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August 25, 1890. The day Old Trafford was rained into the annals of history. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the first Test match to be abandoned without a ball being bowled.
It was the day when Manchester skies opened up and Old Trafford was soaked into the pages of history as one of the wettest cricket grounds ever.
Not that there had been no earlier indication. The first ever Test had been played there six years earlier, in 1884, and the first day – predictably in hindsight – had seen no action as rain and poor ground conditions had kept the players cooped in the pavilion. When action had finally commenced on the second day, Harry Boyle and Fred Spofforth had bowled England out for 93 before lack of time had forced a draw.
However, it was 1890, and the venue was hosting its fourth Test match, when Manchester’s full potential for precipitation poured into the picture.
It was a weak Australian side that had come over for the summer. The visitors had come into the first Test at Lord’s winning just two of the 14 tour games and already the popularity of the Tests was slipping behind the newly organised county championships. The tourists did present a decent challenge in the first Test before being outdone by a no-nonsense 75 not out by WG Grace in the second innings.
The second Test at The Oval saw a rather better contest, but finally left-armer Frank ‘Nutty’ Martin, brought in to replace Bobby Peel, sealed the issue. His six for 50 and six for 52 stood as the best by a debutant until Bob Massie’s 16 wickets at Lord’s in 1972. England struggled to get the 95 runs against Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris, but resistance by James Cranston and Maurice Read, followed by some last minute scrambling and overthrows ended in a two wicket triumph for the hosts.
The Australians, having already lost the series, made their way up the country with their focus solely on redeeming themselves. However, rain dogged the remaining matches. Turner and Ferris picked up bushels of wickets, their performance marred by patchy batting, pouring rain and dwindling crowds.
Finally the teams assembled in Manchester, for the final Test match. England under Grace were intent on a clean sweep, their only confusion being whether to play Arthur Mold or Frank Suggs in the final eleven. On the other hand, Grace’s friend and counterpart Billy Murdoch desperately wanted a face saving win.
However, the skies that greeted them were dull and greyish black, the rain never stopped falling and the playing arena remained submerged for three days. It was the first time in the history of Test cricket that a match was abandoned without a ball being bowled. Looking back, it was most apt that cricket weathered this pioneering event at Old Trafford.
History repeated itself at the ground in 1938, when the Test between Don Bradman’s Australia and Wally Hammond’s England also suffered the same fate. In a valiant effort to ensure a game the turf from the practice pitch was transferred to the square but even then play was not possible. Dunedin is the only other venue to have had two matches washed off with absolutely no action.
No wonder an ad for a brand of dry gin used to run – “As Dry as Old Trafford.”
Years later, while playing for a Commonwealth Cricket team in Malaysia, Rohan Kanhai came across a small, dark man who had been summoned by the local administrators. With dark clouds rolling over the ground, and rain penting down in buckets, this curious fellow started making strange noises and chanting incantations. Later it transpired that this man had the supposed gift of clearing the clouds and stopping rain. And miraculously, it worked that time in Kuala Lampur. It seemed that the man was always invited to such events in the country because of his ‘gift. Kanhai’s only observation was that Old Trafford officials should take note.
Incidentally, Old Trafford was the least favourite ground of Don Bradman. He just scored 81 runs there at 27.00 with a highest of 30 not out. The legend once confided to Bill Frindall that the light there was always too poor for him to see the ball.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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