Richard Edwards recounts the events of 30 years ago in Somerset that resulted in the exit of the county’s international superstars
A new series looking at events that gripped the cricket world
At first glance, Shepton Mallet seems an incongruous location for a sporting revolution but it was here, 30 years ago, that a decision was taken that still reverberates around the county game today.
At an ill-tempered meeting attended by some of the biggest stars in world cricket at the time, the Somerset committee survived a vote of no-confidence brought by a group known colloquially as ‘the rebels’ who showed open dissent at the club’s decision to terminate the contracts of Viv Richards and Joel Garner and the inevitable departure of Ian Botham as a result.
With over 60 journalists descending on the town’s old showground, there was more than a hint of acrimony and recrimination in the air.
“We were all expectant and all hungry,” wrote David Foot in his summation of those tumultuous events in Wisden in January 1987.“It reminded me of school dinners.”
Life was far from a piece of cake for then county chairman, Michael Hill, who, alongside the county’s committee had decided that Somerset’s future would be a brighter one without the presence of Richards, Garner and Botham – players who had turned the club’s fortunes on their head over the previous decade.
The heady days of the late Seventies and early Eighties, though, seemed a long way off by the time the 1986 season had drawn to a close.
Finishing second from bottom in the Championship for the second year in succession and with a dressing room riven by conflict and self-interest, Somerset appeared to be a club hell-bent on destruction.
Under the captaincy of Peter Roebuck, who would emerge as public enemy No.1 for those who were determined for Richards and Garner to stay, Somerset were a pale imitation of the side that had won five one-day trophies between 1979 and 1983.
Those were the first pieces of silverware delivered to Taunton since the county won first-class status back in 1882. The atmosphere at a club that had previously been dizzy with success had, though, long since turned sour.
As Somerset’s slide continued during the 1986 season, the county were alerted to the availability of Martin Crowe as a potential overseas player for the following campaign.
The New Zealander had already made a huge impact for the county in 1984, standing in for Viv Richards as the Caribbean’s master blaster carted England’s bowling to all parts in the West Indies’ 5-0 series whitewash. The concern was that if a move wasn’t made for Crowe quickly he would end up signing for another county, most probably Essex.
On August 8, the committee voted 8-3 in favour of the replacement of both Richards and Garner – knowing full well that Botham would also pack his bags as a result – setting in motion a series of events that would thrust Somerset onto the front and back pages. It would signal the end of one of English cricket’s most colourful eras.
Just two weeks later, the club committee ratified that decision, leading to Roebuck to declare that Richards and Garner must be made aware of the situation immediately.
A clear split began to develop both among the playing staff and the members, many of whom, unsurprisingly, wanted to see the county’s biggest stars remain while also understanding the need for team unity.
As the whole sorry episode played out it was clear that the meeting at Shepton Mallet would decide both the fate of Richards, Garner and Botham and those who sought to send Somerset in an entirely different direction, namely Roebuck, who had played with the aforementioned trio for over a decade since making his debut for the county in 1974.
It was perhaps the most widely anticipated member get-together in the history of the first-class game.
“The Big Bang happens in Somerset today and the result will mean that Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham will be out of a job,” wrote Colin Bateman in the Daily Express on the morning of a vote and meeting that was expected to attract more than 2,500 Somerset members.
Despite that assertion, the result was far from cut and dry. A poll the previous day for Sportsweek magazine had found that 59 per cent of those questioned in the county were in favour of the rebels. The case of the county’s committee was immeasurably aided by the fact that Somerset’s performance in the Championship had been so utterly dismal since 1984. The flair brought to the County Ground by the star-laden triumvirate, however, was something that even the most hardened Somerset member was reluctant to let slide.
In an ironic twist to the whole affair, the book It Sort Of Clicks – a collaboration between Botham and Roebuck over the previous two seasons – was published in the week of the Shepton Mallet showdown.
“Had I known all this business was going to crop up I would not have written
The atmosphere at a club that had previously been dizzy with success had, though, long since turned sour
it,” said Roebuck in one of the great understatements of 20th-century sport.“It’s done but I will never write another book like it,” he continued.
When the day of the meeting finally arrived, a sullen Garner took his place alongside the rank and file Somerset members who had cheered him on since he first arrived at the club in 1977. Sitting impassively at the back of the room was Roebuck, who didn’t speak throughout the super-charged meeting.
Plenty of others did. Peter ‘Dasher’ Denning spoke passionately of the need to keep Richards and Garner at the club. Nigel Popplewell, though, was of the opposite opinion.
“Wearing a kind of ill-fitting jersey that suggests times are hard for a trainee lawyer earned most applause when he related what it was like sharing a dressing room with the Somerset superstars,” wrote Foot in January’s Wisden Cricket Monthly. “He spoke for just two minutes, it was succinct, well-delivered, condemning. He was a key witness as a player and a favourite with all supporters.”
Whether Popplewell’s contribution was decisive we will never know but the committee ended up surviving the vote of no confidence comfortably – defeating the rebels by 1,828 votes to 798.
Roebuck would later say that there was no sense of triumphalism once the result was made clear. The time for cheering at Taunton had long since ceased. He admitted his one regret in the whole affair was to also not exit the county at the same time. He would eventually play his final game for Somerset in 1991. He committed suicide in Cape Town in 2011.
Botham, who was in Australia at the time of the meeting, would waste little time in signing for Worcestershire, while Garner would never play county cricket again. Richards would go on to star for Glamorgan before finally calling time on his career in 1993.
Roebuck and Botham never spoke to each other again, despite sharing a Press box for the majority of their post-playing careers. That rift never healed but Somerset ultimately moved to build bridges with the players who had brought the county unrivalled success in that period.
A stand at Taunton now bears the name of Botham while the county’s gates have been named after Richards.
Roebuck received death threats following the decision but, ultimately, life went on for those involved and for the county.
For all concerned, though, it would never be the same again.
Departing heroes: The release by Somerset of Viv Richards, left and Joel Garner, right, led to the departure of Ian Botham, who resigned in protest at a Press conference, inset
Parting of the ways: Peter Roebuck, right, and Ian Botham, left