1894 June 27, 2009

The crowd without the silver lining

It had rained, the conditions were not suitable, but these spectators wanted their monies' worth and just wouldn't go home

In this day and age it is hard to imagine crowd trouble at a County Championship match. Often it would seem there are not enough people watching to qualify for the description "crowd". We are also told that cricket's Golden Age in the decades before World War I were all about swashbuckling amateurs and endless sun.

The reality, as is so often the case, is quite different. Crowds were good, but generally not on the scale seen after the two wars. Some of the cricket was carefree and thrilling, but equally it could be dire and attritional. While there were some great amateur players, there many more poor ones. And off the pitch, spectators could be just as volatile as their modern equivalents.

At Tonbridge in Kent, the crowd were so irate at play being delayed by rain that they invaded the pitch and deliberately trampled the pitch with their heels. When a policeman tried to intervene, he was threatened with violence and beat a hasty retreat.

But one of the ugliest scenes took place at Bristol in August 1894 and involved two of the era's greats. On the one side was Gloucestershire and England captain WG Grace, by then almost 50 but with some of his great days still ahead of him. On the other, Sussex's Corinthian allrounder CB Fry, in his first season of county cricket.

There was nothing at stake: Sussex were bottom of the table with Gloucestershire one place above them, but there were some familiar names playing and spectators wanted entertainment on their day off.

Despite heavy overnight rain that continued until 10am, the gates were opened on time, and with it being a Bank Holiday a bumper crowd packed into the Neville Ground. But it was soon clear that play could not start on time at noon, and a further inspection was planned for 3pm. Shortly before then, another shower led to the captains and umpires deciding to abandon the day's play there and then.

In an attempt to assuage the growing anger of around 3000 spectators, Grace hastily arranged for the two XIs to play a game of football on the outfield. Kit was quickly found and Grace led his side out of the pavilion. However, the reception was less than warm.

"He quickly found, from the attitude of the crowd, that such form of amusement was hardly at that moment to their taste," recalled Gilbert Jessop, who was one of Grace's players. "If it was fit enough for football, it was fit enough for cricket, was their ultimatum, and they voiced their sentiments in no uncertain fashion."

What really enflamed the situation was that the authorities were refusing to refund any admission money. They argued, technically correctly, that the condition of entry did not guarantee play. The crowd countered that there had never been any realistic chance of play, and so they had been duped. Even the Times expressed concern that "the gates had not been closed sooner".

With the idea of the football match scuppered, a large number of people assembled in front of the pavilion to express their displeasure. Grace announced that free passes would be given to everyone to allow them to return the next day, but he was jeered as he spoke. Players and spectators continued to exchange views - civilly - until Fry responded to one jibe in an inflammatory way. Jessop described it as "cocking a snook". Despite his amateur status, Fry's temper was already known and the previous winter the Scotsman had referred to his "disgusting" language on the football field.

Faced with Fry's dismissive aloofness, the crowd's frustration gave way to anger, and the players were forced to seek refuge in their dressing rooms.

Only quick thinking by Ted Spry, the groundsman, prevented damage to the pitch. Seeing things were turning nasty, he roped off a strip well away from the one proposed for the game and a number of spectators took out their fury on that. This meant the match was able to start on time the next day.

Back at the pavilion the scene was growing increasingly unpleasant, even though the authorities had tried to placate the crowd by announcing that free passes would be handed out to allow them to return the next day. The players had to wait for the police to arrive to ensure they could leave the pavilion safely. Grace and Sussex's captain, his old friend Billy Murdoch, "only safely reached the cab awaiting them through police protection", reported the Times, and both teams were "manhandled and jeered". The Guardian noted that they only got to the cab "with considerable difficulty".

The next day play started on time "although the ground showed many traces of Monday's disorderly proceedings". Jessop added that the area roped off by Spry "was not good to look at".

Fry rubbed salt into the wounds of those who took up the offer of the free pass by scoring a patient 109 before the rain came. By the end he had been partially forgiven, however, and he was "heartily applauded". On the third day, batting on a wet pitch, Gloucestershire were bowled out for 121 and 77.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa