Rewind to Rewind toRSS FeedFeeds


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

Martin Williamson

June 27, 2009

Text size: A | A

England batsman CB Fry in the nets, 1905
Though only 24, CB Fry was known for his temper © Getty Images
Related Links
Players/Officials: C.B. Fry | W.G. Grace

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

RSS Feeds: Martin Williamson

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Email Feedback Print
Martin WilliamsonClose
Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

    An all-round ODI giant

Numbers Game: Few players can boast the sort of numbers that Jacques Kallis achieved in ODIs

    Is being bowled out by Moeen embarrassing?

Polite Enquiries: Is Rahane India's Misbah? Should Rohit be dropped? Jarrod Kimber and George Dobell discuss

    'We were determined to prove we were not an average team'

Former South Africa wicketkeeper Dave Richardson remembers his favourite moment from the Lord's win in 1994

    'A test of Kohli's mental strength'

Bowl at Boycs: Geoffrey Boycott on Kohli's recent form, and Cook's captaincy

How does one 'lead by example'?

Alex Bowden: A captain needs to do enough as an individual to retain respect and control, but exceptional performances may not result in even greater influence

News | Features Last 7 days

The woeful world of Pankaj Singh

Pankaj Singh greeted his most expensive analysis in Test history with the words 'That is cricket'. It was admirable acceptance from an impressive man of a record he did not deserve

Bhuvneshwar on course for super series

Only 15 times in Test history has a player achieved the double of 300 runs and 20 wickets in a Test series. Going on current form, Bhuvneshwar could well be the 16th

Ugly runs but still they swoon

Alastair Cook did not bat like a leading man but the crowd applauded him for simply not failing

Boycott floored by an Indian trundler

When Eknath Solkar got under the skin of Geoff Boycott, leading to a three-year self-imposed exile from Test cricket

Worst keepers, and honours at Lord's

Also, most keeping dismissals on debut, seven-for at HQ, and youngest ODI centurions

News | Features Last 7 days
Sponsored Links

Why not you? Read and learn how!