In another era, even perhaps with a county other than the unfashionable Somerset, Brian Langford would almost certainly have played cricket for England. He was an outstanding off-spin bowler, accurate at all times, with teasing flight and, on responsive pitches, probing turn. His county career spanned 22 summers, during which he took 1,410 first-class wickets, but in an age of great English finger-spinners his path into the Test team was blocked first by Jim Laker, then by Fred Titmus, David Allen and Ray Illingworth.
Growing up in Bridgwater, he would regularly catch the bus to Taunton to watch Somerset, queuing up outside the pavilion with his autograph book and playing lunchtime cricket on the outfield with a glass bottle and tennis ball. He left grammar school at 15 when his father died, going to work at the local Cellophane factory, but the following year his promise as an opening batsman who bowled medium-pace at the Bridgwater club, saw him taken on to the groundstaff at Taunton. There he was turned into an off-spinner, spending the winter on such duties as weeding the ground by hand.
In early June 1953, still in awe of the first-teamers whose autographs he had collected, he was told to report to Bath, where the county would be playing Lancashire. He thought he was going as 12th man – "I wouldn't have slept if I had known I was going to be playing" – but he found himself taking part in one of county cricket's most remarkable matches. The newly laid turves of the Bath pitch had not knitted together, and the three-day match, the takings from which had been allocated to the benefit fund of the long-serving Bertie Buse, was all over that evening. On the treacherous surface Somerset, dismissed for 158, won by an innings and 24 runs.
Langford himself bowled just three overs, taking the wicket of Brian Statham, but he stayed in the side for the remaining two games of the Bath Festival. While the groundsman rolled bull's blood from the nearby abattoir into the pitch, Langford was given a few shillings by Air Vice-Marshal Taylor, the Somerset secretary, to buy some better boots. "I had an old pair that were rather heavy. Some of the senior pros thought I might have a better chance with a decent pair."
They were right. In the next two matches he bowled 131 overs and took 25 wickets for 290 runs, figures which took him to the top of the national averages, above Alec Bedser, when they next appeared. He was a fresh-faced, fair-haired 17-year-old, and in later years he would say that he owed much of his success that week to the guidance of two older professionals: the great Harold Gimblett, who set the field for each incoming batsman, and Maurice Tremlett, who told him what pace to bowl.
Throughout his career he did well at Bath – and also at Weston-super-Mare, where on a rain-ruined pitch against Lancashire in 1958 he achieved his best figures: 9 for 26 in the first innings, 15 for 54 in the match. By contrast Malcolm Hilton, a Test cricketer, took 5 for 85 for Lancashire, and his enraged skipper, the hard-to-please Cyril Washbrook, chucked him out of the team. In those days of uncovered pitches, if the surface was helpful, the spinner was expected to take his wickets at a low cost, and Langford always had the calm temperament to do so. Sixteen times he took 10 wickets in a match, more than either Illingworth or Allen.
In 1969, when the county was at its lowest ebb, Langford was appointed captain. "We don't expect you to win a game," he was told. "Just go and try your best." They finished in last place in the Championship and next-to-last in the newly created Sunday League. It was in one of these Sunday matches, against Essex at Yeovil, that Langford set an unbeatable record, bowling his eight allotted overs without conceding a run. Forty-over cricket was in its infancy, and Essex's Brian Ward decided Langford was the "danger man" and should be played out.
He captained two more summers, when fortunes improved with the arrival of Warwickshire's master seamer Tom Cartwright and Yorkshire's larger-than-life Brian Close, who succeeded Langford as captain. At the end of 1972 he retired, but in an injury crisis he was summoned back, and with no practice he dropped his off-breaks on a length straightaway. By this time a new generation, spearheaded by Ian Botham and Viv Richards, was emerging. In all he appeared in 504 first-class games for Somerset, more than any other player in the county's history. "I played with both Gimblett and Richards," he would point out. "I'm the only one who can say that."
After retirement he stayed close to Somerset cricket, his one year as chairman of cricket ending with the tempestuous departure of Richards and Botham, a schism which proved beyond his conciliatory nature to prevent. People were always telling him he should have played for England, but it didn't make him bitter. "There's only one England side," he would say. "The greatest accolade is to be recognised by the players you played with and against." He was a true professional. Up and down the land he was respected by everybody in the game.
Brian Anthony Langford, cricketer: born Birmingham 17 December 1935; played for Somerset 1953-74; twice married (children); died 12 February 2013.