Snow, sleet ... and cricket
Earlier this week I watched Middlesex prepare for the new season with an outdoor net session at the Nursery End at Lord's. The players were wrapped up as if setting out for a midwinter hike in the Cairngorms while their managing director of cricket, Angus Fraser, stiffly and gently bowled to them. The temperature was hovering around freezing and before long snow showers ended the practice.
It was no one-off either. On the same day in 2012, it also snowed in London, but at least that followed a hot March. And yet cricket's administrators, faced with cramming more 'product' into the summer, continue to seek to extend the season at both ends.
For much of English cricket's history, the cricket season proper, like summer itself, started at the beginning of May and was done and dusted by early September. Only more recently has it crept towards early April, aided perhaps by the advent of an increasing domestic calendar, more and more internationals and endless talk of global warming in the kind of newspapers the movers and shakers read.
There was a spell in the first decade of the last century when those in charge showed a remarkably modern attitude in thinking they could cash in by scheduling early matches, usually tied in with the Easter Monday holiday when the public were looking for entertainment. That experiment ended in 1908 when WG Grace's final first-class match was memorable more for snow and Siberian weather than anything else.
Grace only had himself to blame as he was largely responsible for the trial of the early starts. When he walked out on Gloucestershire in 1900 to form London County, he had persuaded the authorities by sheer force of personality that the sides he would put out and the opposition to be arranged warranted the club having first-class status.
To make the venture successful, he also needed income and he suggested that his XI, based in South London, play an early-season opener against neighbours Surrey. To make the match more financially appealing to both parties, the start was scheduled for Easter Monday. Heavy rain all but washed out the first two days but, undeterred, the match became a regular part of the calendar.
The games between Surrey and London County continued until 1905, dogged by poor weather and bitter cold. It was an odd encounter, not so much heralding the start of the season as a precursor to it, taking place a fortnight or more before the summer proper started.
The earliest start in the series came exactly 110 years ago in 1903 at The Oval and for once the omens were good as it was preceded by a few days of warm spring sunshine. The Times purred that The Oval had rarely looked better and pre-season practice nets had been well attended.
There was also a buzz in the build-up in the form of Bangalore Jaya Ram, an employee of the Mysore Civil Service who had come to England to study at the School of Mines. On the Saturday before the game against Surrey he scored 118 for London County, an innings watched by Ranjitsinhji, with whom he was prematurely and erroneously compared, who netted rather than play.
Ranji was down to play for London County on the Easter Monday but on arrival at The Oval he withdrew because it was too cold and was replaced by John Hirsch, an amateur of limited ability whose sporting claim to fame was that he played rugby union for South Africa. Surrey were also missing several regulars including Harry Bush, their captain, who was on his honeymoon.
Despite a chilling wind around five thousand spectators turned up, "sitting and shivering in a bitterly cold wind". Twice, snow showers swept across the ground and several times sleet fell. The fielders stood almost mummified by layers of sweaters and endlessly blew on their fingers to keep their hands warm.
Grace won the toss and opened the batting - judging by contemporary reports of the reception from the crowd when they heard the news, that was the reason most of them had turned out. Play started at mid-day and within five minutes the players were back inside the pavilion as snow fell.
Despite the conditions and his age - he was close to 55 - Grace batted well for his 43, although he was dropped in the slips and a fielder in the deep thought better of even trying for a steepler which in warmer times would have been a relatively straightforward catch.
Jaya Ram scratched around for 10 and, thanks largely to a sixth-wicket stand of 127 between Edward Sewell and Jack Board, London County managed to reach 250 before being bowled out 45 minutes before the close.
The feature of the day, according to the weekly Cricket magazine, was the use by the umpire, the wonderfully named Valentine Adolphus Titchmarsh, of a gauge to measure bat widths. Board and Sewell both had to return to the pavilion to change their bats as they were too wide, and the one Sewell returned with was also rejected, forcing him back into the dressing-room once again.
Some of the less self-important newspapers noted Titchmarsh had not checked the bats of any of the first three London County batsmen - all amateurs - but had only acted when both men at the crease were professionals. In the second innings the umpires ostensibly checked every batsman.
When most had returned to work, just over a thousand were present on a penetratingly cold but sunny second day as Tom Hayward scored the first first-class hundred of the summer, an innings which lasted two-and-a-half hours and included two all-run fives. By the premature close - it was reported there was a haze over the ground and rain in the air in the final minutes - London County were 28 for 2, still 90 in arrears but, luckily for the money men, Grace was still at the crease.
It was again sunny but cold on the final day as Surrey wrapped up an easy eight-wicket win, but Grace kept the few hundred spectators entertained with 81, his side's top score. Len Braund was unable to bat as he had gone down with influenza, almost certainly a result of playing in such desperate weather. He was probably not alone in being less than enamoured with such an early start to the working summer.
What happened next?
- This was the fifth time since 1855 a first-class match had been played in April and WG Grace had taken part in them all
- The second first-class game of the season, a fortnight later, was a drawn re-match between the same sides at London County's Crystal Palace ground
- London County continued to play first-class matches until 1904 but a decline in Grace's personal abilities, a failure to attract big-name players and a lack of competition - they were never admitted to the County Championship - and the consequent declining attendances sealed their fate. The entire venture folded in 1908.
- Gentlemen of England, largely coordinated by Grace and in effect a London County side in all but name, continued to play early-season matches until 1908.
- The earliest start to a season came in 2012 when the first first-class matches were scheduled for March 31. They took place is abnormally warm and dry conditions but within a week it was snowing across the country.
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa