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Surveys of cricket in England in this century tend to be focused on the commanding heights of the period. Such peaks as 1921, 1934 and 1947 come under frequent scrutiny, because cricket evolved as a pastime to be played and enjoyed ideally under blue skies and a blazing sun, and these were beautiful summers. This survey, though, must plumb the depths and walk the valleys, rain and yet more rain being its theme. In making a study of the wet seasons, I have allowed the testimony of contemporary witnesses to colour the scene. As will be seen, they have been inclined to pronounce their verdicts on a summer as the worst ever without, perhaps, due regard to objective judgement.
The curtain rises in 1903, a year overshadowed by a dramatic series between England and Australia twelve months earlier. Never, according to the 1904 Wisden, has county cricket been so much affected by rain as in 1903. The summer was the wettest within the experience of anyone now playing first-class cricket, worse even than 1879, and in nearly all parts of the country the game had to contend with overwhelming disadvantages. As was inevitable under such conditions, the various county clubs suffered severely in pocket.
Thereafter, the splendours of the Golden Age were not again dimmed until 1912. Then, the Championship was more seriously affected than in any previous season; Yorkshire, the champions, had their matches interfered with to such a terrible extent that they lost £1,000. The Triangular Tournament was condemned by the fates to fight against a combination of adverse conditions which could hardly be imagined.
In 1924 even H. S. Altham's enthusiasm was chilled by his experiences as a coach at Winchester. He opened his review of Public School cricket: Few even of the most zealous of enthusiasts can have been altogether sorry when the season of 1924 came to an end. A season of cloud and rain, of ruined wickets, of abandoned matches, and of disappointed hopes. Up and down the country cricketers of every category had a sorry time; the county clubs saw match after match make inroads into their funds or pile a balance even greater against them; the weekend player was again and again cheated of his jealously expected games, and the school cricketer was, perhaps, the hardest hit of all. In short, the summer of 1924 was without question the worst since 1879 according to Mr Altham, who emphasised the point by quoting H. H. Stephenson of Surrey, and himself a great coach, who referred to 1879 as being impossible for coaching. The wet summers of 1903 and 1912 were either discounted or overlooked in an understandable desire not to minimise the traumas of the year just past.
Next come the summers of 1930, 1931 and 1932, which were all declared by contemporaries to be wetter than normal, though the scoring of Don Bradman in 1930 (2,960 runs at 98.66) and Hebert Sutcliffe in the two subsequent years (3,006 at 96.96 in 1931 and 3,336 at 74.13 in 1932) was still phenomenal. Most damaging to finances and morale was their cumulative effect. In a shrill complaint about the climate, C. Stewart Caine in his Notes in the 1933 Wisden was convinced that such a succession of wet summers was without parallel, this conclusion being based upon recollections covering a period of more than fifty years. The May of 1932 seems to have been the last straw. Lord's was awash, and over the country as a whole 63 days' first-class cricket were lost during the month. The severe damage done to the finances of some of the poorer counties posed the threat of extinction, but salvation was at hand. The summers of 1933 and 1934 were both exceptionally fine.
The years before the outbreak of the Second World War produced one notably poor summer - 1936 - when nearly half the Championship matches played were left drawn. Even so, Hammond, with 1,281 runs in August, was able to eclipse W. G. Grace's long-standing record for the month. In 1938 the complete wash-out of the Third Test match against Australia at Old Trafford was an isolated blemish on a fine summer.
In 1946 the gods did anything but smile upon the revival of the first-class game; but this did not deter the public from flocking to the matches amid the discomforts of dilapidated and sodden grounds. Wisden's editor, Hubert Preston, whose experience stretched back to 1895, described the weather as execrable and declared the conditions to be the worst ever experienced in our notoriously uncertain summers. He even sheds a faint ray of light on the summer of 1888, by implying direct comparison with 1946. In 1888 June was detestable and July indescribable.
Interest and enthusiasm marched hand in hand in 1947 with the glorious deeds of Compton and Edrich. Sadly the year proved to be a false dawn to what many were tempted to see as a new Golden Age. The Ashes were not finally recovered until 1953, and in general the flow of runs slowed to a trickle as the pitches deteriorated. To make matters worse, in 1954 the summer turned out to be one of the vilest on record. This was no way to greet the infant cricketing nation of Pakistan, and the counties between them made a loss of £75,000, Lancashire being the worst hit. It is necessary to go back to 1903 to find such a disastrous summer, said Wisden.
Although 1955 brought a short reprieve, 1956 was rated as the wettest summer in memory. There were no Australian centuries in the Tests of that year, and only Peter May managed an average of 50. The season's meagre total of 189 centuries was the lowest since 1924. Not content with this, the summers continued their sport of ducks and drakes, producing an even more disastrous 1958 for the young and soon forlorn New Zealand tourists. Indeed 1958 embodied all the features of a classically wet summer. The total of centuries sank to 146, two fewer than in 1903 when considerably less first-class cricket was played. As many as 43 bowlers, with Lock and Laker much to the fore, took their wickets at less than 20 runs apiece, one fewer, in fact, than in 1903. Worse still, there was a drop of more than 500,000 in attendances compared with the previous year, and the sum for distribution among the seventeen first-class counties shrank to £51,000 - a mere half of the 1957 surplus. Desperate remedies were called for and increased covering was tried in the Championship in 1959, which turned out to be one of the best summers for years.
The sixties were relatively dry, though 1965, the first year of twin tours, was wetter than normal, and an article in the 1969 Wisden by Jack Fingleton was entitled Watery Reflections from Australia. To him, 1968 had seemed to be a repetition of rain, delays, drawn games and disappointing cricket. It was, he wrote, an abominable summer and cricketers cannot do themselves justice if the sun does not shine.
But never has a summer been subjected to so much public execration as last year's. On night after night Messrs Macaskill and Fish filled our television screens with rings of densely packed isobars foreboding ill. Yet a series of six Test matches against the old enemy, comprising exactly one month of cricket, remained relatively unscathed. It is true that storms and bursts of rain pursued the tourists relentlessly in their other first-class matches, but what of the two splendid days at Lord's for the two cup finals, or of the Saturday of the second Test, enjoyed by a full house, or Ian Botham's prodigious feats of hitting?
How then can we reconcile the misfortunes of farmers and those engaged in the tourist industry in such a year with the general averages boasting nineteen batsmen exceeding 50 and only four bowlers under 20? The answer, it seems to me, is simple - covered pitches, well-protected approaches and damp outfields. The balance has been too heavily tilted ion favour of the batsman. This must surely be so when the two best spin bowlers in the land, Emburey and Edmonds, have to bowl 79 and 82 balls respectively to earn a wicket.
But was 1985 really the worst this century? By no means, I think. This invidious distinction belongs to 1903, 1924 or 1958, three summers with hardly a trace of a silver lining - and that could certainly not be said of 1985.
In the following table the rainfall figures were supplied by the Meteorological Office at Hampstead. It is not an unreasonable assumption that they may well be lower than an average based on Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham or Birmingham. They show last season as having been the eighth wettest this century. The consequences of full pitch covering, as operating in 1985 but in none of the other years, are brought sharply into focus by the batting and bowling figures.