that (non) argument.

Asking Hildreth for a stand out moment feels a tad unfair: how can a sample size of 668 games be distilled that way?  Still, worth a try though.

Beauty sees a beast…

There is a serenity to Hildreth’s batting, his trusty Gray Nicholls a natural extension to his arm. The polar opposite to, according to reports, his behaviour toward whoever has the unfortunate task of officiating the squad’s pre-game kickabouts.  It is wholesome too, enriching the soul like a sporting vaccination against life’s ailments.  Given there are many who would willingly pay to watch Hildreth go merrily about his business, it may come a surprise that he does not see his own beauty.

“In my mind’s eye, I feel like I am Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar or Ricky Pointing,” he begins. “But then I look at myself and go ‘oh my god’. I would like to be the perfect technical player but I watch myself and think ‘I don’t like the look of that’.  I really don’t like it. I never have and find it quite uncomfortable. If there is stuff I’m concerned about and want to work on, I will watch it but I’ve never been one to watch hundreds I’ve made back. I know that if I look back I will over-analyse it and so I steer clear. I’ve just never really done it.”

2003 – the teenager and the Rawalpindi Express

Hildreth was one of the early Somerset Academy graduates, making his First XI debut during the 2003 summer. That year he played a handful of Norwich Union League games while also making his First Class bow against Derbyshire in the game that ensured Ian Blackwell’s cult-status. The all-rounder struck an unbeaten 247, including an eye-watering 11 sixes, out of his side’s 409. That included a last wicket partnership with Nixon McClean worth 163 in just 15 overs.

Come the following May, it was Hildreth’s turn to make his mark. Durham were the visitors, and amongst the attack they counted the world’s first – and to date only – 100mph man: Shoaib Akhtar.

“I was so carefree back them,” Hildreth recalls excitedly. “I got a game because John Francis was injured and so there was no pressure on me to score runs. I didn’t watch massive amounts of cricket growing up but obviously I knew about Shoaib. I was intrigued more than anything. Is it as quick as everyone says? Am I up to this? Can I play at this level? Will I be able to see the ball?”

With Shoaib at the end of his not inconsiderable run, intrigue could easily have turned to fear.  “I was pretty nervous but also excited. It was so novel. He probably didn’t need that long a run up but it added to the theatre of it. Seeing Shoaib as a dot in the distance, I was thinking is this really happening? The heart was racing. Is he going to hit me in the head? I was stood there pinching myself really. I still couldn’t believe I was getting paid to play cricket. It felt so surreal but I just loved it: I don’t know if you’d call it enjoyable but it was brilliant. Those early days were some of the greatest times. There was nothing really on it so I could just go out and try to impress people.” Impress he did, a maiden First Class hundred in the first innings (101 off 113 balls) followed by 72 off 102 in the second. “I thought ‘well if I can face that, I can face anything’. But then I realised I don’t mind facing those bowlers: it is the little dibbly-dobblers that seam it around on green wickets that are harder!”

2005 – Something Kinda Ooooh

Hildreth did not have long to wait for his first taste of silverware in aSomerset shirt, with South Africa skipper Graeme Smith leading the team to T20 glory in 2005. The format was still in its infancy and Hildreth remembers fondly securing the title at the Oval, the sound of the underground reverberating nearby.

Having watched on as Lancashire put Surrey to the sword, Somerset squeezed past defending champions Leicestershire in the second semi-final and, after enjoying the pre-final pop concert, were forced to wait for the skies to clear before the showdown could begin.

With the match reduced to 16 overs a side, the Red Rose county elected to bat first but were restricted to just 114/8, Stuart Law the mainstay with 59. England star Andrew Flintoff was dismissed by Andy Caddick for just two, while Andrew Symonds was run-out by Wes Durston for 12. Smith was at his belligerent best, blazing an unbeaten 66, leaving a Hildreth cameo (16 off 14) to complete the chase. “I was only 20 and that day still lives with me. Not just because I hit the winning runs – I only got 10 or so – but because it was one of those ‘pinch yourself’ moments. They had an all-star line-up full of internationals. Jimmy Anderson is running in; Graeme Smith is at the other end and Symonds and Flintoff are out there. There was a full crowd with Girls Aloud performing. I’m just stood thinking ‘is this happening?’

