Somerset race to new heights

Somerset 650 & 250-6 Northants 463-9d & 432-9d Somerset win by four wickets
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Somerset did themselves proud. They completed their best-ever season in the Championship with an unlikely, thrilling and accomplished four-wicket win against Northamptonshire at Taunton yesterday. Having been set 246 to win off 43 overs, Somerset batted as though this was another Cheltenham & Gloucester cup tie and got the runs with three balls to spare.

The result will linger in the memories of the sprinkling of Somerset supporters who turned up to watch the last day of the Championship season. But it will have a place in Wisden too; 1,795 runs were scored in the game, the second-highest aggregate in the history of cricket in England.

Somerset's victory confirmed Northamptonshire's descent into the second division and allowed Lancashire to cling to a first-division place. But the win was most remarkable because it came after David Ripley, the Northamptonshire captain, had set a target which looked very conservative for a side that needed a win to survive.

At the start of the day Northamptonshire had let Somerset know that they would want to score quickly to try to force a victory which would give them a chance of a first division place next year ­ an objective that did not look so ridiculous when reports of rain at Old Trafford seeped through to Taunton.

Somerset had nothing to lose. They had already taken enough points from the game to secure second position and the £50,000 prize-money at the end of their best season since 1981. The mayor of Taunton had given them a civic reception on Friday night, and they looked like it in the field.

Northamptonshire's batsmen took advantage, adding 343 runs yesterday in only 65 overs. This was Ripley's last game in first-class cricket. He is 35 and has played 17 seasons with Northamptonshire, ending them as captain as well as wicketkeeper. He was applauded when he went in to bat and then given a standing ovation when he was out for 16.

As Northamptonshire's score mounted, at the end of each over binoculars were focused on their dressing-room balcony. Instead of a declaration what they saw was a player looking remarkably like Ripley taking off his underpants and making an obeisance to the moon before throwing them on to the pavilion roof.

When the declaration finally came at 2.40pm, Ripley seemed to have blown it. The total was one that Somerset could quite reasonably decide not to chase.

Jamie Cox, Somerset's Tasmanian captain, off-drove the first ball to the boundary, raising expectations. No early wickets fell and, after 15 overs, 182 were still needed off roughly 25 more overs. There was a £2,000 win bonus to play for, but it looked safe enough, although the North-amptonshire bowling attack, whether of the seam or spin variety, was innocuous, and Cox and Matthew Wood were able to raise the pace. Cox, who enjoys straight-driving off spinners, hit Monty Panesar for two sixes and, when he was eventually out, well caught on the long-on boundary by Russell Warren for 86, Somerset were 147 and the chase was on.

Wood was brilliantly caught low down at midwicket for 65, but by then Somerset needed 69 off 7.4 overs and Ripley was on the defensive. When Burns was out, 59 were needed off 6.5 overs and, by the time Lathwell went, it was 12 off 2.1. The drama was ended when Panesar's first ball of the last over was a full toss which Turner hit for four. Two balls later, it was all over.

It was a bold victory for a team whose stars are centrally contracted and rarely play for them. They succeeded Gloucestershire as one-day champions and they have grown rather like them.

The players let Ripley leave the field first, but it was a final game he may prefer to forget.