A farewell to a cricket ground
In 1973, Bramall Lane, which staged only one Test in 1902 but was for decades the spiritual home of Yorkshire cricket, hosted its final first-class match. J. M. Kilburn looked back at its history
The original developers envisaged many forms of sport on the pasture they leased from the Duke of Norfolk in 1854, but cricket was their principal concern because they themselves were cricketers and because cricket was rapidly growing in significance as a public entertainment. Bramall Lane was wanted as a setting for important cricket matches and important cricket matches were wanted as a justification for Bramall Lane. The ground derived its name from the approach that led through the fields to David Brammall's factory and residence. The new sports enclosure was walled off from surrounding pasture and its only gateway in the 1850s opened on to Brammall's dusty lane, It was then a country ground with a recommendation that it would `have the advantage of being free from smoke'.
Within a generation Bramall Lane was losing its rural quality. Light steel industry spread out from the banks of the little River Sheaf, housing grew, streets were defined and paved. Beyond the walls the pasture disappeared; within the enclosure the turf was well-tended as cricket field and bowling green and a cycle track was constructed. At the southern end a pavilion, with dining accommodation shared by players and public, was flanked by terraced embankment. At the northern end the proletarian thirst was catered for in open booths that constituted the lower section of a two-tier stand.
The founding fathers of Bramall Lane and Sheffield United, whose leader was M. J. Ellison, agent to the Duke of Norfolk, were not content to provide a home for big cricket. They initiated the big cricket itself. From their enterprise originated the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, founded in 1863 and of uninterrupted existence ever since. Yorkshire CCC was born in Sheffield and cradled at Bramall Lane and its early life was under Sheffield's influence, though the dominance was not parochial in outlook. Bramall Lane was seen as a part of Yorkshire, not the whole of it. From its inception the property was intended be financially self-supporting but its management had the Victorian philosophy of paternalism. Ellison as President of Sheffield United guaranteed the rent; Ellison as President and Treasurer of Yorkshire was a creditor who frequently forgot to present his bills.
After his death in 1898 the management of Bramall Lane changed status. Sheffield United Cricket and Football Club became a limited company and bought the freehold of the ground for £10,300. Cricket was still the principal presentation and source of revenue and in 1902 England and Australia came to play a Test match. England lost the match and Bramall Lane lost its Test ground future. Attendances and gate receipts were disappointing and murky industrial haze cost hours of play. Bramall Lane was characterised and condemned for ever.
Yorkshire accepted the reaction with fortitude. Sheffield supported county cricket and on the terracing backed by the Bramall Lane wall the spectators created, in their `Grinders' Stand', a world-wide reputation for shrewd assessment, caustic wit and uninhibited comment. Before the First World War and between the Wars the Bramall Lane crowd was a feature of cricket. It was partisan, yet gave a memorable ovation to favoured `foreigners'. It could be mercilessly critical, yet in the next breath warmly appreciative. Through whole generations of cricket `the grinders' enlivened the game, offering both inspiration and deflating appraisal.
With advancing age and reconstruction for football, Bramall Lane became less and less of a cricket ground in appearance. The pavilion grew shabby, back and front, and the addition of a projecting balcony gave a few more seats but no more architectural attraction. At the football end tall embankments, concrete, stepped, and high, roofed stands spoiled the cricketing light and seared the eye with garish colours of advertisement.
Brickwork and ironwork and paintwork deteriorated to a state beyond renovation in economical terms. Bowling green degenerated to football practice pitch in winter and car park in summer. Cricket began to look and feel a poor relation. An ageing Bramall Lane could sustain only manifestly successful cricket. When spectators could be numbered in tens of thousands they generated a vitality of atmosphere to obliterate the inconveniences, not to say hardships, of watching. Numbered in tens, spectators made the cricket look forlorn and its setting grimly uninviting.
Bramall Lane in later development never was a beauty spot. Only the pavilion balcony encouraged close study of the technical detail in play. From the far football stands the cricketers appeared as midgets, remote in ritual. Looking across the line of the pitch the ball was hard to follow against a background of stone and steel, without a tree in sight and even the sky glimpsed as from the bottom of a canyon. Familiarity bred some tolerance but first impressions could be daunting and the presence of a butterfly was counted phenomenon.
Playing compensations varied. In the cricket area proper ground fielding enjoyed benefit of smooth turf with the disadvantage of boundary railings that inhibited pursuit of the ball to the field limits. Where football was played and new grass cultivated every year embarrassment was commonplace as the ball bounced, changed direction and made abrupt change of pace.
Batting was, by tradition at least, more calculable. In County Championship cricket custom established a pattern of pitch behaviour in which first mornings welcomed fast bowling, batsmen found their heaven for a day and a half and spin bowlers were granted a turn towards the end of some matches.
Over 120 years the performances to be remarked crowd each other from the honours board. Measure of the memorable must be by personal standard and fancy. In my Bramall Lane a young Herbert Sutcliffe will for ever be racing in front of the pavilion rails to hold a breathtaking catch for E. R. Wilson; a perspiring and grinning Maurice Tate threatens mock strangulation for a downcast wicketkeeper who has just dropped three catches forced by wonderful new-ball bowling; Cameron of South Africa is bombarding the pavilion roof with mighty straight drives; Trueman and Peter May are locked in titanic combat for an hour; Bowes is confusing Bradman and A. B. Sellers is signalling heartbreak with `Match Abandoned'.
Bramall Lane will leave tangible mementoes of its cricket in samples of turf and stone and wood, but the true memorial to a ground destroyed will be in the form of recollection; in tributes of thankfulness for wonders devised and seen, for drama and disappointment, for attempt and achievement. The history books have a brave story of a ground that brought the `meadow game' into a haven amid industrial noise and grime. Bramall Lane has served a purpose and left an indelible mark on cricket.
This article first appeared in The Cricketer in August 1973