“It was so mad that we won it. We scraped through the group stages with a win at Northants to finish third. We were getting stuffed in the semi-final until Darren Maddy ran down the wicket and lost them the game really. The rain helped us a bit and then Mal Loye hit one of his sweep shots straight to the fielder. At that point, we were thinking this is meant to be.”

A lesser remembered aspect of that trophy win was that Hildreth got through more than 22 overs with the ball across the tournament: “I think I got ten wickets and was joint third leading wicket-taker wasn’t I?” he recalls chuckling. “Not sure what that says about the rest of the bowling! Keeper up, stump-to-stump, mix the pace up – it did a job. Graeme quite liked it as an option and then Justin Langer came in as captain. Well, he had a slightly different view on my bowling. It was good fun while it lasted though!”

And as if that was not enough pleasure for one summer, Hildreth’s 38 not out also helped Somerset to a famous victory over the touring Australian’s. Chasing 343, three figures from both Smith and Sanath Jayasuriya helped set up the win. “I think that was the only time Jayasuriya got runs for us wasn’t it?! That Australian side were one of the greatest teams that ever played the game. As it transpired Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting retired but that didn’t really matter. We still managed to chase down a big total and a little Somerset side from the West Country beat the Aussies. You can see what it means to everyone else when you win that kind of game. As players we get over it pretty quickly, but the fans dine off those moments for a long time.”

2009 – triple figure fun

The opening day of the season is, however experienced the player, fraught with nerves. For batters in particular, there can be trepidation as to how to go about scoring runs in tricky April conditions. The first hurdle is getting off the mark and then it is about trying to find early form.

When Warwickshire visited Taunton in mid-April 2009, Somerset were forced to watch on as England star Ian Bell made a fluent 172, the visitors racking up an even 500. From his vantage point at slip, Hildreth was licking his lips.

No wonder: a few days later he had passed his previous First Class best (227) and ended unbeaten on 303 from 338 balls. The innings occupied almost eight hours and was the earliest triple-century scored in an English season (Justin Langer, also playing in the game, had previously set the record with 315 on 20 April 2007).

“You get reminded of innings so they are the ones that stand out because they are the ones you are asked to remember. I did an interview about that one the other day…I don’t know why I did that. I forget quite a few of them.” The interview was for The Cricketer, and was published on the 12th anniversary of the knock.  That he did not know why he was doing the interview but obliged anyway sums the man up; modest and humble almost to a fault, unassuming and generous with his time.

2011 – An Indian odyssey

It is a crying shame that the T20 Champions League is no longer around. There have been whispers of a return but nothing has yet come to fruition. An already exhaustive schedule makes it about as likely as a political apology.

But it was fun while it lasted, and twice Somerset qualified – 2009 and 2011 – by virtue of reaching the domestic T20 Final. The first trip saw them beat Deccan Chargers courtesy of runs from Alfonso Thomas, but they were knocked out at the league stage losing all three games.

2011 was somewhat more successful. Having flown to India the day after English finals’ day, they made it to the semi-finals before coming up marginally short against eventual champions Mumbai Indians. The prize money had they won that game was well-over seven figures and rumour has it the organisers doubled it on the spot one evening at a social event. Money though isn’t everything, and a pair triumphs over Kolkata Knight Riders – who counted Jacques Kallis, Brett Lee and Gautam Gambhir amongst their ranks – will never leave those involved.

“That was the most incredible experience, honestly,” Hildreth says, his voice audibly lifting. “It was the closest to what I imagine international cricket is like. When we played against those IPL teams and they had 30,000 screaming fans in the stadium, it was crazy. I was standing at cover, shouting my loudest at Arul Suppiah at point and he couldn’t hear a word I was saying. It was deafening.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that since and it is a real shame that other domestic players won’t get the chance to. It was certainly right up there in terms of highlights of my career. Honestly, it was incredible.”

