1873 July 2, 2006

The world's first knockout cup

Martin Williamson on the world's first serious attempt to stage a first-class knockout cup ... as long ago as 1873

The first major domestic knockout competition took place in 1963 with the launch of the Gillette Cup in England, although that had been preceded a year earlier by an experimental limited-overs tournament in the Midlands involving four counties.

What is less well known is that the concept of such an event had originally been mooted a decade-and-a-half earlier. The mass of one and two-day cricket in the war years led to some serious debates about the possibility of organising a one-day knockout cup among the counties, although there was no suggestion at that time that overs should be - or needed to be - restricted.

Remarkably, the whole idea had already been discussed and, to a very limited extent, tried even earlier. In 1873, the MCC was investigating a way of making the county game more popular in a bid to boost finances. At the time, cricket was still a decade or so away from exploding into the huge pastime it became by the end of the century, and the formal County Championship was 17 years off. Matches were irregular, and often personality-driven as far as spectators were concerned.

MCC came up with the idea of a County Championship Cup, a knockout tournament for the leading counties to be played at Lord's, a neutral ground, and five of the leading sides readily agreed to participate with all costs to be borne by the hosts. However, when local membership was consulted, two counties were forced to withdraw as "the liberal views of the committee did not meet with general support". Three remained - Middlesex, Kent and Sussex - but, slightly miffed at the rebuffs, MCC declined to follow up on its offer to provide a silver cup for the winners. Only the fact that Sussex had already committed to being in London meant that any games took place at all.

So in June 1873, a month after the idea was first mooted, the one and only match took place between Kent and Sussex. The main problem was apparent from the off - the pitch.

Lord's was in the middle of being completely relaid as the playing surface had become a virtual disgrace. The process had started in 1869 - the year before George Summers had been killed on the ground after being struck on the head by a ball which reared off a length - and was finally completed in 1875. But the track selected for the Kent-Sussex match was among the worst.

Under cloudy skies and with few spectators present on the ground, Kent won the toss and chose to bat. The state of the pitch - described by Wisden as "dangerously bad" - soon became clear and The Times reported that "several of the players received ugly blows" from James Lillywhite and Richard Fillery. The pair had bowled unchanged and taken all 20 wickets between them against Surrey the previous week, and they again sent down 66 four-ball overs without respite as Kent were bowled out for 122. They were to bowl 1422 of the 1618 overs Sussex sent down in first-class matches in 1873.

If Sussex thought they had done well, then they were soon brought back down to earth by George Coles, a 22-year-old fast bowler from the Indian Civil Engineering College at Cooper's Hill making his debut, who repeatedly struck the batsmen, and with Edgar Willsher, who finished his spell with ten successive maidens, skittled Sussex for 45.

Shortly after tea, Kent batted again and were dismissed for a second time half-an-hour before the close, again with Lillywhite and Fillery bowling unchanged, and Sussex reached 37 for 1 at stumps, chasing 153 to win. "While Kent are yet the favourites," noted The Times, "there yet remains a chance that Sussex will get all the runs required."

The second day began with barely a handful of spectators present, and what they witnessed was even more brutal that on the previous day as Coles battered the batsmen into submission. "Three-quarters of them were more or less touched-up by it," The Times observed, while Wisden noted the "battering and bruising several of the Sussex men and finally disabling George Humphreys, who had, however, previously played a particularly plucky and good not out innings of 32 runs, making 20 of these runs from the tearaway bowling."

Kent eventually won by 52 runs and the match was over before 2 o'clock on the second day. James Lillywhite's Annual hinted that, to put it simply, Sussex's batsmen did not have the stomach for an uneven fight and were happy to have come away with nothing more serious than a few bruises. It was "possibly a happy escape for those who composed the Sussex XI, even at the expense of a defeat for the county." As an all-professional side, they could not afford serious injury.

That was that for the County Championship Cup, scrapped before it had ever really got underway. Neither county was particular interested in playing again, and MCC had been stung by criticism of the pitch, hit in the pocket by the dismal attendances, and riled by the lack of interest on the part of the counties. It was to be another 90 years before Lord's was to host a high-profile knockout match again.

As for Coles, the man who had caused most of the damage, he only played once more for Kent, later that summer when they returned to London to take on Surrey, and had little success. He soon left for India where he remained for the rest of his life.

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The Cricketer
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1873 and 1874
James Lillywhite's Annual 1874
Various newspapers

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo