Keith Parsons, former Somerset all-rounder
The word legend is often overused in sport but in the case of this month’s interviewee, there is not a better word to describe this former Somerset stalwart who, alongside Ian Botham, is the county’s only player to have scored over 5,000 runs and taken in excess of 100 wickets in both List A & First Class cricket.
Born and raised in Taunton, Keith Parsons was part of the Somerset family from a young age. I suppose it would have been difficult for him not to have fallen in love with Taunton as a child, especially when the likes of Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Joel Garner were strutting their stuff on his doorstep. “We were lucky down here in the 70s and 80s having Richards, Botham and Garner. Somerset was thriving and with the cricket ground situated right in the heart of the town it was hard not to fall in love with the place and I used to enjoy heading down to the ground after school had finished, to watch these guys play.”
It was a love affair that led to 17 happy years playing for Somerset County Cricket Club. But where did it all begin for the popular all-rounder. In youth cricket, Keith was one of the county’s bright young talents. Alongside his twin brother Kevin, he had the honour of representing his country at both under 15 and under 19 level, in squads that contained the likes of Jeremy Snape, Mal Loye, Tim Walton and Philip Weston. “We were in decent under 15 and under 19 sides,” remarked Keith. “Quite a few of us went on to achieve reasonable first class careers.”
Unfortunately for Keith and the Parsons family, one of those that didn’t go on to achieve that first class career was twin brother Kevin. “It was tough for Kevin to get released having only played a handful of games. He was only at Somerset for three years but he has his own career now as an accountant and he’s still playing a very good standard of club cricket at the weekends. I actually think he became a better cricketer once he left Somerset; he just developed a little bit later than others.”
Keith however, was offered a professional contract and having progressed through the various youth ranks at the county ground, went on to make his first class debut against the strong Pakistan side of the early 1990’s. A side, which just a few months before, had won the 1992 World Cup, thanks in part, to the intimidating bowling of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. “I remember it was 1992, and I’d got off to a reasonable start to the season playing for the 2nd XI. I’d scored a couple of hundreds and I received a phone call and was told that I would be playing in the touring game against Pakistan. I had only just turned 18; so it was pretty daunting if I’m honest, coming up against Wasim, Waqar, Mushtaq, Javed Miandad and all of these characters, that you’d only ever seen as a kid.”
Sadly for Keith, he only scored one run in the game, but it was still an experience that stood him in good stead for the future. “I didn’t do particularly well and I only scored one run, but it was a good experience at that age, to play in front of a big crowd. And experiences like that, were invaluable for your career.”
Keith’s next game for the 1st XI, came 12 months later, against another touring side – the all-conquering Australians. “It was another real baptism of fire! But that Australia game and my first dozen or so games, I wasn’t able to make any telling contributions. It was hugely disappointing, as I was scoring a lot of runs in the seconds, but every time an opportunity in the 1’s came up, it didn’t happen for me. It was a mental thing. I think I was just a little bit star struck and maybe got overawed.”
But, it didn’t take long for that first telling contribution to occur and from that point a Somerset star was born. “We played a game at Luton against Northants, who had Curtly Ambrose in the team. I made a couple of scores of 30 and 40, and that made me feel part of it. My confidence began to grow and I felt I had found my feet. I think it’s like anything in life you need confidence and once I had that, I felt part of the squad. People don’t always realise that it’s a big step up from 2nd XI to 1st XI cricket, as it is in club cricket when you progress up from 2’s to the 1’s. Each step up takes a bit of getting used to. Some people can do it quickly, but for most people, it takes time.”
Once established in the side, Keith’s career didn’t look back and what followed was a period of success and enjoyment at both an individual and team level, as Somerset went on to become one of the most competitive counties on the circuit. Cup finals and man of the match performances became commonplace.
It was in the summer of 2000, that Keith went on to get his highest career score, against the touring West Indies and scores against touring sides became a bit of a norm for the all-rounder. “My first hundred came against Australia and in total I got two or three hundreds in those touring games.”
But it was the 193 not out against the Windies that was the obvious big highlight. “It was my career best score. At the end of the first day I was 130 odd not out and Brian Lara came up to me as we walked off the pitch and shook my hand. That was a big moment for me. It would have been nice to have got a double hundred, as you don’t many chances to do that, but it’s not bad to have a career best against a West Indies side!”
With tours now cut so short, the opportunities for county players to repeat Keith’s feats and pit their skills against the world’s best have been reduced. I asked Keith if this was disappointing for county players that touring games had been reduced. “Definitely. We always got full houses for those games at Taunton. It was a big occasion. And for me, it inspired me, and my stats kind of suggested that. You did always look forward to playing those touring games and playing against people you watch on television; it was nice to challenge yourself. It’s a shame for the counties that they don’t get the opportunity to host these games much these days. Touring teams might now only play one or two games before a series starts, when it used to be four or five and they got taken around the country. These games were big opportunities to get the crowd in and a chance for supporters to see your side take the best sides in the world on.”