2012 – sweeping merrily away

It was a Sunday in June and the Cooper Associates County Ground was packed. Glamorgan were the visitors and they made a respectable 178-5 from their allotted 20. In reply Somerset slipped to 24-3 in the fifth over. Not quite game over but something special was required.

Enter stage left Hildreth, who had been, for the first time in his career, dropped for the previous game against Warwickshire.  A host of international call-ups led to his re-instatement and he had a point to prove, sweeping square on both sides of the wickets to an unbeaten 107 from just 60 balls. Remarkably there was just one maximum amongst his 16 boundaries, proving that power is not everything.  “Everything just seemed to go my way that day. I premeditated a lot of shots because I was predominantly sweeping. I would reverse sweep the ball and then bang it goes for four. They moved the field so I thought ‘ok I will sweep this one’ and bang it went for four. It just seemed like every ball I was hitting came out of the middle and I could manipulate the field as I wanted.

“They talk about being in the zone but that day every decision I made came off. That doesn’t often happen with batting. You don’t see loads of T20 hundreds – I don’t think anyone at that time had made a hundred batting at five in T20 and the situation was a bit dicey when I came in. When it happens, you think it will happen again soon, as time goes on you realise that it was quite a knock and you might not get one again in your career. I have really fond memories of not just the runs but also winning the game for us as well.”

2016 – hop-along Hildreth

Anyone who has played the game at any level knows centuries do not come easy. They are a test of concentration and endurance. Many a decent club player has never got there, so for Hildreth to have reached that mark so often is astonishing. None though can be quite as memorable as his one-legged effort against Nottinghamshire in 2016.

Hildreth had made just seven when he received a nasty blow on the foot from a Jake Ball yorker. By the time he hopped off a few hours later he had 135 to his name, having put on 269 with Chris Rogers for the third-wicket. “There were a couple of shots that were sore but I wouldn’t say it was excruciating. I had to hobble around but at the time I didn’t know it was broken so was thinking ‘I look like a right idiot here – I’ve bruised my foot and now am limping’. It was only afterwards when they said I’d broken it that you go ‘oh, that wasn’t ideal’!

“What’s the phrase? Beware of the wounded animal? Batting is as much physical as it is mental and that completely relieved all the pressure and expectation. Everyone is thinking surely, he will get out soon and that actually made batting a lot easier. I was able to chance my arm and got away with it.”

When it came to picking a runner, current skipper Tom Abell was a no brainer. “Once you are in it’s actually quite a nice way to bat. You don’t have to move much and you can get someone else who is quick to do your running. The two guys out were Tom and Tres. I would have liked to have seen Tres run for a hundred!”

Trescothick himself completed a similar feat two years later when making a first-innings hundred at Old Trafford. “He was on about 97 at the time he bruised his toe. Surely, I have got that one on him? It’s about the only thing I have on Tres!”

2019 – Lord’s (victory) at last

For all his runs, Hildreth does not have the medal count he deserves. Having picked up his first in 2005, a 14 season wait followed. There have been plenty of near misses – Hildreth has seen 12 of them, five of which have come in the County Championship – so few were more delighted when defending Royal London One-Day Cup champions Hampshire were overcome at the Home of Cricket in May 2019.

Typically, Hildreth, who once more scored the winning runs, derived most pleasure in the joy of others.  “I remember walking off and feeling so pleased for the Somerset supporters,” he recalls. “In a way, I couldn’t give two hoots about my feelings: it was obviously an accomplishment but as a player you know just how much it means to people in Somerset.

“You get so much encouragement when you do well and you get stick when you don’t get enough runs, and that’s fine because you know how much it means to everyone. All I remember feeling was ‘jeez the Members will be so happy with this.’”

