Bramall Lane was not among the loveliest of cricket grounds, but to many players and spectators down the years it was the one they loved most. Countless cricketers, and not all of them Yorkshiremen, will remember it with genuine and lasting affection, just as they viewed with sadness the steps which saw the Sheffield ground close its doors on the summer game at the end of the 1973 season.
Sheffield United's shareholders, in a referendum only three or four years ago, voted for the retention of cricket at the ground. A more recent public debate in the city saw a motion passed calling for cricket to stay. But all the words which emphasised Sheffield's traditionally strong feeling for the sport fell on deaf ears: United's chairman, Richard Wragg, successfully urged the club's board to put all their eggs into the soccer basket and embark on a £1-million venture to make the ground a four-sided football stadium.
So, after the Roses match with Lancashire, Yorkshire C.C.C. closed the book on an era which had spanned 118 years. Perhaps it was mere symbolism, or maybe it was a telling reflection on the state of the game in modern times: but, anyway, the last day of a rain-hit match produced nothing by which the small crowd could remember the occasion.
Bramall Lane is assured of a lasting place in the annals of cricket. Other grounds have, perhaps, a more illustrious history, but the Lane (or t'Lane as it is known locally) was famed as the place where the spectators knew their cricket from A to Z, where wit and humour lent colour to the greyest day, and where the crowd and the play invariably epitomised the Yorkshire tradition and spirit.
Sheffield for a long time had the image of a dark city, full of smoke and grime, and they used to say that when Lancashire or the Australians were batting the local workshops deliberately stoked up their chimneys to assist Yorkshire's cause! The tales were untrue, but the darkness of the old town was a fact of life. Even now, when Sheffield is smokeless and one of the cleanest industrial cities in Europe, the picture of smoke and grime lives on. Reputations take a long time to die.
When Bramall Lane was opened as a cricket ground in 1855 it had been chosen because the site was removed from the industry of the town and thus was free of smoke. In the second half of the 19th century, and well into the 20th, the ground was one of the best-equipped sports centres in the provinces. Only one Test match was staged at the ground - England lost to Australia in 1902 - but several soccer internationals, an F.A. Cup final, and a string of semi-finals have been played there. But it was a home of cricket long before Sheffield United chose, in 1889, to form a football section; and The Lane was one of the reasons why Sheffield was the birthplace (and for many years the headquarters) of Yorkshire cricket.
When a lot of other things about Bramall Lane cricket have been forgotten, the crowd, especially those spectators who sat in the Grinders' Stand, will be remembered. Those men, who worked hard and believed in getting value for their money, won the respect of the cricket world because of their remarkable knowledge, not only of the game's finer points but of an individual player's career. Many are the stories of a burst of applause at an unexpected moment during a match: it usually transpired that the batsman had just reached a personal milestone and didn't know it himself until the crowd told him.
Back in the 19th century the bowling action of Tom Richardson of Surrey was an issue of controversy, but it was said that if his action was at all faulty the Sheffield crowd would be quick to point it out. When Surrey visited Bramall Lane the crowd saw Richardson claim nine wickets without a whimper: it was almost akin to official clearance, and the controversy was quickly forgotten.
Surrey were involved in several notable moments in the history of the ground. In 1861 William Caffyn and his men were making their way to the station after rain had caused abandonment; but a group of ruffians forced them to return and finish the match playing with water up to their ankles. "We've paid threepence to watch cricket, and we want cricket for our money," argued the chief ruffian.
In 1933, following the notorious bodyline tour during which England had regained The Ashes, the Sheffield crowd gave Douglas Jardine an unforgettable and immensely moving reception as he went out to bat for Surrey. The England captain had taken a tremendous battering from his critics because of the tactics his team had employed in Australia; but the Bramall Lane spectators made it clear that they were behind him to a man. Bill Bowes swears he saw a tear in the eyes of the Iron Man.
Two of the most remarkable finishes in Sheffield matches involved Surrey. In 1923, thanks to Roy Kilner's brilliant five-for-15 spell, Yorkshire won by 25 runs after staring defeat in the face; and in 1956, Surrey enjoyed their revenge, succeeding against all the odds by 14 runs. In the latter case Lock and Loader took the honours, but Yorkshire's batsmen, needing only 67 with eight wickets left, were heavily criticised for spineless batsmanship.
Three matches in which Yorkshire clashed with the Australians have become a part of White Rose folklore, even though in one of them, in 1886, Yorkshire were humbled by the Tourists. In fact, it was the feat of the Australia captain H. J. H. Scott in hitting 22 runs off the last of the four-ball overs that clinched victory and a place in the records. Saul Wade was the unfortunate bowler. In 1938 Yorkshire were all set to inflict the first defeat of the tour on Bradman and Co., but the rains came to break the hearts of all those Tykes on the Grinders' stand. In 1968 the White Rose bloomed, and Freddie Trueman captained the side that thrashed the Australians by an innings and 69 runs.
The Sheffield crowd had great affection for the player who could be called a character. Bobby Peel and Johnny Wardle were great slow left-arm bowlers of different eras, and both played their last matches for the county at Bramall Lane before bowing out under a cloud. But they could do no wrong in the eyes of Lane spectators. Peel was sent off the field by Lord Hawke following an incident in the Middlesex match of 1897, while the sacking of Wardle was announced during the Somerset match of 1958. Peel and Wardle enjoyed some of their happiest moments at Sheffield, and Wardle, who regarded the Lane as his home ground, is still talked about with astonishing affection because of his humour and his big hitting there.
