Ghosts of cricket past

Yorkshire slalwarts Bob Platt,  Alec Lodge, and Sir Laurence Byford, in 1996 at the rededication of the Hirst Rhodes Memorial at Fartown Cricket Ground, Huddersfield.
Yorkshire slalwarts Bob Platt, Alec Lodge, and Sir Laurence Byford, in 1996 at the rededication of the Hirst Rhodes Memorial at Fartown Cricket Ground, Huddersfield.
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Chris Arnot on his journey in search of the Yorkshire cricket grounds that are gone but not forgotten.

Those who were there in the summer of 1974 are unlikely to forget it. One minute they were scanning the skies with disbelief as Geoffrey Boycott lofted a six over the Spaines Road Stand at Fartown, Huddersfield, after he’d carefully compiled a Sunday League century against Northants; the next minute (or so it must have seemed) spectators joined team-mates scouring the grass for Boycott’s missing contact lens.

That grass hasn’t hosted county matches since 1982 or cricket of any kind since 1997. Only junior and reserve-team rugby league is played there now. Meanwhile, Bramall Lane, which hosted an Ashes Test in 1902, is solely home to Sheffield United FC and The Circle, where Yorkshire clinched the County Championship in 1968, is somewhere under Hull City’s KC Stadium.

I visited all three while researching my book on Britain’s lost cricket grounds, nigh-on 40 of them altogether.

Wentworth Woodhouse is a stunning relic of feudal South Yorkshire where the longest country house façade in Europe offered plenty of windows to aim at. But the former owner, William Henry Lawrence Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, knew he was on safe ground when he offered a fiver to any batsman who could break one with a six. Such was the distance that a Botham, a Hammond or a Jessop might have struggled.

It was on an icy winter’s day in Wentworth Woodhouse that I met Martyn Johnson, a former Sheffield bobby who had just published his memoirs under the title of What’s Tha Up To?. He was perhaps the rummest character I came across on a six-month trek around the land where cricket was invented and where so many pitches are now buried under shopping centres, housing estates and, in one case, the cooked meat counter at Asda.

Pheasants fled in all directions as Martyn’s four-by-four careered across the parkland on which villagers and visiting viscounts had once fielded side by side. We repaired to the George and Dragon to meet Ernie Laister who played in the last official match in the shadow of that massive façade. He was 14 at the time. It was 1949 and Wentworth-Fitzwilliam had died the previous year when a private aeroplane carrying himself and John Kennedy’s sister Kathleen crashed into a French mountainside. Beyond the cricket field, the largest open-cast mine in the country was steadily consuming substantial chunks of Fitzwilliam land. Although the grounds have long since been re-landscaped, Ernie has vivid memories of playing on those Coal Board lorries as a child. “I was delivering newspapers to the house when I was first roped in to play cricket,” he recalled. “And I must have done all right because, after the match, the captain asked me if I wanted to go to nets the following Monday.”

Nearly 60 years on, he was still playing at the village team’s current ground, behind the nearby Rockingham Arms. Indeed he’d not long hung up his pads when we met. Martyn, a young shaver of 68, is the club’s vice-chairman. As we sat supping under a picture of the Wentworth team in 1934, he started to reminisce about his own early cricketing career in his native Darfield. One of the opposition bowlers went by the name of Freddie Trueman. “You just held your bat out and hoped for the best,” he shrugged.

As a South Yorkshireman, Fred evidently relished playing at Bramall Lane. Indeed he captained the Yorkshire side that beat Australia by an innings there in 1968. Five years later, cricket was finished at a ground described as a place of “sharp wit and shrewd comment” by JM Kilburn, the esteemed cricket correspondent of this newspaper.

The Cardus of the east side of the Pennines was born in Sheffield in 1909 and accepted the Lane for what it was. Only gradually did he become aware that visitors might be less than enthusiastic about playing cricket in “a pit of concrete and steel” with “not a tree to be seen”. Between 1919 and closure in 1973, Yorkshire lost only 18 of the 163 championship matches they played there.

What bothered Robert Jackson, the man most responsible for ending the co-existence of cricket and football on the same ground, was not Yorkshire’s past but Sheffield United’s future. “We had a three-sided ground and I couldn’t see United being successful as long as that remained the case,” he told me when we met in the club’s reception, under an enormous photograph of the corpulent former goalkeeper William “Fatty” Foulke (1874-1916).

A spry octogenarian, Robert was once sports editor of Radio Sheffield and a long-time shareholder in Sheffield United Cricket and Football Club. He felt that there was a far more attractive ground for county cricket at Abbeydale Park, Sheffield Collegiate’s home turf. Yorkshire went on to play there from 1974 to ’96 and, after the Jackson motion was narrowly carried, United got their four-sided ground.

Not without some bad feeling, it must be said. One cricket-loving shareholder put a curse on the football team. “I thought he was joking, but we’ve never been much good since,” Robert reflected wryly before showing me round the stadium and pointing out where the legendary Grinders’ Stand used to be.

Men who had come to the cricket after a night shift grinding steel were not inclined to be tolerant to visiting players. Anyone who ducked a bouncer was asked: “What’s tha’ got a bat in thy hand for?” Poor old John Warr from Middlesex was out for a duck, laboured long for no wickets and then dropped a catch in front of the Grinders. “What’s tha coom oop here for?” bellowed a voice from the terraces. “To sharpen thy penknife?”

To Yorkshire’s opponents a trip to Hull and back must have been preferable. Mind you, Yorkshire players themselves were not always so enthusiastic about travelling “out East”. Ray Illingworth hit his maiden century here, 146 not out against Essex in 1953. Three years later he took six for 15 against Scotland. However, he says: “All I remember about playing in Hull was that the ground was wide open, it was bloody cold and smelt of fish.”

Well, what used to be The Circle is now totally enclosed by football stands and there was not the remotest whiff of fish when I was given a tour of the KC Stadium on a brisk day this March. I was in the genial company of local cricket historian Mike Ulyatt who once had a trial for Yorkshire alongside another Hull hopeful, Jimmy Binks.

The redoubtable Binks made the county side and was behind the wicket here in ’68 when a fierce shot rebounded off Brian Close’s shins at short leg and straight into his gloves. Typically, Close played on despite the blood seeping through his flannels until the match was won and the county title secured. Then he went to hospital for a tetanus jab. “When I got back, the lads had finished all the champagne,” he grumbled.

Mike has fond memories of the Hull Brewery tent, otherwise known as Critics’ Corner. As the beer went down, so the volume went up. It must have been much the same at Fartown, Huddersfield, when crowds of up to 14,000 turned out to see the county side.

“There were queues all the way down the road for the trolley buses and the pavements were so packed that people would spill out on to the road,” I was told by David Lockwood, cricket correspondent of the Huddersfield Examiner.

I tried to imagine it as we stood on that desolate rugby league pitch on a blustery Thursday morning with rain clouds rolling in from distant hills. The handsome, half-timbered pavilion was partially obscured by leylandii trees. The clock had stopped at 4.27. Old Father Time sat atop a tall monument dedicated to “The Great Triumvirate” of George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes and Schofield Haigh.

At least it’s a permanent reminder that first-class cricket was once played here on what was considered among the finest wickets in all Yorkshire.

And who knows? Somewhere between the studded mud of this rugby pitch there might be buried the fragmentary remains of Boycott’s lost contact lens.

Britain’s Lost Cricket Grounds by Chris Arnot, Aurum Press, £25.