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Roving Reporter by Paul Coupar at Old Trafford
August 13, 2004
Lancashire are considering whether to leave Old Trafford, a 19th-century ground that the nostalgists consider historic and the critics consider prehistoric. But, barring rapid and localised global warming in the east Manchester area, there is one problem a move will not solve: rain. Today it pattered down all morning and, despite a new drainage system and the fervent hopes of the crowd, a quick glance at the early-morning puddles hinted that any sport of a non-aquatic nature would be impossible for some time.
In fact, according to Wisden's remarkable chief statistician, Philip Bailey, Old Trafford is officially Britain's soggiest Test ground. Bailey has calculated how many complete days' play have been lost to bad weather since Tests began. Almost all British Test grounds hover between one day lost every five Tests and one day in six. That includes Lord's, despite it traditionally holding an early-season match. Edgbaston is less soggy: one day in eight Tests. Old Trafford, meanwhile, is remarkably more so.
On average, a day's play is lost in Manchester every two-and-a-half Tests. That is a little to do with a historically slow-drying outfield (now much-improved), and a lot to do with grey skies frowning on Lancashire, to the frustration of generations of spectators and the county club, whose failure to win the Championship outright since 1934 is at least in part down to rain. Two Manchester Tests - in 1890 and 1938 - have been abandoned entirely. No other Test ground in the world has managed more than one.
In search of shinier facilities, if not brighter skies, Lancashire are now considering an offer from Manchester City Council to help them build a ground next to the 2002 Commonwealth Games stadium (now used by Manchester City's footballers) in the east of the city. At present the club are in discussion with property developers and the two councils concerned. In September, they will make a recommendation to the membership, who have the final say.
The case will be argued on hard economics, not sepia-tinged nostalgia, of which Old Trafford - partly because of the Cardus connection - attracts plenty. In fact it is even a pre-Cardus phenomenon: this is, after all, the home ground of Hornby and Barlow, of whom, in the 19th century, Francis Thompson was already singing mournfully - "Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!"
Local rumour says the club is likely to stay put. Lancashire are deep in the red, their overdraft manageable but burdensome. Essential building projects - such as last year's £900,000 repairs to the roof of the 1895 pavilion - are financially painful. Non-essential developments are near-impossible. So the ground suffers. Still, it retains something of the jollity and faded grandeur of an old seaside town.
With little money in the bank, the club relies heavily on football supporters from the other Old Trafford, who fill the cricket club's car parks every other Saturday in the winter. They are reluctant to give up such a stable income. One mooted and exotic solution - keeping both the income stream and the developers' cash - is to build offices on stilts over the existing car parks.
But all the talk of grounds is, in some ways, misleading: Lancashire have long been a club not very much to do with buildings and rather a lot to do with the people who fill them. In the warmth and wit of the supporters it stands almost alone. Most movingly, Clyde Walcott once wrote: "Words cannot express how I appreciate the warm welcome extended to me whenever I visit the club." Walcott, a black West Indian in an age of widespread and more or less overt racism, knew plenty about welcomes, warm and less so.
The wit and the warmth survive. Sheltering from the rain under the eaves of the Victorian pavilion a young group, mugs of steaming tea in hand, discussed with rare empathy the umpires' dilemma about when to restart, balancing the possibility of nasty injuries to players against the frustration of the sellout crowd: "It must be the most difficult job," one said. As the long wait for a start grew more frustrating, some of the umbrella-wielding crowd in the Statham Stand chanted "Get em off, get em off, get em off." For once it was not directed at the long-suffering and scantily clad npower girls, but at the groundstaff approaching the covers.
But the best line of the match so far involved a pair of southerners. Euan Blair, son of the prime minister, was doing work experience in the press box yesterday. One journalist asked what he was studying at university. Blair junior replied: "Ancient history". Quick as a flash, the man next to me whispered: "Do you think socialism is on the curriculum?"
Paul Coupar is assistant editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.
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