The early 2000’s saw some of Keith’s most memorable games for the county. In 2001, his 60 off 52 balls helped Somerset win their first silverware for over 18 overs, as the county won the C&G final, against Leicestershire, at Lords. “What a brilliant day. In 1999 we lost to Gloucestershire, which was frustrating as they were our local rivals. But against Leicestershire we got the win. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but you play to win trophies and it was well known down here, that we had not won anything since Richards, Botham and Garner in the early 80s, so it was a big occasion for us to come away with the trophy. And of course it was a big day for me, to be made man of the match and have such a good impact on the game, was special."
In 2003 a new format of the game was introduced in England - T20 cricket, and Somerset were one of the first county’s to take the competition seriously and went on to win it in 2005. But interestingly, as Keith looked back, not many of the players at the time believed T20 was going to grow into the competition that it has now. “The new format came as a huge shock to the players. I remember going up to Edgbaston for a PCA day, where we were told about the new format and I think we all thought that this would never catch on! And now you look at it and the finances it’s created and it’s fantastic. Every game at Taunton has been full here since it started in 2003.”
So what about Somerset’s early success in the competition. “It was a great occasion at the Oval. The Finals Day is so special to play in. We came up against a Lancashire side in the final, who were full of internationals. On paper they were far better than us, but we managed to turn them over and it was just another good occasion for Somerset cricket. Confidence was a big thing for us in that final. We were lucky we had three bowlers who could bowl at the death, and we had batsmen who could score quickly. Graeme Smith was an inspirational captain for us at that stage and everyone played well. We all knew our roles. We had certain people who batted at the top and others who could play around them. But most importantly, we could all clear the ropes and we knew if we could get the rate up, we had the bowlers to get us home, if it was tight at the end.”
Lifting trophies, reaching finals and solid performances in the county championship became the norm for Somerset. They didn’t just ‘compete’ with the so called bigger counties, but they thrived and silverware was regularly being inserted into the Somerset’s trophy cabinet; but what did Keith put this transformation down to? “Jamie Cox joined us in 1999 as captain and he was a big influence on everyone. He got us tougher on the field and managed to drive us on. Dermot Reeve also came in just before that and his coaching brought us different ways of thinking that we all bought into. In one day cricket we developed a method that proved really successful. But of course all of that will only take you so far, we had a good side. Obviously we had the likes of Trescothick and Caddick, who were also playing for England at that time, but we had a number of very good county cricketers such as Mike Burns, Pete Bowler, Ian Blackwell, Richard Johnson and Keith Dutch. It was an exciting time to play one day cricket, in particular, down here.”
Jamie Cox and Dermot Reeve are certainly two individuals Keith holds in a high regard, so much so, that he lists both as the biggest cricketing influences on his career. “Obviously my family were huge influences, but inside the game Jamie Cox always backed me as a player. He helped me develop as a one day player, in particular; Dermot Reeve as coach also gave me ideas and the confidence to back my own ability.”
Somerset’s ongoing success on the field made the county an attractive option for overseas players, and in Keith’s time, some of the world’s best were able to call Taunton ‘home’. “Graeme Smith made a big impact here, as did Jamie Cox and Justin Langer. And Ricky Ponting was down here as well as an overseas pro for a few weeks. Just to be able to play with and pick the brains of players of this calibre was unbelievable. They all offered us different things. Ricky was pure class with his batting; Jamie Cox was a big team man who pulled everyone together; Graeme Smith was so inspirational, especially in that T20 final. I remember we weren’t chasing a huge score but he was like ‘don’t worry lads, I’ll sort this out’ and he saw us home, not out. They all gave us so much belief that we could achieve things. They were just great players for us.”
The attraction of quality overseas players at Taunton, continues to this day. “Chris Gayle and Chris Rodgers are here now. We are very lucky at Taunton and going all the way back to the 70s and 80s we have had good overseas players, who have come in, enjoyed it and made an impact.”
In Keith’s time at Somerset he achieved a lot of personal success in all three formats of the game, I asked him how easy or difficult it was as a player to adapt your game between the three different formats. “It does throw up a few challenges, but I never found it particularly difficult switching from one format to the other. Certain roles are difficult, for example if you’re an opening batsmen who would play it around for a day and a half, you wouldn’t be able to bat in that style in T20. But personally, I didn’t find it hard and I enjoyed the diversity of the three formats.”
