THE County Ground welcomed a special guest back through its gates on Monday as Joel Garner returned to Taunton to watch his native West Indies take on Bangladesh.

The paceman, now 66, took 338 First Class wickets at an average of 18.10 for Somerset and remains arguably the best fast bowler to have represented the county.

A pleasant and genial figure, Garner was as popular off the field as on it and, in conversation with your County Gazette, spoke of the affection he continues to hold for this part of the world.

“I was here last year as well and I’ve been coming back quietly for the past 10 or 15 years,” he said.

“I go into the sticks and spend time with my friends here. It is still one of the better places in the world to live.

“We go to country pubs and drink the local stuff. There are still some of the same faces in those pubs from when I played!

“I was living up in Manchester when I first came to Somerset and almost as soon as I got here, I told the people up there: ‘I’m not coming back’.

“The people are relaxed and I found people friendlier here. They never hassled you, you could go about your business and I just fit in.”

The names of Garner and his compatriot Sir Viv Richards have taken on almost mythical status in Somerset cricketing folklore, given their momentous roles in securing five trophies in as many seasons during the ‘glory years’.

Garner’s record in Lord’s finals for Somerset is extraordinary - 6-29 in 1979, 5-14 in 1981, 3-13 in 1982 and 2-15 in 1983 (but centuries for Richards in ‘79 and ‘81 denied Garner a single man of the match award!).

“One of the things I was always able to do was relax and enjoy it,” Garner said.

“It didn’t make any difference if it was a final at Lord’s or a match at Edgbaston or Taunton, the most important thing was enjoying it and getting the best out of the occasion.

“We had diversity in those teams.

“We had pranksters – you had to be looking around you if Botham was in the dressing room!

“Most importantly, we enjoyed playing with each other and we were happy. We had a good squad.

“We must have had about 16 coaches going to Lord’s on that weekend [in 1979],” he continued.

“The capacity here [Taunton] was about 4,000 and every Sunday the ground was bursting at the seams.

“We had great support, not only with the local people but up in Bristol and all around the place.

“I played my first game for Somerset against Australia at Bath in 1977 and I always enjoyed going back there.

“You would spend a week up there and all sorts of things happened!

“Weston was also good fun and every now and again we would play at Glastonbury and Yeovil. It took cricket around the county, which was nice.

“When we got to finals, some of my footballing friends came along – as they would if we were playing around different counties. It was a nice atmosphere.”

Despite their limited-overs success, the star-studded side were never able to claim a County Championship title which, for now at least, continues to elude Somerset.

“We had one of the best teams in cricket but we never got a chance in the Championship,” Garner said.

“Nobody gave us a sporting declaration and we had to do all the pushing.

“Teams would declare and set other teams 260 to win in 70 overs. Nobody would do that with Somerset.”

Garner was, of course, one of several legendary West Indian fast bowlers in county cricket in his playing days.

The likes of Sylvester Clarke (Surrey), Michael Holding (Derbyshire) and Wayne Daniel (Middlesex) became synonymous with their respective counties and formed genuine bonds which are not as common in the modern era.

“There is a short-sightedness now,” Garner said.

“If you are looking for strong teams worldwide, one of the things to do is open it up.

“I’m not saying open the floodgates, but a youngster now will struggle to play club cricket in England because of the restrictions. To me, that is a shame.

“In Barbados, any team can play two overseas players. So if you have two players at Somerset who want to play domestic cricket in Barbados, they could both play on the same team.

“It is too stringent now and there are too many rules.”

Garner is to become more involved with cricket in Barbados again when he returns from watching the World Cup.

So if the next Joel Garner is waiting in the wings, would he recommend Somerset as a place to play?

“Easily, without a doubt,” he replied with a broad grin.

“I had the most fun just playing cricket and doing what I loved.

“I got to see the world for free and I have no regrets about anything in cricket or life in general.”