SOMERSET had endured a poor season in 2002 - relegated in the County Championship and National League - but at least they had reached a Lord’s final.

There was no such consolation in 2003, as pre-season optimism fell away amid some humiliating defeats.

Too many players were either injured (Matt Bulbeck, Andy Caddick, Simon Francis), out of form (Piran Holloway, Steffan Jones) or called up by England (Ian Blackwell, Richard Johnson, Marcus Trescothick), and there was too much reliance on new signing Nixon McLean, so he was a spent force by the last third of the campaign.

With 2003 to be Jamie Cox’s final season at Somerset, the captaincy was awarded to 33-year-old Mike Burns, while West Indian fast bowler McLean, 29, was snapped up as the county’s second overseas player.

On the way out was Weston-super-Mare all-rounder Peter Trego, who joined Kent, while Somerset moved for 23-year-old all-rounder Aaron Laraman, who was out of contract at Middlesex.

Then they brought in James Bryant, a 26-year-old batsman who was playing in South Africa but had British citizenship.

Unfortunately, neither Bryant nor Laraman had the impact Somerset had hoped.

Ahead of the season, head coach Kevin Shine said: “We know that we have got to get promotion, it’s as simple as that.

“It’s a crime that with the talent we have got we are playing second division cricket.”

Shine could not have been too unhappy with the way his team started their 2003 County Championship campaign.

Somerset opened with an agonising defeat away to old enemy Gloucestershire, despite an amazing display from Johnson.

He took 3-27 as the hosts were dismissed for 203, then rescued his side from 36-6 with an innings of 116, including 25 from one over.

Gloucestershire responded with a second innings of 368, with new boy McLean claiming 5-87, to set the visitors 283 to win.

They looked on target to achieve that, reaching 203-3, but the last seven batsmen fell for only 70 runs - and Somerset finished eight runs short.

But they followed that with three wins and a draw, to boost hopes of instant promotion back to the top flight.

Yet, after Hampshire were beaten on May 24, there were no more Championship wins until September 10, and their promotion hopes evaporated.

The warning signs were there in the one-day competitions, as Somerset lost their first two National League matches, ahead of a double-header in Scotland.

The first match in Edinburgh went according to plan, as Somerset began their bid to reach a third consecutive Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy final with a 10-wicket win on May 7.

Chasing a modest total of 138, Trescothick led the reply with a majestic unbeaten century that secured victory with more than 30 overs to spare.

The National League match, played two days later, was a very different affair as Scotland - making their debut in the competition this year - won a rain-affected encounter by six wickets.

Trescothick was Somerset’s main man again, with 80* from the 16 overs permitted by the weather, but Ryan Watson won it for the Scots, clubbing seven sixes and 10 fours in a 44-ball ton.

This was a humbling result (but not the season’s nadir - no, that would come later), and it prompted Somerset chief executive Peter Anderson to issue a rallying cry, urging supporters to stick by the team.

The team responded well to that “shock to the system”, winning three consecutive matches, but they followed that run with five defeats in a row.

One of those losses was at home to Surrey in the fourth round of the C&G Trophy, meaning there was to be no trip to Lord’s this year.

Graham Thorpe’s 102 rescued the visitors from 169-6, Somerset slipped to 51-3 in reply, but Keith Parsons (83), Burns (47) and Blackwell (39) gave the home side the advantage.

Adam Hollioake bowled tightly at the death, however, and Surrey pinched victory by six runs.

Somerset County Gazette:

SKIPPER: Somerset captain Mike Burns with James Bryant

Somerset suffered another close defeat at the hands of tourists Zimbabwe, going down by three runs in the 50-over match after Keith Dutch (93) - seemingly guiding his side to victory - was run out, Heath Streak diverting a Blackwell drive onto the stumps at the bowler’s end.

With five defeats from their opening six National League games, and Championship wins drying up, the final competition to begin - and Somerset’s last chance to salvage a poor season - was the new Twenty20 Cup.

Launching in June, this new 20-over-a-side competition replaced the Benson & Hedges Cup, and was introduced by the ECB “with the express aim of making cricket more attractive to a much wider audience, and the format of the matches is expected to attract many families who, it is hoped, will enjoy the carnival atmosphere”.

(Those marketing ‘The Hundred’ have clearly been looking in the same archives as I have.)

Somerset lost their opening match at home to Warwickshire, but they followed that with an emphatic win over Glamorgan in Cardiff.

That was as good as it got though, as Somerset lost their remaining T20 matches against Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.

The aforementioned nadir, well, that was surely the match at home to Gloucestershire on June 21.

Despite some late defiance from Steffan Jones (24*), Somerset could only post 119-9, and that was never going to be enough.

Australian Ian Harvey (75*) led the visitors to a 10-wicket win, and the ease with which it was achieved was difficult to swallow for the home faithful.

In Somerset’s defence, their bowling attack was deprived of the injured Bulbeck, Caddick (a stress fracture in his right foot) and McLean, as well as Johnson, who had earned an England recall.

Between June 20 and August 2, Somerset’s record read: 12 games, no wins, nine defeats, two draws and one abandonment.

The draws were creditable ones; the first restored some pride against Gloucestershire, and the second was against South Africa - the first meeting between the two sides in 43 years.

But with three losses in the Championship - including an innings defeat to Northamptonshire - hopes of returning to Division 1 were all but over, and they were now bottom of the National League Division 2 table.