Hildreth also felt ecstasy on behalf of one of his long-time teammates, a man with whom he has shared many a laugh and a tear: Peter Trego. “Playing with Tregs was pretty special every time he turned up. I was so pleased for him because it was his first domestic trophy. I have so much respect for his passion for the sport and how much he loves the Club. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is one of those guys you want in your corner. He is a fighter. Unorthodox but an entertainer – he plays for the fans and the Members. I absolutely loved my time playing with him and wish he was still around. He is such a big part of Somerset’s history. A great bloke who I will be friends with for life.”

Pushed though – and it required a significant nudge – Hildreth was prepared to admit that that evening he returned to his hotel content. “When we won the T20 in 2005, I had just come from a school environment where we always won and it was a bit like ‘brilliant but there will be loads more.’ And then it doesn’t happen and you realise it is bloody hard work to win a trophy.

“So, yes – winning a trophy, being in the hotel, having beers with the boys that night stands out. My wife and family were there at Lord’s and with them around you do reflect. At that point in time, from a selfish personal point of view, life was pretty good. I’ve always been quite philosophical about my cricket career anyway – there are more important things to me that cricket but you do have those special moments.”

Hildreth is a stroke-player who has scored runs at a fair lick throughout his career, his strike-rate in red-ball cricket hovering around the 66 mark. Attack is for Hildreth the route to success and he has long-since learned to live with the occasional criticism that results from that: “I’ve always been one to be more on the attacking side than to be in survival mode. I do get a lot of starts and wish I could carry them all on but that’s the nature of the sport. You don’t try and get out. It sounds a bit corny but you do your best every time you get out there. But naturally everyone expects you and wants you to get more – if you get 50 it is why didn’t you get 100? If you get 100 it’s why didn’t you get a big one to win us the game?”

Tongue firmly lodged in cheek the grin reappears: “If anyone knows the secret it would be quite handy for them to get in touch. You get a lot of comments about batting so you have to have a thick skin, although it is quite entertaining the way they make it seem like you aren’t trying to score runs. But no, I love it, because the fans are so, so good when you get runs and they just want the best for the team.”

Talk to us about that cap

We all know the one. It proudly adorns Hildreth’s head whenever he is in the field. The distinctive grey shading making him recognisable instantly from the top of the Lord Ian Botham Stand. More laughter comes when asked if he realises it is a talking point amongst fans: “I had no idea! I know it’s not blue like it’s supposed to be anymore. It’s quite well aged and blends in well with my hair now. I played in a warm-up game this season and I think my cap was older than the wicketkeeper I was standing next to! I got it in 2007 but there was nothing formal back then. They literally chucked it at you and said congratulations. There was no big speech but it was still a proud moment getting it from Brian Rose.” Adopting a self-deprecating tone, he continues “It wasn’t like that back in my day!”

To the future then…

36 is no age really, but in sporting terms it is the time half an eye turns to what comes next. Hildreth has been pro-active, gaining invaluable experience with private bank Arbuthnot Latham over the winter. But county cricket is awash with players sparkling in their twilight – Kent’s Darren Stevens has almost a decade on Hildreth, while there are several other elder statesmen, including Michael Hogan and Tim Murtagh, showing that old is gold. “At the moment I am still very much in the playing bubble and these records are important – I’ve never played international cricket so that is my way of leaving my mark on the next generation. How can I make sure my little boy can look back and think ‘oh Daddy was alright wasn’t he?’ It would be nice to go past Peter Wight next although Tres is still a few years away! The legacy I can leave at Somerset motivates me and in time I will look back on that with a sense of accomplishment.”

And there is still that gaping hole: “Number one is the elusive Championship: that will always motivate me. We have come close but in 50 years’ time no one will remember a team that played well but didn’t win. It is tough but it is what is going to keep me going – to see if we can finally clinch it. I’m pretty optimistic but then again, I have been for the last 16 years. We will see what happens!”

With that Hildreth was away to study the intricacies of defined benefit pension transfers. That alone should be enough to keep him out in the middle for a while yet.

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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