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Martin Williamson looks back on the world's first floodlit match ... and it took place more than 50 years ago at Arsenal
March 11, 2006
On Monday, August 11, 1952, almost certainly the first cricket match under lights anywhere in the world took place and, what's more, the game was televised on the BBC in prime time, attracting an audience of several million. It was a benefit match between Middlesex and an Arsenal side, and took place at the famous Highbury stadium in north London.
The lights at Highbury had been installed the previous summer - Arsenal's legendary manager Herbert Chapman had raised the idea more than 20 years earlier - and in October 1951, more than 62,000 had packed the ground to watch a match against Rangers. It was another five years before the first league match took place under lights (although rugby league had been played at White City as early as 1933).
Middlesex and Arsenal were happy bedfellows. The Compton brothers had both played for Arsenal in the winter and Middlesex in the summer - Denis finished his football career by winning the FA Cup in 1950 - and each captained one of the sides. On August 12, 1949, Denis had held a benefit game against Arsenal at Highbury, while Leslie did the same in 1955. Those matches, unlike the one in 1952 for Jack Young, were played in the day in relatively normal conditions.
On the morning of the game it seemed as if it might fall foul of the weather as London had been lashed by rain and gales all weekend. But Monday was finer, and a little over 7,000 spectators were in place for the 7.30pm start ... which Middlesex only just made, having had to scurry across London to make the 7.30pm start as they were playing a Championship match against Surrey at The Oval which finished at 6.30pm.
The match was 13-a-side - to allow for the weary Middlesex legs and the mixed ability of the Arsenal side - and was played on black matting laid over the centre circle. White balls and stumps were used, but these were painted and as a result the balls had to be replaced regularly as the paint chipped off.
Middlesex won the toss, put Arsenal in, and emerged from the tunnel kicking footballs. The tone of the evening had been set. The boundaries to the side were short and the batsmen milked those for all they were worth. As the Arsenal innings drew to a close, the lights were switched on to great cheering. "Keep your eye on the ball," warned the public address announcer. "When you see it coming keep low. The batsmen will try to keep it down but they can't promise."
Middlesex, chasing 189, had Bill Edrich to thank for saving them from a potential embarrassment. His 70 guided them to 187 for 9, so they needed three to win with three wickets in hand when Young strode to the middle, wearing a miner's helmet, and quickly smacked the winning runs. With a TV audience to entertain (the BBC had two half-hour transmissions, the second from 10pm), the Middlesex innings continued until 10.30pm when the Bedser twins, who were umpiring, called time.
A whimsical editorial in the Times dwelt on the dangers of extending cricket into the hours of darkness. "What is to prevent non-stop Test matches where the last wicket falls as the milkman arrives," it pondered. "At least there will be no appealing against the light." If only they knew.
The next day Middlesex were back at The Oval to resume their match against Surrey which, despite batting heroics from Denis Compton and Young they lost, effectively guaranteeing Surrey the first of their seven successive Championship titles. Floodlights were not to make another serious appearance in England for 28 years.
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The Cricketer - Various
The Times 1952
Cricket's Strangest Matches Andrew Ward (Robson 1999)
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