That loss to Northamptonshire provoked an outburst from chief executive Anderson, who said: “It’s shambolic and the players look disinterested. If they do lose, you at least expect to see them go down with all guns blazing.

“The players need to become more professional... these are professional sportsmen, not shrinking violets, and they need to be told.

“I’m fed up with it and want to get the message across that we won’t tolerate it any more.”

July’s highlight was the return of Sir Viv Richards to the County Ground, playing for Lashings CC in a game in aid of Somerset’s Appeal Year - a campaign to make the club financially independent.

Richards swept his first ball for four, then hit a six, but was out for 16 - caught by Somerset fitness coach Andy Hurry.

After that blast from the past, Somerset began looking to the future, as their underperforming regulars were replaced by young talents.

With Burns sidelined by an injured hand, 21-year-old Cornishman Carl Gazzard took the gloves, and he was joined by more fresh faces - Gareth Andrew, Wes Durston, Neil Edwards, Tom Webley... and an 18-year-old James Hildreth.

Andrew, Hildreth and Webley had all been part of the Somerset side which won the ECB’s Under-19 two-day cricket championship in 2002, and the youngsters helped secure back-to-back wins over Durham and Middlesex in the National League.

It was followed by another long winless streak, between August 5 and September 10, but at least Edwards (160) and Blackwell (189) made hay in a record-breaking first innings of 705-9 against Hampshire.

Blackwell topped that a couple of weeks later, at home to Derbyshire, as Somerset claimed what was only their fourth Championship win of the campaign.

The hosts had found themselves at 31-4, but Blackwell rescued them with an outstanding 247*, leading Somerset to 409 and, ultimately, a 27-run victory.

And they made it two wins out of three to finish the season, thumping hosts Sussex to avoid finishing bottom of the National League standings.

Again Blackwell was the driving force, blasting 111 from 56 balls, and with Burns adding 91 and Dutch taking 4-34, County Championship winners Sussex came up 191 runs short.

It had been a rotten season, but the potential of Gazzard, Hildreth et al provided cause for optimism going into 2004 - as did the signing of Australian Test star Ricky Ponting.

Somerset's results in 2003

Apr 18: CC - Gloucestershire v Somerset - lost by 8 runs
Apr 23: CC - Somerset v Durham - won by 6 wickets
Apr 27: NL - Somerset v Durham - lost by 7 wickets (D/L)
Apr 30: CC - Derbyshire v Somerset - drawn
May 4: NL - Derbyshire v Somerset - lost by 15 runs
May 7: CGT - Scotland v Somerset - won by 10 wickets
May 9: NL - Scotland v Somerset - lost by 6 wickets (D/L)
May 14: CC - Somerset v Glamorgan - won by innings & 143 runs
May 18: NL - Somerset v Nottinghamshire - won by 49 runs (D/L)
May 21: CC - Hampshire v Somerset - won by 6 wickets
May 25: NL - Hampshire v Somerset - lost by 99 runs
May 28: CGT - Somerset v Surrey - lost by 6 runs
Jun 4: CC - Somerset v Worcestershire - lost by 9 wickets
Jun 8: NL - Somerset v Northamptonshire - lost by 7 wickets (D/L)
Jun 13: T20 - Somerset v Warwickshire - lost by 19 runs
Jun 15: NL - Somerset v Scotland - won by 1 wicket
Jun 17: TM - Somerset v Zimbabwe - lost by 3 runs
Jun 18: T20 - Glamorgan v Somerset - won by 7 wickets
Jun 20: T20 - Northamptonshire v Somerset - lost by 15 runs
Jun 21: T20 - Somerset v Gloucestershire - lost by 10 wickets
Jun 24: T20 - Worcestershire v Somerset - lost by 37 runs
Jun 27: CC - Somerset v Yorkshire - lost by 10 wickets
Jul 2: CC - Somerset v Gloucestershire - drawn
Jul 6: NL - Somerset v Sussex - lost by 90 runs
Jul 9: CC - Glamorgan v Somerset - lost by 110 runs
Jul 13: NL - Middlesex v Somerset - lost by 32 runs
Jul 15: TM - Somerset v South Africa - drawn
Jul 23: CC - Northamptonshire v Somerset - lost by innings & 61 runs
Jul 28: NL - Lancashire v Somerset - abandoned
Jul 30: CC - Durham v Somerset - lost by 318 runs
Aug 3: NL - Durham v Somerset - won by 4 wickets
Aug 5: NL - Somerset v Middlesex - won by 67 runs
Aug 10: NL - Somerset v Hampshire - lost by 116 runs
Aug 12: NL - Northamptonshire v Somerset - lost by 4 wickets
Aug 14: CC - Somerset v Northamptonshire - drawn
Aug 20: CC - Worcestershire v Somerset - lost by 8 wickets
Aug 26: CC - Somerset v Hampshire - drawn
Sep 1: NL - Somerset v Lancashire - lost by 24 runs
Sep 3: CC - Yorkshire v Somerset - lost by 9 wickets
Sep 7: NL - Nottinghamshire v Somerset - lost by 34 runs
Sep 10: CC - Somerset v Derbyshire - won by 27 runs
Sep 14: NL - Somerset v Derbyshire - lost by 2 wickets
Sep 21: NL - Sussex v Somerset - won by 191 runs

CC - County Championship
CGT - Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy
NL - National League
T20 - Twenty20 Cup
TM - Tourist match