February 19, 2012

When cricket was called a tort

Fabian Muir
A judgement on behalf of a local club ground 35 years ago stands village cricket in England in good stead today

Many who have had any kind of experience with the law would know how boring it can be. Many who do not understand the game of cricket would maintain that it, too, is boring. Thus, for many, there could be few constellations more tedious than those where cricket collides with the law. How wrong they are.

Imagine the following situation: a village cricket field upon which the game has been played for half a century or more. Adjacent to the ground is some vacant land which is eventually sold off, developed and purchased by a man and his wife.

For reasons known only to this couple, they are not fans of cricket. Yet now, whenever local matches are played, they are forced to endure the tock - and sometimes even the thwack - of leather upon willow. Peaceful Sunday afternoons are pierced by batsmen's calls of "wait" or fielders' cries of "catch it". To the homeowners' minds, this racket is insufferable; one man's music is another's cacophony.

More serious is the matter of sixes. The village butcher, a budding Botham, has the eye and the brawn to clear the pickets, and balls occasionally land in the couple's garden. Some even strike their abode, chipping the brickwork or breaking a tile. Consequently, the couple dares not venture outdoors for fear of being hit on the head by purring missiles.

Even when cowering in their home, they are disturbed by fieldsmen, who come and ring the doorbell, requesting that the ball be returned. Before long the couple feels compelled to vacate the premises entirely whenever a match is underway, which they deem an intolerable nuisance. What to do?

This is precisely the question that arose in Miller v Jackson, a British case heard in 1977. There, the Millers sought not only compensation from the local cricket club for damage to their house, but also an injunction prohibiting any future play on the ground. The scene of the crime - or strictly speaking, a so-called "tort" - was the village of Lintz, in County Durham.

The Lintz Cricket Club made every effort to accommodate the Millers by building a high fence at considerable expense (£700, no small sum at that time), offering to install protective netting over the property on match days, and admonishing players to hit fours rather than sixes. The Millers were not satisfied, however, and were determined to stop the cricket altogether.

One might wonder why anyone who dislikes cricket would buy a ringside house in the first place. The Millers claimed that they had not paid any "particular attention" to the nature of the open space at the bottom of the garden when initially inspecting the property. This was accepted by the judge at first instance, who actually granted the orders sought and effectively put an end to cricket in the village after 70 years at the ground. Not surprisingly, the Lintz Cricket Club appealed.

Cricket grounds in the UK and in cricket history can consider themselves fortunate that the appeal came before Lord Denning, one of the most venerable, courageous and eloquent judges of his time. The epic opening paragraph of his judgment is worth revisiting as one of the more whimsical passages in the annals of the game:

Lord Denning calculated that of the 29,022 balls bowled at the ground between 1975 and 1976, just 15 had cleared the fence specially erected by the club

"In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in County Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short. It has a good club house for the players and seats for the onlookers. The village team play there on Saturdays and Sundays. They belong to a league, competing with the neighbouring villages. On other evenings after work they practise while the light lasts. Yet now after these 70 years a judge of the High Court has ordered that they must not play there any more. He has issued an injunction to stop them. He has done it at the instance of a newcomer who is no lover of cricket. This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket. But now this adjoining field has been turned into a housing estate. The newcomer bought one of the houses on the edge of the cricket ground. No doubt the open space was a selling point. Now he complains that when a batsman hits a six the ball has been known to land in his garden or on or near his house. His wife has got so upset about it that they always go out at week-ends. They do not go into the garden when cricket is being played. They say that this is intolerable. So they asked the judge to stop the cricket being played. And the judge, much against his will, has felt that he must order the cricket to be stopped: with the consequence, I suppose, that the Lintz Cricket Club will disappear. The cricket ground will be turned to some other use. I expect for more houses or a factory. The young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much the poorer. And all this because of a newcomer who has just bought a house there next to the cricket ground."

Lord Denning understood cricket, both the game and its broader social significance. He also had talent as a statistician, calculating that of the 29,022 balls bowled at the ground between 1975 and 1976, just 15 had cleared the fence specially erected by the club. In his view, this did not constitute the level of nuisance asserted by the Millers.

The injunction was not granted and cricket was allowed to continue to prosper in Lintz. Just as importantly, a firm lid was placed on the potential can of worms that could have been opened for other grounds adjoining irritable new neighbours. Relations between the club and the Millers did not improve after the ruling, and the couple moved out approximately six months afterwards.

Thirty-five years later, it is tempting to view the incident with mirth. However, a starker light is cast on the dispute by Bob Jackson, the Jackson from Miller v Jackson, who was chairman of Lintz Cricket Club at the time and is today its president.

When asked about his response to Lord Denning's judgment, he says he was emotional, feeling gratitude to him and Lord Justice Cumming-Bruce, who had taken a similar view. However, Jackson also felt "sadness, as the club secretary, John Cromarty, was unable to attend the Court due to a heart attack, brought on by the stress of possibly losing his beloved ground. He died within weeks. He had been involved for over 50 years." This is a tragic detail ignored in legal texts.

It is therefore a shame that, according to Jackson, today's young players "have no concept of the importance of the Denning ruling", even though it remains a popular discussion point in Lintz to this day. Miller v Jackson, a case that appears so unnecessary when viewed from the outside, was in fact very necessary to protect clubs from similar disputes in the future.

Courtesy of Lord Denning - who ultimately scored a century of his own by living to be 100 - Lintz Cricket Club and others remain free to play the game they love.

Alas there is no Denning dispensing justice in Germany, where local authorities secretly dug up the Berlin Cricket Club's pitch and practice wickets on the same day as the 2011 World Cup final. No warning had been given and it is difficult to imagine that the remarkable timing of this cloak-and-dagger operation was entirely coincidental.

The pitch, first laid by British servicemen, had been in use without injury for 60 years, but Berlin administrators suddenly decided that there was an inordinate risk to passers-by and parked cars. The proposed solution? To relocate to a nearby polo field with matting thrown across the grass.

While a short term compromise was reached, no one cares much for Miller v Jackson in Germany. The Berlin CC will start the 2012 season at the new ground, with batsmen set to grapple with chukkers of a very different kind.

More on cricket in the German capital to follow once the ice on the wicket has melted.

Fabian Muir is an Australian writer now based in Berlin

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