England's one-off Test ground
This week much has been written about the Rose Bowl's coming of age as England's tenth Test ground. And although the recent ECB expansion in the number of venues deemed good enough to stage Tests suggests the likes of Southampton, Cardiff and Durham will be around for years to come, the salutary example of Bramall Lane, England's forgotten Test venue, should not be overlooked.
Between 1880, the year of the first Test in England, and 1899, only three venues were used for home matches - The Oval, Old Trafford and Lord's - and in that Ashes summer two more were added - Trent Bridge and Headingley. That was a success, and in 1902, two more venues were added into the mix - Edgbaston in Birmingham and Bramall Lane in Sheffield.
To the modern eye, Sheffield is an odd choice, but in 1902 it was the home of Yorkshire cricket and, as such, a natural place to host a Test. Crowds there were known for their knowledge of cricket and turned out in large numbers for county games.
Bramall Lane was also a major sporting venue for football, and was the home of the then-powerful Sheffield United. It hosted the world's first floodlit match in 1878, and was also home to five internationals up to 1930 and hosted the 1912 FA Cup final replay. The ground was shared with Sheffield United FC, and so had an odd configuration for football with close stands on three sides, and the fourth in the distance.
However, with an all-too-familiar lack of appreciation of local sensitivities, the authorities made a crucial mistake in arranging for the match to start on a Thursday and finish on a Saturday (almost all Tests in England were three-day affairs through to 1929). The Sheffield club told them that the best day for attendances was Monday, but that made little difference.
However, the main problem with Bramall Lane was the light. Housed in the middle of a heavily industrialised city, it was not unknown for the smoke from the many factories in the vicinity to turn the most glorious summer's day into a Stygian gloom, and at its worst the smoke on its own caused play to be halted because of the poor light.
The first two Tests of the summer - Edgbaston and Lord's - were drawn after rain affected both. The three-day format meant any significant interruption made a result unlikely. At Birmingham, Australian were skittled for 36 in reply to England's 376 but rain washed out almost all the final day; at Lord's less than two hours play was possible.
As the teams took to the field at Bramall Lane on July 5 to start the third Test, the weather was dry but the light was poor for the first hour, and then again at the end of the day, eventually bringing a premature close half-an-hour early. For once the factories were not to blame, newspapers reporting the chimneys belched little or no smoke. "The old story of the word of command 'Stoke up, boys, the Australians are batting' did not receive confirmation," noted the Daily Express.
The pitch was generally considered to be good, although rain in the days beforehand had caused it to be slightly bouncy. Nevertheless, it was a good day's entertainment as Australia were bowled out for 194 and England closed on 102 for 5.
CB Fry, included in the side at the expense of the injured KS Ranjitsinhji, also managed to find time to act as the Daily Express' match reporter, and he noted that by the time he batted late on "it was almost impossible to see the ball from the pavilion end" and that he had to play "purely from the bowler's arm". It could have been he was looking to explain why he made only 1 as England lost three wickets for one run in the final minutes.
As the Yorkshire authorities had warned, the Thursday start did affect the gate. The Guardian reported: "There were some expectations the novelty of the occasion might lead to barrier-busting and the flooding of the ground with people. But the Thursday afternoon holidaymakers have not by any means overrun Bramall Lane, and although the cricket has been watched by a crowd running well into the thousands, there have been dozens of empty benches next door to the pavilion, as well as yawning gaps in the standing places, whence the grinders, yellow with the swarf from their lathes, are wont to cheer on their favourites."
The second day was Australia's. Helped by overnight rain which spruced up the uncovered pitch, making it misbehave for the first hour, they bowled England out for 145, taking 45 minutes to polish off the last five wickets and in so doing securing a lead of 49. They then rattled up 289, and chasing 339 to win, England closed on 73 for 1.
A slightly smaller crowd than on the first day - around 12,000 compared with 20,000 - were briefly sent into raptures by Wilfred Rhodes' late burst of four wickets for no runs in 19 deliveries - he finished with 5 for 65 - while a small but vociferous contingent of khaki-clad Australian servicemen, freshly back from South Africa, cheered on every Australian success.
Starting the final day needing 266 for victory, England managed only 195, losing by 143 runs. Fry claimed in his newspaper anything about 250 would have been "morally impossible" such was the worn state of a pitch which seemed to have become "damp from below".
After the match there was one uncomfortable moment, according to Keith Farnsworth in The Story of Cricket at Bramall Lane, when Joe Darling, Australia's captain, accused groundsman Jack Ulyett of doctoring the pitch. There was nothing to suggest anything untoward, and in fact Australia had benefited from the conditions on days two and three. Darling's irritation may owed more to the fact he made a pair in the game, adding to another pair he had made against an England XI at Bradford immediately before the Test.
While there was no official comment on the match - that was not the way things were done - there were private mumblings from several players about the facilities. Although the chimneys had been quiet for the first day, for the second they were back to their usual form and play was conducted in a thin and slightly grimy mist. As Fry pointed out, the lack of a sightscreen in the pavilion meant at times the ball was all but impossible to see, and 12 of the last 14 wickets to fall were when the bowling was from that end.
Financially, Yorkshire were also unhappy. Attendances were decent but not as good as expected and the county made a loss. Indifferent weather and the timing of the match were cited as main reasons.
Even so, Bramall Lane might still have hosted more Tests but for a decision by Yorkshire to move the county headquarters from Sheffield to Leeds a year later. By the time the Australians returned in 1905, Headingley was Yorkshire's preferred choice, and so it remained.
What happened next?
- Australian won the fourth Test by three runs, and with it the series, although England gained a consolation victory at The Oval
- Bramall Lane continued to be used regularly for cricket until 1973 when the then owners, Shefiield United, voted to redevelop the ground as a football-only stadium. The last first-class game to be staged was between Yorkshire and Lancashire in August of that year. Areas of turf from the square were sold off for 20p a yard. Geoffrey Boycott, who said it was his favourite ground, reportedly bought 20 yards
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The Story of Cricket at Bramall Lane by Keith Farnsworth (Charles Buck, 1973)
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa