England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford July 30, 2013

Old Trafford's long road back

Paul Edwards
Lancashire bet their house on a redevelopment that would return Test cricket to Old Trafford; with the arrival of Australia, that dream has been realised

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.

"If we'd lost, there was really no Plan B. The club might have just disappeared or we would have downsized and become a county ground"
Former Lancashire chief executive Jim Cumbes on the legal battle to redevelop Old Trafford

"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.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Michael on July 30, 2013, 19:23 GMT

    anton1234 day to day that is where a club like lancashire make all their money hosting corporate events. I such assume you haven't been to a county championship game recently to see the 15000 empty seats on a day to day basis, even general t20 fixtures stuggle to pull in more than a couple of thousand spectators. Ultimately it is only ever really ashes tests that generate a sell out for all 4 days of the tests, which is no longer a guaranteed cash cow for the grounds besides the oval and lords. The economics of of it all just dont suggest that a massive increase in capacity would be as financially viable as producing first class facilities for hospitality.

    In Australia the huge capacity stadiums are only financially viable because of the shared usage with aussie rules.

  • Ian on July 30, 2013, 16:47 GMT

    I`ll be there this Saturday, 25 years after my last visit when I saw a not very good England side capitulate to the West Indies in 88. We did have Pavillion tickets that day though, and saw legends such as Bob Willis and John Bond at lunch. No such luxuries this time around though, I`ll be with my son, a naturalised Mancunian who was about 6 months old in 88, how time flies!

  • Dummy4 on July 30, 2013, 16:25 GMT

    @ Samdan- you obviously have no idea about the history of our game. If you are from the sub-continent, then you will ask for universal slow turners. If you are an Aussie, for quick pitches everywhere. The glory of test cricket is the ability to conquer the local conditions and stamp your authority. Jimmy Anderson would despise destroying an Indian batting lineup in India with rampant greentops just for the sake of homogenising the international test cricket surface. Bloom where ye grow.

  • anton on July 30, 2013, 15:37 GMT

    £44 million spent but the capacity has hardly gone up. The money was spent purely for the benefit of corporate hospitality, as seems to always be the case in the UK when it comes to cricket ground redevopments. Its an absolute joke that cricket grounds here only hold 20K-25K people. The should be two or three grounds at least with capacity in excess of 40,000.

    Believe it not, Lords is planning a near £200 million redevelopment which will only see an increase in capacity by 2,000.

  • david on July 30, 2013, 15:21 GMT

    i hope we get as good a test as the 2005 game. with crowds to match. on the 5th day i remember trying to park i have never seen the like. the places were in the past i new close to the ground were taken and we had to park as far away from OT as i can ever remember. then thinking as we had bought the 4 days advanced tickets which entitled you the the 5th days ticket free and passing all the queues who were waiting to pay to get in. the emotions of the two and fro of the day as Ricky Ponting alone it seemed kept England at bay. the memory of the Aussies players cheering a draw. then the feeling of so close but so far.test cricket at its finest perhaps not but great drama as as good as series as i can remember in my 45 years of watching test cricket.

  • Michael on July 30, 2013, 15:16 GMT

    You can build a new stadium; you can turm the pitch round; you can even improve the overall caterinjg standards; BUT YOU CANNOT CHANGE THE MANCHESTER WEATHER!!

  • Stuart on July 30, 2013, 13:23 GMT

    Samdanh, what on earth have your bitter comments got to do with Lancashire or Old Trafford's redevelopment?

  • Richard on July 30, 2013, 13:20 GMT

    Some very inviting windows on that pavilion. Wouldn't mind being the glazier with that contract.

  • Peter on July 30, 2013, 13:11 GMT

    I wouldn't be so sure Samdanh

    Australia know that spin is their weakness at the moment (post Warne) so you can bet your bottom dollar we won't see any turners when England head over there in a few months. Countries aren't going to do their opponents any favours and everyone knows that, it's about having an attack than can win whatever the conditions.

    England have good seamers who can match anyone and they can also go to India and win on spinning tracks.

  • Michael Ponnudurai on July 30, 2013, 12:05 GMT

    England has joined the bandwagon of countries that prepare pitches to negate opposition strengths and give an edge to hosts to strengths. So they can no longer crib when travelling to 2 sub continent countries-India and SL in future, now that there are no matches in Pak. By retaining pitch conditions that existed when India toured England last, Eng's series scoreline could have been more close than what could be the case at the end of this series, where pitches start helping spinners from day 2. But I am sure they will not dare to lay out such pitches when SL, Pak or India tour them. It will be moisture ridden green pastures. Now only Australia, and to some extent, South Africa remain to be countries that do not doctor pitches