Playing county cricket for one team for 20 years is a way of life which has probably disappeared, now that James Hildreth of Somerset is retiring.
Others, like Darren Stevens and Chris Wright, have played almost as long or longer but for more than one county. Hildreth, standing at slip in his faded cap, has been as integral a part of Taunton’s landscape as St James’s church or the Quantocks and their yellowing fields. Or at least he was, until just before his 38th birthday.
“There was a real simplicity to it,” said Hildreth, as he remembered the start of his career, when he moved to the scruffy house inside the County Ground, on £3,000-a-year, along with four other apprentices back in 2003. “How can I play for England? That was all young players were interested in. Sixteen championship matches a season, play for the Lions, then a chance of making the Test team and maybe some ODIs (one-day internationals) as well. I enjoyed that simplicity so I had a real love early on for championship cricket as it was the pathway to the England Test side.
“The feeling I had when making runs in red-ball cricket outweighed anything in white-ball cricket, but that has flipped on its head. Maybe there is the same simplicity for young players now: it’s just about hitting sixes out of the park and strike-rate.
“I am a Somerset player, and I struggle with the idea of playing for multiple teams. I spoke to a young player recently and asked him who he supports and he said, ‘Tom Banton’. He supports Tom Banton when he plays for Somerset or Welsh Fire or Brisbane Heat or in the Pakistan Super League. Cricketers are becoming more like tennis players or golfers, dipping in and out of tournaments around the world.”
Hildreth knows a bit about other sports as he is a gifted all-round player. He played under-10s and under-11s football for Luton Town, and went to Millfield on a tennis scholarship, before cricket took over and he represented England in the Under-15 World Cup alongside Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara, Tim Bresnan and Samit Patel. He has been playing with and against Cook since they were 10, and Hildreth says his batting hasn’t changed at all: the bowling is never too quick for him, and the same three shots.
He made his Somerset debut in 2003 – it was the same season as T20 was launched – and he remembers that the members at Taunton gasped when he first played a reverse-sweep. In 2005 he was fielding in the slips for England in the Lord’s Test against Australia: his Somerset teammate Marcus Trescothick waved to the 19-year-old 12th man, rather over-awed, and said: ‘Come and stand here’.
Hildreth later caught Ricky Ponting, who lost his rag later in that epic series when run out by another England substitute, Gary Pratt, “but there was no open-top ride - and no medal,” Hildreth added.
Still, his career trajectory was heading for the top: a double-century for England U-19s, Somerset seasons as fertile as those Quantock fields, then the captaincy of England Lions on their tour of the West Indies in 2010-11. It was a fine squad that he captained, including a 19-year-old unknown who had just recovered from a broken foot.
“I can’t remember anything,” said Hidlreth with typical self-deprecation, “but there was a middle-practice on that tour and this left-hander from Durham came in, against a very decent attack, and whacked it everywhere, so dismissive. It was a stand-out moment, everyone was in awe saying wow!” Yes, it was Ben Stokes.
That Lions tour was a unique one, in that they were included in the West Indies domestic four-day competition and played seven first-class matches. Glowing were the reports about Hildreth’s captaincy, and he was the leading run-scorer. In Guyana he scored six not out, an innings credited to someone else by Cricinfo. Other authorities state that Hildreth has retired with exactly 18,000 first-class runs at an average of 41.0 (and more than 10,000 limited-overs runs), not six runs short.
So what happened, that he did not go on to represent England? In an interview back in 2015, Hildreth had said he had not been picked because he was too “inconsistent”.
“Actually, looking back now, I feel I was too consistent – I was averaging 30, 40s and 50s most years but never smashing it out of the park. To get picked for England you were better off having a few lean seasons then having a massive season averaging 70.
“I can’t be disappointed that I wasn’t picked. England were amazing, they were No 1 in the world, it was the best team we’ve ever had, there was no way I was getting picked when I was at my peak – Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, which of them was I going to replace? I can sit here with contentment.”
If he has a regret, it is that he did not captain Somerset more than occasionally: and that was because he thought being the full-time captain would distract him from making enough runs to represent England.
“I was asked several times (by Somerset) but I wanted to concentrate on my batting. And I had a young family and it didn’t feel right, but it could have been good for me. Looking back, I regret not doing it.”
He is certainly in a good place: on a recent camping trip with his kids near Totnes, he looked up at the night sky with his five-year-old and knew the time had come to quit. Although he reached 50 in three of his 10 championship innings this season, he could not go on. “My reactions are fine but I was less patient, I was playing a few more shots than I would have done.”
All too many county cricketers, after retiring, never want to go near bat or ball. Hildreth next season is going to play for the club where he began, Stony Stratford. He used to open the bowling for Millfield (when I played against him for the Forty Club he hit the bat too hard for me to score a run) but the Somerset bowling coach only wanted express pace. So he wants to bowl again now, as well as bat.
Mr County Cricket is retiring, but the game goes on, and soon he may be Mr Club Cricket instead.