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We look back to the Centenary Test, when MCC members at Lord's assaulted one of the umpires
August 28, 2010
The Centenary Test at Lord's in 1980 was intended to be a celebration of a hundred years of Test cricket in England. Off the field it lived up to all expectations, as a mass of former internationals assembled in London from around the world to enjoy a week of reminiscing and parties. Sadly, on the field the Test was marred by the weather and best remembered for an altercation on the Saturday, when an MCC member assaulted one of the umpires.
The original Centenary Test - in Melbourne in March 1977 - was a tremendous success, with the match itself going down to the wire and even producing an identical result to the first encounter, a win for Australia by 45 runs. The huge crowds had barely left the MCG before plans were being drawn up by the MCC for a similar event in England.
The first Test in England had been played at The Oval, but staging the Centenary Test there was ruled out on commercial grounds. Lord's held around 24,000, The Oval 16,000. It was also argued that Lord's was the spiritual home of the game. Even on such a sentimental occasion, the money men had the final say.
The assembly of Ashes greats at Lord's for the first day of the match, September 2, 1980 was remarkable. The oldest Englishman was Percy Fender (90), while Australia's senior was Stork Hendry from the 1921 tourists. I remember walking round the ground an hour or before the start of play and being left open-mouthed at the mass of legendary players casually chatting behind the Q Stand (now the Allen Stand), which was reserved throughout just for them.
Sadly, unlike in Melbourne, the game itself was poor - "inconclusive and dull" to quote David Frith in Wisden Cricket Monthly. Time lost to the weather (10 hours in all) did not help, but neither captain appeared prepared to take any risks, and on the fifth and final day England chose to ignore a stiff target set them by Greg Chappell. In warm late-summer sunshine, what should have been a great match petered out into a forgettable draw.
But it was the events of the third day that dominated the headlines and were remembered long after the game itself faded from the memory.
After delays on the Friday, a dry night meant there was every hope play would start on time on the Saturday. But a two-hour downpour in the morning left old creases towards the Tavern-side of the square sodden. To make matters worse, as the sell-out crowd milled around, the sun came out. All spectators had to entertain them under a clear blue sky was a regular procession of umpires and captains to and from the pavilion.
As the delay continued, the crowd's frustration grew and, fuelled by alcohol, they became more vocal. In his book Lord's, Geoffrey Moorhouse, who had access to many of those involved, said the ground staff thought play could start after lunch. Chappell told the umpires he was prepared to play ("If it helps you two lads to get the game started then I'll go along with that") but not so Ian Botham, England's captain since the start of the summer. Jack Bailey, the MCC secretary, told reporters that night that "MCC wanted play to start earlier".
With tedious regularity the four men inspected the pitch alongside groundsman Jim Fairbrother and then returned to the pavilion. That there was disagreement between them, made clear to all by often vigorous head-shaking and gesticulating, only served to stoke up the crowd.
"Had Botham been of the same mind as Chappell, they could have taken the matter into their own hands," John Woodcock wrote in the Times. "They were not obliged to, though, and in their maddeningly pedantic way, the umpires, with Botham's approval, worked to rule."
As umpires and captains headed out at 3.30pm for their fifth inspection, Botham was struck on the head from behind. Despite that, no additional security was called for. Dickie Bird said in his autobiography that out in the middle, against a backdrop of booing and jeering, he said to the captains: "Come on, lads, we can't keep going like this. Let's give it a go in 15 minutes."
As they returned Moorhouse said "it was apparent from all parts of the ground that MCC members had gathered more thickly than usual around the [pavilion] steps". As umpire David Constant started to walk up the steps he was subjected to a barrage of questions and comments, some abusive. So densely packed were the members that they were inadvertently blocking the umpires' path, and Constant pushed one to try to force his way through. The man responded by grabbing Constant's tie and almost pulled him to the ground. What followed was a brief melee as Chappell and Botham leapt to Constant's aid.
Bird was still out in the middle, supervising the spreading of sawdust, although he was shocked when he got back to his dressing room and saw a deeply shaken Constant. "We both sat there with tears in our eyes."
What was especially unfortunate was that it was claimed Bird and Constant had asked the MCC for extra covers on the old wickets as they had identified a potential problem in their pre-match inspection. The request was ignored.
"While it lasted only a minute or so, it was quite a to-do," Moorhouse noted. "It was a disgrace not only to English cricket but to the game in general," Frith added. "Such behaviour is of course deplorable," wrote Denis Compton in the Sunday Express, "but I can understand the members' sense of frustration."
Chappell said that some of the language used by the members "embarrassed me" (a surprising claim from a man who had played alongside his brother, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee), adding that the one who grabbed Constant "should be put in a cage". Botham said it was "more like a football terrace". When play finally got underway at 3.45pm there was a police guard inside the Long Room and on the stairs in front of the pavilion.
Amid the flurry of media comment, almost all of it apportioning blame to the MCC, it was expected the member who assaulted Constant would be thrown out. But after 19 members were questioned in the fortnight following the incident, it took another two months for any announcement to be made.
When it came, it was a classic establishment fudge. Peter May, the club's president, said while some members "had behaved in a way wholly unbecoming to the club", action had been taken, but he refused to reveal what that was. It only subsequently emerged the punishment was a stiff letter of warning from the secretary about future conduct.
The argument put forward by the club was that the individual who had assaulted Constant was only one of around 50 members who had behaved badly; he was also supposedly a non-drinker and claimed to have grabbed the tie "to stop himself falling over".
"It was a classic example of what MCC committees do when considering many things on their agendas," Moorhouse concluded. "Dwelling on every question from every conceivable angle until everyone is so confused by the alternatives that no clear decision seems possible or even desirable."
The final word, as is often the case, goes to Bird. "It was a very sad day all round. A marvellous occasion ruined by that one day."
Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.
My Autobiography, Dickie Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997)
Lord's, Geoffrey Moorhouse (Hodder & Stoughton, 1983)
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