In 2008, after a career of huge success at Somerset, Keith moved on. “It was disappointing. You always think you can play a couple of years longer, but I knew it was coming. I hadn’t played an awful lot of four day cricket for a couple of years and the one day game was becoming a lit bit faster and I wasn’t involved as much as I had been earlier, so mentally you prepare yourself that it would be coming to an end and 2008 was the natural time for me to move away.”
But, it wasn’t the end for Keith. He was asked to lead the Unicorns side. The Unicorns was a new initiative by the ECB, who created a side which would be made up of young players who had previously been released from different counties. The idea being that it would give them a window to try and get back into the professional game. Keith was delighted to come in and captain the side.
“I had four years playing for them and it was a nice little tag on to my career. It proved hugely popular and it gave players around the country a real window to go and play against the best and a number of players who played for us went on and got signed by counties. It was a huge shame it ended, but we set out to achieve what we wanted to. I enjoyed being involved and it gave me a lot of pleasure trying to help find the next county cricketer.”
The team played their home games at Wormsley, a favourite spot for the Addis Army. “Using Wormsley was fantastic. Tremers and his team always produced decent pitches, but they were probably too good for the Unicorns! The wickets always had good pace and bounce, so county players loved it and they were probably a bit too good for our young lads. I probably should have persuaded him to make them lower, slower wickets to even up the contest!!”
Keith stopped playing altogether in 2012, but it was a career that he can quite rightly look back on with great pride. He is regarded as a Somerset legend and played with and against some of the best players to have graced the game. So who were the best bowlers and batsmen he played with and against? “I always said Wasim Akram was the one bowler you didn’t want to wake up in the morning knowing you’d be facing. Someone who could swing the ball at such a nasty pace! But I don’t think it was just me that didn’t fancy facing him! Andrew Caddick was the best bowler in county cricket for a while and it was always good to field in the slips to him. Ian Blackwell didn’t play as much for England as his talent suggested he would, but he always did a great job for us with the ball and was able to hit the ball out of the park when he wanted to. Batting wise, Marcus (Trescothick) has done as well as anyone, across all three formats of the game, and continues to do so. In my early career, I thought Mark Lathwell was one of the great players who could turn a game. He was a phenomenal batter who stopped playing far too early.”
Despite the many match winning performances for Somerset and scores against touring elevens, Keith never got the international recognition some in the game felt he deserved, especially in limited overs cricket. “To be honest, I was probably never really good enough to play international cricket. Maybe I could have had a go in the one-dayers, but in the four day game, I never got enough runs to push my case, which you have to do. I have no regrets at all. I was very lucky to have had a career with Somerset for 17 years and I was more than happy with what I achieved.”
Our discussions then moved towards the state of the game now and Keith thinks cricket in England is in a very good state. “I think the game is very strong. The central contracts have taken the England players out of the county scene and they don’t get to play as many games as they used to, but I think the game overall is so much more professional now. Players are a lot quicker, fitter and stronger than when I first started. TV coverage in England is now great, it’s just a shame it’s not free to watch on terrestrial TV, but Sky Sports’ money is what funds the game now.”
However, one thing Keith doesn’t agree with in the modern game is player play too much cricket and are a bit over-protected. “I was always someone that was happy to play lots of cricket. I felt if we were lucky enough to be paid to play cricket, then we should play cricket. You can do as much training as you want indoors against bowling machines, but you only really feel in nick, if you are scoring runs, or taking wickets, in the middle. So if you’re a player in a rough spot, get out and play; if there are no county games, go and play club cricket and score yourself a hundred. I think there is a little over protection going on now where 2nd XI and fringe players don’t play that much club cricket, or minor counties, which can be beneficial. Going back to play club cricket can get you used to winning games of cricket and gives you the opportunity to put in match winning performances and get back into the county 1st XI. If players are struggling at first class level, get out and do it at another level.”
The debate continues to rage in English cricket about the structure of T20 cricket and having played in the competition for many years Keith is of the strong belief that the counties should maintain their own identity, rather than head down the franchise route. “Personally, as a player, I wouldn’t like to join forces with your nearest rivals. Counties have their own identity and you can’t expect supporters to suddenly jump ship. There is too much tradition. If all of the counties can survive and the competition can remain competitive, I think it should continue. If it does go down the franchise route it would lessen the amount of professional cricketers getting an opportunity.”
Having retired from the game in 2012, Keith is not only still involved in the game, but is still a regular fixture at his beloved county ground. “I now work at the cricket shop, Somerset County Sports, down at Taunton. We sell all of the cricket stuff, team wear etc. So, I’m still at the ground every day, it’s just a different part of the ground to the changing rooms.”
As I say, the word ‘legend’ is often overused in sport, but definitely not in the case of Keith Parsons. Across all formats of the game, Keith scored over 12,000 runs and over 250 wickets during the course of his career; you’ll be hard pushed to find a Somerset CCC member who would disagree with the legend status.