Old ground left behind as history loses to hospitality

Click to follow
The Independent Online

And so the epitaph – if that is what it must be – was engraved not upon some granite Manchester sky, as forecasts earlier in the game had implied, but in the aged marl of the square itself. This wicket brought out the best and worst in both teams, and nourished the bewitching rhythms of Test cricket. Yet nobody knows whether a saga stretching back to 1884, when Spofforth began Test cricket here by bowling to Grace, is now at an end.

Any who have read the chronicles of Neville Cardus will cherish Old Trafford as part of the family silver, for Lancashire and England alike. On another Whit Monday, in 1900, Cardus spent one of the first in a lifetime of dreamy summer days here. The ground was still girdled by fields, back then, out by the village of Stretford. Cardus sat opposite the pavilion, on the grass in front of the sixpenny seats, which were full of men wearing moustaches and bowler hats and straw "caddies". To his right, in the Ladies' Pavilion, were long skirts and puffed sleeves. Unfortunately for young Cardus, "Pinky" Burnup scored Kent's first ever double century, caught at the wicket in the day's final over for exactly 200.

Since those days, this place has woven countless images into the cricketing tapestry of club and country. But its texture has become frayed, and may now be torn from the Test circuit altogether. Old Trafford has been omitted from the next three calendars, with no guarantees as to what might follow. Those to whom the place has been eternally consecrated by Washbrook, Statham and Laker will watch aghast next year as the Australians instead start their summer in Cardiff.

Last week the Lancashire chief executive, Jim Cumbes, spoke of counties being "raped" by the mercantile allocation of Tests. The England and Wales Cricket Board claims to be rewarding investment and regeneration, not just in Cardiff but at places such as Chester-le-Street and Southampton. Partly because of the temptation to sell up in favour of a new site, Old Trafford itself has meanwhile stagnated in both form and function. Aesthetically it remains a drab place, while hardly any seating is sheltered. But Lancashire have now decided to stay put, and are exploring ambitious redevelopment plans.

Having stayed true to their roots, they must hope that England will follow suit. The pavilion may be eccentrically sited, square to the wicket, but its green turrets and elegant balconies remain imprinted on the game's psyche. And that is before you consider the men who have jogged down its steps into sporting history: Denis Compton hit 818 Test runs here; and Jim Laker, of course, took 19 out of 20 Australian wickets in 1956.

In 1902, Victor Trumper made a hundred before lunch on the first day, but Australia were skittled for 86 in their second innings, leaving MacLaren, Ranji and Rhodes just 124 to win. They failed by three runs.

In view of Cardiff's lower capacity, it might be argued that a significant constituency is being disenfranchised. They say 30,000 were locked out on the fifth, electrifying day of the 2005 Ashes Test here. Admittedly there were probably fewer people here yesterday than joined Cardus for that lazy day against Kent. But what united them all is perhaps Old Trafford's most precious legacy: the wicket itself.

Yet again it has sustained the ebb and flow critical to a Test. But then Cumbes fears that the ECB is more interested in hospitality boxes than even the best pitch in the land. Who knows? Perhaps this place can benefit from a smart kick to the posterior. If it were discarded for good, however, the guardians of Test cricket would deserve something similar from posterity.

Comments