Last week was momentous for Somerset's cricketers. Needing a victory to put the pressure on Essex in what is a two-team arm-wrestle race for the title, they hammered Yorkshire by 298 runs, helped in large measure by two outstanding fifties from their skipper, Tom Abell, who batted ten minutes short of seven hours on a surface which some Test players found too taxing.
But that victory over Yorkshire may be viewed as little more than a staging post on a flight to glory should Somerset win the Championship in ten days' time. The prospect is the talk of Taunton - and also a subject which many of the county's supporters are barely able to discuss. Somerset, you see, have been here before.
In 2010 they needed Lancashire to avoid losing three first-innings wickets to Nottinghamshire at Old Trafford. Karl Brown, Mark Chilton and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were duly knocked over in 4.4 overs and the title went to Trent Bridge. "The eternal second" was the headline above Richard Latham's Somerset copy in the 2011 Wisden. Then in 2016 around a thousand supporters gathered at the County Ground, hoping against all cricketing logic that the game between Yorkshire and Middlesex at Lord's might end in a draw or a tie. Middlesex won the match - and the title. Perhaps we can now understand why some folk in Glastonbury or Frome will be torn between wanting to find out what is going on in this week's match at the Rose Bowl and wondering whether a week's retreat with Trappist monks might be a saner option. No one doubts Essex would be worthy champions; they are not the bad guys in this drama. All the same…
One of the most memorable photographs from that Friday afternoon at the County Ground three years ago shows Somerset's skipper, Chris Rogers, "Buck" to almost everybody in the game, looking up at the television as the drama unfolds at Lord's. Rogers had retired from the game the previous evening after making two centuries in the annihilation of Nottinghamshire. Now all he could do was wait. Hardly anyone knew it at the time but Somerset's then-director of cricket, Matthew Maynard, had chosen Rogers' successor. He had settled on Abell, a 23-year-old Taunton boy.
It has proved a wise choice. Abell has the respect of his players and the unconditional love of the county's supporters. His captaincy against Yorkshire last week was assured and suddenly one realised he is now a senior cricketer with perhaps a decade in the professional game ahead of him. But as Abell prepares himself and his team for their vital matches against Hampshire and Essex, it is probably important to recall that two years ago, in his first season at the helm, he was in such poor batting form that he dropped himself from Somerset's team for another match against Yorkshire, at Scarborough. And even more intriguing to discover that Jason Kerr, Somerset's current head coach, told Abell he "enjoyed" the skipper's slump even as he sympathised with his gloom.
"We're very keen at Somerset to develop people as human beings and I'm a fan of people going through adversity," said Kerr. "That year was awful to watch for Somerset supporters and for friends and family of Tom but if you go through something like that you are definitely stronger. It's a determining factor in how you are going to be moving forward.
"I can remember having conversations with Tom at the time when I said: 'Look, you won't appreciate this but I'm actually quite enjoying this happening to you.' You can imagine how he looked at me but I told him he would be a better person and we are all reaping the rewards now. I think we'll see a consistency of performance which will get him higher recognition."
"That year was awful to watch for Somerset supporters and for friends and family of Tom but if you go through something like that you are definitely stronger." Jason Kerr on Tom Abell's batting slump
During 2017 Abell viewed any type of higher recognition as a distant second to justifying his place in Somerset's team and he is now capable of viewing things a little more dispassionately than perhaps he could at the time.
"I guess luck does come into it," he said. "I dropped myself and that's something that had to happen. But circumstances dictated I got back in the side because Adam Hose left and vacated a spot at five. But things could have been very different and I look back with a bit of relief that I managed to come back. It was a pretty tough time and as a captain it was difficult to lead from the front when you weren't worth your place in the side. But I have a great team around me and great team-mates who will always have my back.
"We know there are going to be times when things don't go as smoothly as you would like. I spoke to Andy Hurry during that period and he said it was possibly the best thing that will ever happen to you in your career. It wasn't nice but I've come out the other side."
Abell's emergence from what is becoming a distant gloom has been confirmed in several ways this summer. He has led Somerset to the Royal London One-Day Cup triumph and made a century in the Vitality Blast which revealed a far greater range of shot than he previously possessed. Above all, though, he is a shrewd captain and front-line batsman, who may, just may, lead them to the title So these are heady times as well as momentous ones and you might think it would be useful if Abell had the advice of someone like Rogers to call on. Funny you should ask…
"Buck was fantastic for us," said Abell. "I had a really good relationship with him and certainly learned a lot from him in the year he was here. He helped me as a batter and I still have the few pages that he wrote and gave to me to help me out as a captain. And that was great because I don't think you can fully prepare yourself for what to expect and you can't ask for anything more than to have people like that in your corner. The notes are all about tactics, playing on spinning wickets, making sure you take care of your own game and getting the best out of the team. There were other things - in cricket and outside of cricket."
Getting outside cricket may well be important in the next fortnight even if Somerset and Essex's players have little opportunity to take in a film or play a little golf. It scarcely needs too much imagination to visualise what the County Ground will be like if the title comes to Somerset. Already officials are thinking of hiring Portakabins to accommodate the influx of written media keen to report on the shootout beloved of the tabloids. The usual press box is being used by Sky and the Thatcher's Terrace will be the preserve of TMS. And all this for a game nobody watches…
"We're trying to avoid thinking too far ahead," Abell counselled, "We love it and we're desperate to do something special. You do get a sense of the pride the people of Somerset take in their cricket and we felt that when we won the one-day cup earlier in the year. Taunton is a very special place and we have a special group of supporters. We're also a tight group and we are desperate to win it for each other."
It will also be fair to say that Somerset's players are keen to win the title for Marcus Trescothick, who retires at the end of this season, and for Kerr, a quietly-spoken Boltonian who has made his life in the West Country and has spent most of his career at the County Ground. The coach, himself, of course, having enjoyed Abell's agony, will share in his ecstasy if the title comes to the West Country for the first time.
"I'm a huge fan of Tom and he has my unconditional support," he said. "I think he's an outstanding cricketer and an outstanding leader. I think what we've seen emerge more this year is his deep-rooted belief in himself. The guys follow him and I think we're going to see him go from strength to strength. He took responsibility on a really challenging surface in this game against Yorkshire and batted as if he'd been playing a lot longer than his years suggested. The signs are really good for him."