Old Trafford's long road back
In sport, as in life, some events are freighted with so much significance that the moments in which they occur seem barely capable of holding the weight.
For Lancashire's officials and supporters, just such an event will take place at 11am on Thursday when, Manchester's weather permitting, the first ball will be bowled in the Third Investec Test between England and Australia.
An Ashes Test is always something to be savoured, of course, but this contest will be uniquely special for Mancunians because in the eight years since the last such game, Old Trafford has been redeveloped - some might say reborn - to the extent that spectators at the 2005 match might initially struggle to recognise the new stadium if they had seen no cricket at the ground in the intervening period.
Gone are the broadcasting boxes at the Stretford End; gone is the massive stand opposite the pavilion; gone are the seated areas to the right of that twin-towered pavilion, which itself has been virtually gutted and rebuilt with only the façade and the towers remaining. Lancashire have even realigned the square on a north-south rather than east-west axis. If some have problems getting their bearings on Thursday, that is partly because those bearings have changed.
In place of the old structures, which were, truth be told, a rather ramshackle collection of buildings badly in need of refurbishment, Lancashire have built a stadium with all the shock and awe that size often evokes.
There are new player dressing rooms and a media centre at the Statham End, both of which seem to have the "wow" factor; there is a huge temporary stand of 9,500 tiered seats at the old Stretford End, all of them in the distinctive scarlet livery used elsewhere in the new arena; and there is a massive hospitality and function suite, The Point, which overhangs the ground like a symbol of the modernity its architecture exemplifies. If the familiar intimacy of the old ground has been lost, the new Old Trafford possesses a confident swagger befitting a stadium in Manchester, a world city to which many businesses and organisations, not least major departments of the BBC, are relocating. The new place may have only a third of the capacity of the other Old Trafford across the way, but it no longer looks like its poor relation.
Yet the moment when the first ball is bowled on Thursday will be charged with even more emotional power because of what Lancashire risked in order to create their new home. The £44m redevelopment was financed, in part, by a four-way agreement between Lancashire, Ask Developments, Tesco and Trafford Council. As part of this agreement Tesco were given the go ahead to build a huge new superstore in Trafford. A rival developer, Albert Gubay of Derwent Holdings, objected to this permission being granted and took his case to the courts.
Indeed, Gubay took his legal proceedings so far that he imperilled not only Old Trafford's redevelopment but also the very future of the county club. Reviewing what he agrees was the most fraught time of his entire professional life, Lancashire's chief executive at the time, Jim Cumbes, makes no attempt to hide the stakes for which Lancashire were playing. Given legal costs and the possibility of losing vital grants, Old Trafford officials had bet their beloved house on winning the case.
"In that two- or three-year period there were times when you'd wake up at 3.30 in the morning and argue with yourself," Cumbes says. "Outwardly I was confident and optimistic and I always thought we'd win, but I didn't know when or how much it would cost.
"It was hard because we were getting into financial difficulties. We were spending money on legal cases and as soon as we got over one hurdle, another appeared before us. All the staff were nervous but we ploughed on. Nobody got a rise in salary for three years but we told them there'd be no redundancies. We kept that promise and the curious thing was that we won the Championship in the year in which we'd had to clip the financial wings of Mike Watkinson and Peter Moores, as regards player recruitment."
And all the time that Cumbes was being reassured by the club's QC Robert Griffiths that he was very confident of winning in court, he was also mindful of the barrister's "but": you never know what happens on the day.
"If we'd lost, there was really no Plan B," Cumbes says. "The club might have just disappeared or we would have downsized and become a county ground like Taunton, Northampton or Leicester. We wondered about the wisdom of going ahead with our plans but ultimately we thought we owed it to our members, to Manchester and to the people of the northwest to try to build a ground fit to stage an Ashes Test."
That Old Trafford was no longer fit to stage an Australia Test had been made abundantly clear by the ECB in 2006 when Cardiff, well-funded and soon to be well-presented, had got the nod in preference to Manchester for a game in the 2009 series.
"We were going ahead with redevelopment before we heard the bad news in 2006," Cumbes points out. "But we were all former sportsmen and being told that we had lost the Ashes made us all that much sharper and competitive. That was in our nature and when it went to court we were all saying, 'We've got to win this bloody case.'"
All the same, being reminded that hosting a Test was a granted privilege, not an inalienable right, was good for Lancashire officials who quietly accept that they had become a little complacent. So whatever emotions are felt by Old Trafford's present hierarchy on Thursday morning, complacency is unlikely to be among them. On the contrary, Lancashire are now keen to present the best case they can for their new ground staging as many Test and one-day international matches as possible. Thus, there was manifest concern and urgency when a brief but embarrassing power cut occurred in part of the ground during last week's FLt20 game against Yorkshire.
Does the new stadium have as much character as the old ground? Of course not. Or, at least, not yet. This is partly because experience often endows a place with character and only when spectators associate the new Old Trafford with games to cherish in the memory will they really think fondly of the place. What's more, massive banks of tiered seats can be found in most Test venues now and not everywhere can be Trent Bridge. That said, while the old ground was an eccentric and endearing collection of bits and pieces, it was also a pain if you were queuing for almost anything.
Ultimately, though, the story of Old Trafford's rebirth illustrates the granite truth that heritage counts for diddly-squat in the brutal business of international cricket. When the Old Trafford hierarchy were fighting for Lancashire's very future three or four years ago, they knew that little consideration would be given to black-and-white footage of Jim Laker modestly hitching up his flannels after taking 19 wickets against Australia in the 1956 Manchester Test, and even less to the epic battles of 1896 and 1902, both won by Australia.
More recent memories of comparable richness - Benaud bowling May behind his legs in 1961; Botham's hundred in 1981; Warne to Gatting and Gooch being given out handled ball in 1993, both watched by this journalist, who wondered if it was too late to make an honest woman of cricket writing - helped to make Old Trafford a much-loved home. If the match beginning on Thursday can produce one innings, one spell, or even one moment of comparable stature, Jim Cumbes may permit himself a quiet inward smile of satisfaction. The epic battle will have been worth it, after all.