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Cricket news - Revitalised Taunton burning bright
Saturday's encounter between New Zealand and Afghanistan may have meant more to the venue than both sides.
Of course, World Cup points were up for grabs - New Zealand eventually taking the spoils - but for Taunton, here was the culmination of a long journey to bring international back to Somerset. More than a decade on after they last hosted a one-day international, it was understandable that, behind the scenes, the mood was one of both celebration and relief.
Around 6,617 came through the gates at the County Ground for the first of three World Cup fixtures. Fingers are crossed the weather plays ball because it is no less than Somerset County Cricket Club deserve given the remarkable transformation they have undergone.
Fifteen years ago, Taunton was a provincial backwater in world cricket. Its team languished in Division Two of the County Championship, with an ageing ground and finances in a parlous state.
Now, they are a rare success story. After staging an international T20 in 2017, the club hosts six nations during the World Cup as well as next month's Women's Ashes Test Match.
Domestically, Somerset's loyal fanbase celebrated a first trophy in 14 years when their side won the One Day Cup at Lord's. Some 800 turned out to welcome their victorious side home last weekend. The love of cricket runs deep in these parts.
The 'Cider Army' is now daring to dream that the county, currently top of the Division One table, might finally win the coveted Championship crown.
For other non-Test match County sides, Somerset are a blueprint to follow. The balance sheet is now strong, membership has reached 6,500 and there are routine full houses for T20s played at a ground redeveloped without incurring huge debts and, as a result, recognised as an international venue. No mean feat.
It might sound too romantic to attribute the up-turn in fortunes to fan support. But it is hard to look beyond it.
Along with well-attended T20 games, a recent domestic one-day fixture attracted more than 5,000. On day one of Championship games there are regularly in excess of 3,000 fans and often queues to get in.
It helps the ground is in the centre of town, a short walk from the train station. With no other elite sports teams within a 35-mile radius, there is little competition.
Geographical good fortune is only part of the story though and as current Chief Executive Andrew Cornish says, "then you have to make sure you capitalize on your luck and deliver the goods in terms of customer experience. It's no good just saying there are no other sports, so you'll have to go and watch us."
In the last few years, Somerset have been challenging routinely in all three domestic competitions and, despite earning an unwanted 'bridesmaids' tag after a string of second-place finishes, they are suddenly real contenders for a domestic treble. All while cultivating a home-grown feel in the stands and on the field.
"It's a virtuous circle," says Cornish. "In the one-day final, eight of the lads were from the south-west. It's about developing a strong team with a lot of local talent that local people want to come and watch. They play a quality, entertaining style of cricket with a passion for Somerset which our spectators appreciate."
The club has worked hard to engage its fan base. Recent research carried out by marketing agency Red Hot Penny revealed Somerset has the most engaged social media following, even greater than football clubs such as Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur.
The relationship with international cricket is nothing new though. Its first men's World Cup match was in 1983 when a sublime 130 from David Gower and a five-wicket haul for local spinner Vic Marks saw England emerge triumphant over Sri Lanka.
In 1999, Taunton staged two further World Cup fixtures. Zimbabwe overcame Kenya comfortably in the first, but that was merely an appetiser for the batting masterclass that followed from Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid in a staggering partnership of 318 as India demolished Sri Lanka by 157 runs.
By 2004 though, when Giles Clarke arrived as chairman with Andy Nash as his deputy, further international cricket at Taunton was a distant dream.
"The only way it was going to achieve the financial strength to support a professional sports club in the future was to be far bolder," says Nash. "That began with setting the objective of getting the ground up to international standards."
An early statement of intent came with Taunton becoming the official home of women's cricket. The County Ground hosted all 12 group matches in the 2009 ICC Women's T20 WC and a further seven in the 2017 World Cup.
Spotting a booming business, local stakeholders jumped on the bandwagon, identifying the club's potential as an international host. The payback was almost immediate: 2017's men's T20I against South Africa brought an estimated GBP 1 million into the local economy.
As part of a five-stage plan, all loans were repaid either to schedule or early. Even without an international match or major event, the 2018 accounts show the club achieved a strong pre-tax surplus of GBP 300,806, and earnings before interest, taxes, and amortisation of GBP 528,093.
The following steps were necessary: construction of the new SomersetPavilion, a dedicated media centre and an increase in seating, thereby allowing international cricket to be played once more at Taunton.
A range of executive suites and the Stragglers Bar have boosted the club's successful year-round hospitality and catering business. The club also established itself as a major concert venue attracting stars such as Sir Elton John and Rod Stewart.
What that means is the Taunton fans from Afghanistan, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, West Indies and Bangladesh visit is one cultivated and vastly improved by the game itself. There is a certain beauty in those from overseas seeing first-hand the power cricket has had on redeveloping a beautiful nook of the UK.
Their welcome will be warm too, Cornish says: "We like to pride ourselves on people visiting the ground. In domestic competitions, we're probably number one on the fixture list that people want to visit because of not just the aesthetics of an incredible venue but also the warmth of the welcome."
Currently, no further men's international games are scheduled at Taunton and the nearest side in the new Hundred competition will be based some 80 miles away in Cardiff. Cornish struggles with the decision not to base a 100 side in Taunton given the level of support for cricket.
However, there is belief the ECB will see the potential in the County Ground. "I hope the ECB will continue to look on Taunton favourably," says Cornish. "There are England's men's and women's games that would be well suited here as opposed to a 25% full Test ground."
Certainly, Cornish is not alone in thinking the club has shown enough to be a major player on the hosting scene. The next month though will be a huge chance to put across their strongest case yet.
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