Herbert Sutcliffe, a prince among batsmen, would hear no wrong said of Bramall Lane. It was at the ground in 1919 that he began his famous opening partnership with Percy Holmes, and there the pair shared in many memorable stands, including two of record proportions against Lancashire. At Sheffield in 1937, again in a Roses match, Sutcliffe scored his 100th century for Yorkshire, and the crowd's response to the achievement was described by Cyril Washbrook as one of the most moving tributes he ever witnessed on a cricket ground.
The legendary Tom Emmett is said to have stopped batting in one match in order to lecture the wits and critics on the Grinders' Stand. George Pope tells how a grinder lectured a member sitting on the pavilion balcony: "the member held up play by standing up behind the bowler's arm, and, amid a deathly silence, the grinder said: 'Aye, plenty of ruddy money: but no ruddy sense!'"
A famous story is told of the day South Africa's H. B. Cameron hit 30 runs off an over from Hedley Verity. Yorkshire wicket-keeper Arthur Wood cried down the wicket: "Hey up, Hedley, tha's got' im in two minds - he doesn't know whether to hit thee for a four or a six!" In hitting one of his sixes, incidentally, Cameron put the ball on to the pavilion roof: it was reported lost, and didn't turn up until some workmen were called in to investigate a blocked drainpipe the following winter.
It was in the second Victory Test of 1945 that Wally Hammond scored one of the finest centuries seen at Bramall Lane, though K. G. McLeod's 121 for Lancashire in 1911 was described as especially brilliant. C. B. Fry hit an outstanding 177 for Sussex in 1905, while in the same year David Denton hit a 96 which he regarded as his finest innings for Yorkshire. Don Bradman hit a truly magnificent 140 in two hours in 1934.
Maurice Leyland scored an unforgettable 189 against Middlesex in 1932, and his performance will be remembered because he achieved the feat despite an injury which forced him to use a runner - and, furthermore, he shared with Wilf Barber in a second-wicket stand which is still a Yorkshire record. (On the matter of records, Yorkshire's best stand for the last wicket, 148, was achieved in the Kent match of 1898 by Lord Hawke and David Hunter.)
A number of Yorkshire batsmen, including Brian Sellers and Geoff Boycott, recorded their maiden first-class centuries in matches at Bramall Lane; while in 1935 Paul Gibb had the rare distinction of scoring a century at the ground on the occasion of his Yorkshire debut. Yorkshire's opponents were Nottinghamshire.
The highest individual score made at Sheffield was 311 by J. T. Brown against Sussex in 1897. Len Hutton hit an undefeated 280 against Hampshire in 1939 and 271 not out against Derbyshire in 1937. When Brown made his 311, he and John Tunnicliffe shared an opening stand of 378, the best by a Yorkshire pair at the ground.
Holmes and Sutcliffe opened with a stand of 323 against Lancashire in 1931, bettering the Roses record they established in putting on 253 at the ground in 1919 when they had been opening partners for only a few weeks.
In first-class matches at Sheffield the feat of 10 wickets in an innings was achieved by Australia's Clarrie Grimmett in 1930 and by Wootton, playing for an All-England XI in 1865, also performed the feat. Grimmett's analysis read 22.3-8-37-10, while Smailes returned 10 for 47 in 17.1 overs to complete a match analysis which read 21.4-5-58-14. (Five of Derbyshire's wickets in that match, incidentally, were claimed by a colt called Smurthwaite at a cost of only seven runs.)
Bobby Peel once claimed eight wickets for 12 runs before lunch against Notts in 1888; the Notts bowler Wass (7-28) helped shoot out Yorkshire for 61 before lunch in 1905; and in 1910 George Hirst bagged eight for 80 on the first morning of the Somerset match. But the bowling performance that stands supreme in Bramall Lane records was achieved in 1936 by the same Hedley Verity so cruelly punished by Cameron.
It was against Kent that Verity claimed six for 26 in the first innings and followed it by taking nine wickets in 39 balls in the second, at a cost of a mere 12 runs! He finished with a match analysis of 19.3-8-38-15. In between the two Kent innings which together totalled 146 runs, Yorkshire made 299 for seven declared, and Wilf Barber scored 158 on his own. Perhaps Verity was avenging Yorkshire fall of 1865, when Willsher of Kent bagged 12 wickets for only 28 runs.
Harold Larwood once had a spell of five wickets for seven runs when the Notts pace bowler was at the height of his fame. Jack Iddon, used only as a change bowler, claimed nine wickets in an innings in the Roses match of 1937; while James Langridge of Sussex also achieved the best figures of his career (9-34) at the ground in 1934.
One could recall hundreds more memories and incidents which make up the Bramall Lane story, but many omitted here will be found in The Story of Cricket of Bramall Lane, which Sheffield members of Yorkshire C.C.C. produced as part of plans to raise funds for a new ground in the city. When a new ground is found -- and there are doubts about that - it will be a long time before it can hope to boast the history and traditions of Bramall Lane.
For t'Lane was more than a cricket ground: it was a centre for the summer game. Yorkshire cricket is much the poorer for its loss. Goodness knows what old George Ulyett would think about it.