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When cricket hit the West End

The game has been played in few stranger places than in the London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties in St Martin's Lane

Martin Williamson

January 18, 2014

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The Coliseum in St Martin's Lane
The Coliseum in St Martin's Lane... scene of many weird and wonderful extravaganzas © Splod

Cricket has been played in some odd places - football grounds, sand banks in the sea, on ice - but few stranger than in 1908 when Middlesex met Surrey on the stage of the London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties in London's St Martin's Lane.

The Coliseum, which was a music hall, had opened in 1904 and quickly established a reputation for its eclectic offerings. One night top of the bill might be a clown or an indoor rodeo; the next a performing elephant, or a serious organ recital, or ballet. In short, the owner, Sir Oswald Stoll, believed anything that filled seats was worth putting on.

Occasionally he failed - such as the occasion in 1917 when he put on a mock trench battle between British and German "troops" that the Germans won prematurely - but more often than not his productions worked.

Stoll's first venture into sport came in February 1908 when he put on a cricket match between teams representing Middlesex and Surrey on his variety bill, sitting rather uncomfortably alongside the usual comedians and singers. Stoll believed the public would appreciate a chance to watch the summer game in the depths of winter.

The Coliseum had the advantage of a huge stage. It was 85 feet from the front of the stage to the back wall and 130 feet wide and this enabled it to add to the bill attractions that the space limitations of almost all other theatres rendered unworkable.

Even so, the stage could not accommodate a full-size matting pitch so the stumps were only 15 yards apart. Behind the players was a painted backdrop of a tree-lined ground in the middle of the summer.

Anything goes

  • Sir Oswald Stoll put on a wide variety of strange shows at the Coliseum
  • Horse racing: Using the revolving stage, with variations, including at one time, chariot-racing
  • Dog racing: Terriers chasing an electric rat, also on the revolving stage
  • Highland Games This included tossing the caber, reels, flings and sword dancing
  • Wild West Rodeo: One of the most successful ventures with cowboys who had to wait their turn in the street outside before galloping onto the stage
  • Professional Tennis: Despite space limitations this proved a very popular and was only curtailed when the Variety Artists' Federation objected the players were depriving its members of work
  • Polo:This did not really work as while the horses galloped quite well, the game had to be played off the ground "with something like a lacrosse stick and elevated goals

A fine mesh net was lowered between the stage and the stalls to protect the audience and orchestra from being struck by the four-ounce ball.

Instead of a programme, scorecards were sold in the foyer. For those who did not buy one, a scorer, wearing a grey morning suit, stood at the front of the stage keeping tally on a blackboard. He had another role in that when the ball disappeared off stage into the wings it was his role to retrieve it.

The players wore white but, presumably to avoid confusion on a packed stage, the umpires did not, although why they were attired in full evening dress was not explained.

The space limitations meant the game was four-a-side. Middlesex sent four professionals led by Albert Trott, the fast bowler who played for both Australia and England and the man who hit the ball over the Lord's pavilion. Their team also included Jack Hearne, 19-year-old Patsy Hendren and Edward Mignon. Surrey had no big names but their quartet were all in the county XI - Alan Marshal, Leonard Gooder, William Davis and Bill Hitch.

The size and limitations of the stage meant there were only two tactics available to batsmen. Either they used their lightweight bat to nudge the ball into space and scurried a single, or they hit it as hard as they could and then ran while the ball cannoned between scenery and the wings. There were no rewards for big hits.

Not everything went to plan. One night the net stubbornly refused to be lowered and so the game was played without it. Felix Barker, in The House That Stoll Built, said "it was to the delight of the people in the stalls who turned themselves into voluntary fielders".

Each night play lasted a set time and runs scored were cumulative, so it was possible for the audience to see a number of innings in one show and the match position was advertised outside the Coliseum.

The Daily Mirror reported after the first day - Monday, February 24 - "Middlesex beat Surrey yesterday by 32 runs against 28". The newspaper did not describe the match as cricket, preferring to call it "vigoro", a cross between baseball and cricket played mainly by women.

By the third day - the Wednesday - Middlesex led by 136 to 125. While it would be churlish to suggest any match-fixing went on, Stoll was a businessman and he knew that to sell tickets the contest had to be tight, and so it proved.

On Saturday, February 29, the sixth and final night of the week's run, the programme announced the winners at the end of the evening would be presented with a cup. But behind the scenes it was discovered the manager, who was paying the teams £5 each and was keen to keep costs down to maximise his share of the profits, had not bought a trophy.

And so when Middlesex won Trott was presented with a hastily polished tankard bought from a neighbouring pub.

There are no references as to whether the venture was successful but from the fact that it was not repeated we have to assume not. The appeal of spending an evening watching cricketers play in an extremely confined space must pall very quickly.

"It was all right as a stunt for week," Barker concluded, "but like most games transferred to a stage, it was a pale imitation of the real thing."

The House That Stoll Built by Felix Barker (Frederick Muller Limited, 1957)

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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Posted by Barsac on (January 18, 2014, 9:55 GMT)

Sounds rather like one of the more tawdry T20 tournaments around the world. "A pale imitation of the real thing" indeed.

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