THIS month brings the long-awaited return of competitive sport; horse racing and snooker are already back, to be followed by Premier League and Championship football next week.

All being well, tennis will return later this month, Test cricket (England versus West Indies) will take place in July, and August will see Formula 1 racing and Premiership rugby held in England - all behind closed doors of course.

While these are unprecedented times, sport has returned from dark days before.

One hundred years ago, a British public beleaguered by the First World War and Spanish Flu embraced sport like it had never been away.

Take the 1919 county cricket season, as described by the 1920 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

“The season of 1919 proved, beyond all question or dispute, that cricket had lost none of its attraction for the public,” Wisden proclaimed.

“Despite a break of four years and the fact that at all grounds the charge for admission - in view of the entertainment tax and vastly increased expenses - was doubled, county matches drew far larger crowds than in ordinary seasons before the war.

“The faint hearts who, without evidence on the point, had jumped to the conclusion that cricket would never again be its old self, were utterly confuted.

“Looking back on the events of the season, it is quaint to think that we were asked to shorten the boundaries, to penalise the batting side for every maiden over played, to banish the left-handed batsman, and to limit to three, or at most four, the number of professionals in every county eleven.”

While these “fatuous suggestions” were dismissed, all County Championship matches in 1919 were restricted to two days’ play.

Even with extended hours of play, definitive results were hard to come by, and so 56 matches (including an “unfortunate tie at Taunton” - more on that later) out of 124 were drawn.

Unsurprisingly, the decision was made - before the season had even ended - to return to three-day matches in 1920.

Somerset finished sixth in the 1919 Championship, in which placings were determined by the percentage of wins to matches played.

So while Somerset (33.33%) only played 12 games, champions Yorkshire (46.15%) played 26.

The summer programme at the County Ground had begun, not with a Championship match, but with a game against Bridgwater Cricket Club.

The County Gazette correspondent known as ‘Old Judge’ wrote: “In the presence of not more than twenty spectators, cricket started officially in Taunton on Saturday, when Bridgwater visited the County Ground.

“I understand that arrangements for the match were made some two or three weeks before, but for some inexcusable reason nothing was done to give it publicity, with the result that very few of the general public attended.

“This is bad business, and an omission which I trust will not happen again.

“Certainly a policy of ignoring the general public will not revive enthusiasm for the game.”

The match, which finished in a draw, was not of a high quality, with the wicket “on the dead side” and the players “lacking practice”.

Perhaps the game itself was of little consequence; another correspondent, ‘No Ball’ (a veteran of many Bridgwater matches), wrote in poetic terms that could apply just as well to whenever cricket can be played in front of a crowd in 2020, or 2021.

“It was with feelings of chastening delight that one found oneself once more on Saturday morning amid the familiar surroundings of the scoring box on the County Ground,” said No Ball.

“King Cricket has come to his own again. All was natural. All was right again.

“The old realities that neither time nor war can efface met the eye on every hand.

“The rounded outlines of the far-distant Quantocks dimly gloomed by a mist which not too plainly presaged rain; the old timber yard, now also not so bountifully crammed with stacks of hewn planks; the stately tower of St James’s; the nearly distant railway, still of yore, sending wisps, more or less thick, of blue grimy smoke at intervals athwart the ground.

“There they all were as if no four years of cricket-wrecking had intervened.”

The stately tower of St James’s soon had County Championship cricket to enjoy, and was witness to what the Gazette described as a “SENSATIONAL FINISH AT TAUNTON”.

The match (played on May 21-22, 1919) was declared a tie, with visitors Sussex - nine wickets down - requiring one run to win.

The teams’ fortunes had swung back and forth alarmingly throughout the encounter, with Somerset having been one run to the good after the first innings.

The hosts were all out for 103 in their second innings, though, so Sussex needed 105 runs after lunch on the final day to secure the win.

Half of the away side were out for 48, but they steadied themselves, and at 103-7 victory looked certain.

J.C. White intervened, however, and with two wickets falling, the game was back on a knife-edge.

“The excitement was intense when H.J. Heygate, wearing a blue lounge suit, limped slowly to the wicket,” the Gazette reported.

“Heygate, it should be explained, is suffering from the effects of a wound in the leg [received during the war], and was unable to field in Somerset’s second innings, a deputy being found for him.

“On arriving at the wicket, and before Heygate had taken his centre, the umpires and captains were seen to consult, and to the amazement of the crowd the stumps were drawn, and the players walked off the field.

“The match was declared a tie, this decision being given on the ground that Heygate took more than two minutes to get to the wicket, and was accordingly absent and disqualified from batting.

“The objection was not raised by J.C. White, the Somerset captain, who was willing to proceed with the game, but the umpires’ decision given by the umpires was considered binding.

“The ending is said to be without precedent.”

This was not Somerset’s first tie (“an extraordinary coincidence is that Somerset obtained admission to first-class cricket by playing a tie with Middlesex, at Taunton, in 1890”) and by no means their last, as they were bowled out for just 77 to tie a Championship match with Lancashire, again at Taunton, in September 2018.

That week in 1919 also brought the opening matches of the club season, with Chard hosting Bridgwater and Taunton at home to Street.

Rev R.E. Lewis claimed 7-29 as Street triumphed by 49 runs, but he was outdone by Chard player Gladdon, who tore through Bridgwater’s order to finish with 9-43, in a 48-run home win.

Back to Somerset now, as they enjoyed victory over local rivals Gloucestershire, described as “immensely gratifying to the large holiday crowds who witnessed the game and, what is more, it was thoroughly deserved”.

The crowd in for Monday’s play was “the largest seen on the County Ground since the Australians visited Taunton in 1910”, with 3,000 in before lunch and an increase to nearly 5,000 in the afternoon.

The bowling of Ernie Robson and White did for the visitors, who collapsed in their second innings - reaching 140-3 before losing five wickets for only nine runs.

The Gazette match report adds: “A regrettable feature of the game was the barracking in which some of the crowd indulged when Gloucester were batting and runs did not come as quickly as they would have liked.

“It provoked a rebuke by one of the Somerset officials, who remarked to a spectator in the grandstand, ‘Will you please stop that, sir? The gentlemen are playing the game.’

“This was when Dipper and Lieut. Colonel White were batting on Tuesday morning.

“The first four overs were maidens, and the spectators, as on Monday, punctuated the batsmen’s strokes with ironical cheers.

“In fairness, however, it should be said that the crowd was quick to appreciate a good stroke when the visiting batsmen got the measure of the bowling.”

Quite what Tom Curran would have made of it, we shall never know.

Anyway, what did the sporting landscape look like away from cricket?

The county had been fortunate to escape the worst ravages of the global ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic (1918-20), with the Gazette reporting: “Although the West Country has by no means escaped the influenza epidemic, Taunton has not suffered anything like so severely as other places.”

Between July and December 1918, 34 deaths occurred - a light death toll when compared to major cities, with a cemetery in Bristol reporting that “the staff could not cope with the burials”.

Even so, schools were closed in July, and again in October, and those afflicted by the disease were to be isolated to prevent its spread (sound familiar?).

Things appear to have been worse around Bridgwater (“in several of the Polden Hill villages there are few families unaffected... the number of deaths registered in Bridgwater and district during the past two weeks has been exceptionally heavy”), while two young residents of North Curry (Bedford Dare and William Squire), who had survived the war, succumbed to the influenza.

Life, then as now, would go on.

Taunton’s ‘Victory Fete’ had taken place on Boxing Day 1918, featuring a “grand rugby match” between Taunton and Bridgwater at the County Cricket Ground.

This was the first rugby match to take place in the town since the 1913/14 season, and a crowd estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 watched “a well-contested game which resulted in a draw without a score”.

Thankfully the rugby-watching public were undeterred by such a dull game, as they turned out in great numbers for a series of matches during 1919.

There had been two clubs in Bridgwater (Bridgwater FC, formed in 1875, and Bridgwater Albion FC, 1891), but the war took a significant toll on the number of players, so the clubs decided to pool their resources into the Bridgwater & Albion RFC that exists to this day.

The Gazette reported: “There was a revival of rugby football in Bridgwater on Good Friday, which made that day reminiscent of five years ago, when football was in full swing in the town.

“This year, with so many men demobilised [after the war], it was found possible to arrange a match, the local team being organised by the combined committee of the Town and Albion Clubs, and under the new regime the chosen side did remarkably well.

“The visitors were Taunton... a very interesting a fast game was witnessed, Bridgwater winning by two goals and five tries (25 points) to one try (three points).”

Somerset County Gazette:

Easter Monday witnessed an ‘Eastern Forces versus Western Forces’ match on the East Reach Athletic Ground, held in aid of local charities.

The sides were selected from ex-servicemen, who had fought on the Eastern and Western fronts in the war - captained by G.P. Clarke and Pat Beard, respectively.

Clarke and E. Ware scored a try apiece in an 8-0 win for the Easterns, in front of a good crowd.

There was more rugby to come, as both Bridgwater and Taunton faced a touring New Zealand side.

Bridgwater & Albion hosted the “New Zealand team which had won the Southern Command Rugby Championship” at its Taunton Road ground.

A crowd of 3,000 gathered, and “before the kick-off the visitors executed the weird Maori war dance”.

Spriggs’ try gave the hosts a 3-0 lead at half-time, but the New Zealanders came storming back after the interval to win 11-3.

The visitors’ backs “were more speedy and better at the handling game”, with tries from Brennan and Mexsted (2) turning the game around.

Bridgwater made a series of changes for their next match, against a touring side representing Australia, and this time the hosts were victorious, 25-6.

The New Zealand All Blacks moved on to Taunton, where they faced a team which performed admirably despite it being somewhat cobbled together (“no steps have been yet taken officially to resuscitate the old Taunton clubs”).

The visitors scored seven tries and won 26-5 in front of 2,000 at the East Reach ground on a warm Tuesday evening, with Taunton’s pack “no match for the clever New Zealand scrummagers”.

New Zealand headed back to Bridgwater for a second time; again there was a crowd of 3,000, and again the All Blacks won.

Bridgwater fielded a stronger team than for their last meeting, yet “a vigorous and keenly contested encounter resulted in the All Blacks again coming out on top, by nine points to nil”.

A rugby football match was arranged for the ‘Peace Day’ celebrations in Taunton in July 1919, too, alongside a series of track and field events.

These took place at the County Ground, in front of many spectators, and featured a 220 yards boys’ handicap, 120 yards flat handicap, 440 yards flat handicap, one mile bicycle handicap, 120 yards hurdle handicap, 880 yards flat handicap, tug-of-war, 220 yards flat handicap (open only to soldiers and sailors who served in the war), one mile flat handicap, 880 yards handicap (for serving soldiers at Taunton Barracks), 300 yards scratch race (for soldiers/sailors).

Large crowds also flocked to Vivary Park, where amusements included “an aerial railway, skittling competition, juvenile roundabouts, swings, coconuts shies, and topping the topper”.

Clearly, neither war nor flu had been able to diminish Somerset’s appetite for skittles - although the prizes have changed a little in the last 100 years.

“The skittling competition (open to ladies and gentlemen) attracted many competitors, and resulted as follows: 1st prize (live pig, presented by Mr Sinclair Smith, of Ash Priors) - J. Cooper; 2. Bourne; 3. Stone. Ladies: 1. Mrs Corner; 2. Miss Broomfield; 3. Mrs King.”