SOMERSET'S 2004 season brought more disappointment for the Taunton faithful, as they were again unable to win promotion back to the top tier of the County Championship. But there were some bright moments along the way, including Ricky Ponting’s five-week stay...

The previous two seasons had seen Somerset start relatively well, before sliding away alarmingly.

In 2004, the opposite was the case, as the team took 10 games to record victory in the County Championship.

Their season was all but over, with poor form in the one-day competitions, too, when Australian captain Ricky Ponting arrived in July.

His signing had been announced in October 2003, hot on the heels of what had been a thoroughly disappointing season.

Ponting, then 28, was fourth in the world Test batting rankings, and Somerset chairman Giles Clarke said: “It is an honour for the county to have such a prominent Australian playing for us.

“This announcement is likely to be the first of many to show we mean business.”

John Francis, a 22-year-old top order batsman, joined his brother Simon at the County Ground, while Tasmanian batsman Jamie Cox - captain when Somerset won the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy in 2001 - decided to stay on for one more season, agreeing to step aside from the team when his fellow Aussie Ponting was available.

Andy Caddick also hoped to play a more prominent role after recovering from back surgery.

On their way out were fast bowler Steffan Jones, who joined Northamptonshire, and Matt Bulbeck, who was forced to retire with a recurring back injury.

The season opener, at home to Derbyshire, was always likely to finish as a draw after the first day’s play was wiped out by rain.

Somerset opener Peter Bowler - who would retire at the end of the season - struck an impressive 127, and the 40-year-old topped that with 187 against Essex… but again the weather intervened and again the match was drawn.

They had no such trouble in the one-day competitions early on, as Derbyshire and Scotland were beaten in the National League, meaning no repeat of the humbling defeat in Edinburgh in 2003.

Cox’s 131 and Simon Francis’ 8-66 proved decisive as Derbyshire fell just 14 runs short in the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy, meanwhile.

But Somerset’s winning start in the National League came to a shuddering halt against Yorkshire, who triumphed by 145 runs, and they were then stunned by Durham in the Championship.

This time it was 19-year-old James Hildreth who delivered a century, scoring 101 in only his second match in the competition, and he added 72 in the second innings to help his side set Durham 451 for victory.

It looked unlikely when the visitors were reduced to 95-5, but West Indian Gareth Breeze blew Somerset away, scoring 165 not out to secure the win with just one wicket to spare.

“It was a good game of cricket but a bad result for us,” surmised Cox afterwards.

As well as Hildreth, Carl Gazzard was another up-and-coming talent, and the 22-year-old smashed 157 at Derbyshire, as Somerset made it three wins from four in the National League.

Unfortunately they would only win another three of their remaining 14 games in the competition, meaning that another promotion campaign hit the skids.

They were out of the C&G Trophy by the end of May, too, as despite Marcus Trescothick returning from England duty to play his first Somerset match of the season, Worcestershire benefited from a disastrous batting collapse.

Trescothick (24) led the visitors to 40 without loss, but all 10 wickets fell for the addition of only 55 more runs, and the home side knocked off the required runs inside 15 overs.

“Embarrassed, terrible, angry and bitterly disappointed,” was how Somerset coach Kevin Shine described his mood afterwards.

Things were no better in the Championship, as Glamorgan and Nottinghamshire condemned them to back-to-back seven-wicket defeats.

Hampshire piled on the punishment, beating a nine-man Somerset side (Richard Johnson having tread on the ball and injured his ankle in a freak fielding accident, and Keith Parsons sustaining a back injury) by 275 to leave the visitors winless and down near the foot of the Division 2 table.

Promising young bowler Michael Parsons was sidelined as well, after breaking a bone in his forearm during a nets session, and a rain-affected draw with Leicestershire made it nine Championship games without a win.

The four-day game took a break come July, with the Twenty20 Cup taking centre stage, but Somerset’s fortunes did not change - defeats to Warwickshire and Glamorgan ending their hopes of making the knockout phase.

They lost their opening group stage match at Warwickshire, and then succumbed to Glamorgan back in Taunton - despite young Hildreth treating the 4,000 fans to 66 from 33 balls.

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The rain washed away the away match with Gloucestershire, and with it Somerset’s hopes of making the knockout stages.

This was the setting for Ponting’s arrival in the West Country, and coach Kevin Shine hoped that the Australian captain could turn their season around in his five-week stay.

“We are all massively excited - having Ricky Ponting playing for us is just about as big as it gets,” the coach said.

“If people aren’t lifted by playing alongside the Australian captain then they are never going to be."

Somerset’s last two T20 matches were dead rubbers, but they still won both to put smiles on faces.

Hildreth (51), Keith Dutch (47) and Aaron Laraman (4-15) accounted for Worcestershire, and Ponting and Trescothick were both in the team for the visit of Northamptonshire.

The presence of those two Test stars attracted a gate of 6,000, and they saw Trescothick make 56 and Ponting 20 in a tense, four-run victory.

There was more to come from the Australian skipper, who hit 112 from only 133 balls away to Yorkshire; with John Francis adding 109, and Nixon McLean claiming match figures of 11-124, Somerset finally had a first Championship win - by a 10-wicket margin.

Laraman said of Ponting: “Since he arrived here the spirit of the team has been lifted.

“Ricky is going to bring a lot to our team and everybody is going to be able to learn a lot from him, especially the youngsters.

“After the two wins that we enjoyed in the Twenty20 Cup, we have got our confidence back, and we are now on the way back.”

Ian Blackwell added: “Ricky is tremendous and has had an unbelievable effect in the dressing room.

“He is a sensational character and has come here so full of enthusiasm.

“He treats everyone as equals even though he is captain of the best team in the world.

“He gees all the lads up and everyone has lifted their game because of him.”

Ponting scored a ton on his National League debut against Yorkshire, but defeat in that match and then 24 hours later against Worcestershire killed off any lingering promotion hopes.

Ponting followed that with 117, and with Ian Blackwell’s 7-90, Glamorgan were beaten by eight wickets.

Ponting’s last outing was a draw at Durham, and Hampshire then snuck a 10-run victory at Taunton, with another Australian - Shane Warne - proving crucial.

The iconic spinner made 47 at number nine in the visitors’ first innings, frustrating a Somerset attack that featured the fit-again Caddick (5-97), and then took 6-127 as the home side’s second innings ran out of puff.

Promotion back to Division 1 was out of the question now, but it seemed as if Ponting's class had rubbed off on his team-mates, who won two of their last three Championship matches to finish a creditable fourth (22 points off the third and final promotion spot).

Table-topping Nottinghamshire were handed a 10-wicket thumping, as a career-best 250 from Cox (who batted for almost nine hours!), plus centuries from Matthew Wood (113) and Hildreth (108), enabled Somerset to declare on 654-8.

Blackwell then claimed 7-90 to leave Somerset needing just one run in their second innings, with Bowler doing the honours.

Lingering promotion hopes were gone by the time of their final match at Leicestershire, but Somerset still achieved a 75-run victory.

A 46-ball half-century from Hildreth enabled Somerset to declare in a rain-affected match, and Caddick’s 4-69 dismissed the hosts for 199, chasing 275 to win.

Looking ahead (see next week’s County Gazette for a review of the 2005 season), there was great optimism over young Hildreth - now tied down to a three-year deal - while Somerset were in discussions with Ponting, New Zealand’s Stephen Fleming and South African Graeme Smith to add international experience to their young side.