Stumped by storms after 158 years, the historic tree that was Kent's 12th fielder

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The Independent Online

For nearly two centuries it halted boundary-bound strokes of the world's best batsmen in its unique role as the world's only 90ft-tall and 50ft-wide botanical fielder.

For nearly two centuries it halted boundary-bound strokes of the world's best batsmen in its unique role as the world's only 90ft-tall and 50ft-wide botanical fielder.

From the legendary Frank Woolley to Sir Colin Cowdrey and the antipodean talents of Steve Waugh, many had tried and failed to clear the lime tree that stood within the boundary ropes of the home of Kentish cricket.

But the thwack of leather on willow that has echoed around the St Lawrence Road ground in Canterbury since 1847 was replaced at the weekend with a less mellifluous sound: that of splintering and cracking timber. Kent County Cricket Club said yesterday that the tree, which started growing on its pitch before the birth of W G Grace, snapped during a gale in the early hours of Saturday.

The demise of the tree, the only one within the playing area of any first-class ground in the world, will end one of the more unusual challenges in professional cricket: to score a six over the top of its canopy in the picturesque ground close to Canterbury Cathedral.

David Robertson, the club curator, said: "Many have tried to score over the lime tree and it formed an obstacle for any player who came here, whether they played for Kent or anyone else. It predated the time when the laws of cricket were finalised and when they came to draw up the rule book, it was decided that the Kent lime tree should stay. It is very sad to see the ground without it."

Under special rules, any shot striking the tree - regardless of whether it was the upper branches and therefore certain to have gone for a six - was counted as four runs.

The lime was blamed last year by some Kent fans for depriving the side of a victory over Surrey when two "sixes" struck branches and were downgraded to fours, leaving the side without four runs that would have won the game. But defenders of the tree said it was impartial in its ability to stop shots. Mr Robertson said: "There were those who thought it wasn't fair. But if you look at it from the other point of view the rules had an element of generosity. If anything else had stopped a ball within the boundary it would score nothing."

Before it was pollarded because of ailing health five years ago, the lime had reached 120ft in height.

Only three batsmen have cleared the tree in first-class play, starting with the West Indian all-rounder Sir Learie Constantine, who scored a six off the bowling of a Kent player during an international in 1928. Another West Indian player, Carl Cooper, was the most recent to achieve the feat, hitting a six in his debut for Kent in 1992.

The tree was already semi-mature when a Kent men's side first played at St Lawrence in 1847. It had stood on farmland which was eventually converted to a cricketing arena in the 1870s when the Kent county side was formally set up.

Club officials were debating yesterday what to do with the 7ft stump.

One option is to replace the tree with a second lime which was planted just behind its predecessor in 1999 when the original was surveyed and given a life expectancy of 10 years.

Meanwhile, there are plans to fashion miniature cricket bats and stumps from the tree for sale as souvenirs.

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