Blazers, brawls, and tunnels under Lord's - an MCC soap opera

A new book reveals that the history of the revered ground contains plenty of prejudice and politicking

George Dobell
George Dobell
The MCC flag flies at Lord's on day two of the Test, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, August 15, 2019

Property developer Charles Rifkind owns a portion of the land under and by the side of Lord's, but hasn't come to an agreement with the MCC on how best to develop it  •  Jed Leicester/Getty Images

A squabble over the leasehold value of disused railways tunnels wouldn't appear to have the ingredients for a gripping story. Nor do many of the protagonists of this tale make for especially sympathetic characters. Really, if you want a summary of the saga, imagine a fracas in St John's Wood high street featuring lots of braying, blazered old men interspersed with cries of "He's not worth it, Tarquin."
But so well researched is Charles Sale's book, so broad the range of interviews and so remarkable his access to source material, that this is, against all the odds, a compelling read.
It will not be for everyone, but if you want an in-depth understanding of the MCC and Lord's, it really is required reading. It's Dallas or Dynasty without the shoulder pads and glamour.
Our soap opera begins in earnest in November 1999. Railtrack, which controlled the UK's railway infrastructure at the time, was looking to sell assets, and offered the MCC the opportunity to buy the tunnels that run under part of the Nursery Ground. Those tunnels include 179 metres along the Wellington Road side of Lord's (where the Nursery pavilion is currently situated) and about 38 metres into the ground. The MCC controls, via lease, only the top 18 inches of that land. Railtrack wanted £1.75m for it.
But the MCC, having recently overspent on the media centre (a building that seems to be admired far more by those who don't have to work in it), had an overdraft of around £15m and were uncomfortable with further borrowing. As a result, they dithered.
Railtrack took the land to auction, where the MCC stopped bidding at £2.35m and Charles Rifkind, a barrister turned property developer, prevailed with a bid of £2.35m. It was perhaps the most expensive error in the history of the club.
Rifkind's dream was to work with the MCC to develop a "Vision for Lord's". This involved a residential development on the strip of land along the Wellington Road (and at the opposite end of the ground, behind the pavilion), which would realise somewhere around £400m to enable the MCC to update its own facilities. At various times there were plans to use the tunnels as an underground nets area as well as to provide more space to the neighbouring Wellington Hospital. Crucially, the proposals allowed for the retention of the Nursery Ground as a decent-sized venue for fixtures below first-class level.
But some at the MCC were unconvinced. Perhaps they didn't like the plans; perhaps they simply didn't like Rifkind. But 20 years later, the "vision" remains unfulfilled and the relationship between the protagonists has become increasingly fractious. It is unclear how or when the MCC is going to fund the next phase of the redevelopment of a ground whose reputation sometimes outstrips its reality.
The Covers Are Off - Civil War at Lord's tells this story. Sale, the former Daily Mail sports writer, has been granted access to a remarkable amount of evidence - including plans, emails, letters and minutes of meetings - which, combined with his diligent efforts to talk to the protagonists (more than 60 interviewees are thanked in the acknowledgements) furnishes an almost dizzying level of detail. It might sound prosaic, but Sale does such a terrific job of presenting it that the end result is a real page-turner.
Is it a fair account? Oliver Stocken, the former MCC chair, is portrayed in such a dim light that you can almost imagine him wearing a cape and finishing every sentence with a roar of "Mhawahaaa." Rifkind, by contrast, is generally seen as a man whose amiable determination is undimmed despite the wrongs inflicted upon him. You suspect such characterisations do not allow for shades of grey.
It is unclear how or when the MCC is going to fund the next phase of the redevelopment of a ground whose reputation sometimes outstrips its reality
As a window into the committee rooms at Lord's, the book is devastating. While the MCC executive - especially the chief executives - are portrayed as diligent, honest and well-meaning, it feels from this book as if they are tethered to a committee system that is, at its best, cumbersome, and at its worst, fuelled by prejudices and self-importance. Some of those mentioned sound utterly ghastly, and some far less attractive than that. The voice of reason - the likes of former prime minister John Major - are effectively silenced.
And that takes us to the two most serious claims made by Sale. The first is that some of the resistance to Rifkind, who is Jewish, was inspired by anti-Semitism and the second that the recent redesign of the Compton and Edrich stands was motivated, in part, by "spite", as Rifkind puts it.
That first claim is strong. But while Lord Grabiner (who is quoted as calling Stocken a "f****** c***" in one meeting), says, "I'm sure MCC were very determined to protect their original bad decision and to make sure the Jew would not make any money out of this", and Sir Simon Robertson (former chair of Rolls Royce) says, "… there was a whiff of anti-Semitism; no question", it is not a line of attack that feels entirely convincing.
But the second one? Well, such is the footprint of the new stands that they encroach heavily on to the area previously taken up by the Nursery Ground. As a result, if the club has any intention of keeping that area as a cricket ground - and it insists it does - there is no room to build on the land owned by Rifkind.
Stocken himself is quoted as admitting that it was a tactical move by the club. Even more plain are the words of Blake Gorst, the former chairman of estates and long-time MCC committee member, who says there's no denying that the extra width of the new Compton and Edrich stands was a blocking tactic against Rifkind. "It means that to keep the Nursery End as a cricket pitch, we will have to put the boundary at the edge of the leasehold land. That will put an end to any development at that end of the ground."
And that, perhaps, is the overriding message of this book. While Lord's is a wonderful ground in many ways, there is more than a touch of hubris about the oft-repeated claim that it is, immutably, "the best ground in the world". Anyone claiming this has not, presumably, been to Adelaide or Sydney recently. Whisper it quietly, Lord's may not be the best ground in London.
Equally, for all the self-satisfaction of those on the myriad committees, they have made some wretched decisions over the years. Look at the houses bordering the ground that were sold for £50,000, subsequently bought back for £8.5m, and are currently worth £4m. Look at the recent £25m redevelopment of the Warner Stand, which still resulted in dozens of seats with restricted visibility. Look, most of all, at the D'Oliveira affair. Really, you wonder why they are so pleased with themselves.
The last word goes to a little known committee member who, quite early in the farce, makes a point his colleagues would have done well to heed. "The committee must focus on what the club wishes to achieve rather than blocking RLP [Rifkind's company] in what they wish to achieve," Jonathan Wileman is quoted as saying.
Sale provides a compelling argument the latter was the primary motive.
The Covers Are Off - Civil War at Lord's
by Charles Sale
Mensch, £20

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo