© Getty Images
Different match, identical outcome: stumped Jack Russell bowled Mark Alleyne @ Getty Images

July 13, 1997. A mid-season AXA Life League encounter between Gloucestershire and Sussex at Hove approached a close finish. Then, with a solitary run remaining in the last over, something bizarre happened, probably for the only time in the history of recorded cricket. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a forgotten umpiring decision that was, by all standards, an erroneous one.

This was Hove, the home of Wisden and Lillywhite and Ranji and Fry and Duleep and Tate and Pataudi and Dexter and Snow and Greig. Every blade of grass you trod upon probably had a history of some sort.

The above paragraph was probably an exaggeration, for in 1997, grounds were manicured regularly and efficiently enough to ensure no speck of dust from the 1970s remained.

But enough of all that. We are discussing an AXA Life League match here, where, despite the long English day, the matches were 40-over contests. This was one of those mid-season contests between two teams, none of which had a serious stake for the cup.

Mark Alleyne won the toss, and Gloucestershire batted. Seven of the top eight reached double-figures, but none of them reached even 25. Monte Lynch (of “shall we have lunch?” fame) top-scored with a 44-ball 24. The Sussex attack — Paul Allott (who had played 9 Tests), James Kirtley (who would play 4), Mark Robinson, Keith Newell and Aamer Khan —restricted the tourists to 141 for 9.

A stop-start chase

There was not much left in the match. But Andy Smith dismissed veteran Bill Athey early. And while Keith Greenfield held one end up, he kept losing partners. However, he managed to hog the bulk of the strike, and with Newell (35) coming to his aid, the score reached 114 for 4.

Then Richard Davis struck, sending Greenfield back for 62. Peter Moores, Sussex captain, wicketkeeper, and future England coach, ran some frantic singles before Gloucestershire’s Australian import Shaun Young claimed him. Two balls later Young hit timber, sending Jarvis back.

Sussex still needed another 15. They had 3 wickets in his hand. Suddenly there was some hope for Alleyne’s men.

But Aamer batted on with Newell. The pair added 14. The scores were levelled. It had come down to the last over, but they needed just one run. What was more, Newell was on strike.

The strange decision

Alleyne took the last over himself. His 5 wicketless overs had gone for 24, and there was not much left in the match, but they still had to get that solitary run: what if they lost one, or even two wickets?

Alleyne struck first ball: Newell was clean bowled.

The handful of correspondents filing match reports stopped for a minute. What if something unexpected unfolded?

Spectators leaving the ground on the lazy Sunday afternoon waited as well. They knew it was the matter of a solitary run, but then, Robinson had reached the middle.

Robinson was no ordinary non-batsman. Some branded him “worst batsman in the world”, and rightly so, for his First-Class batting average read 4.01, and his tally of 590 runs was marginally more than his 584 wickets. In List A cricket, he was one of the few to have a batting average (3.16) lower than economy rate (3.96).

He even made it to quiz questions, not scoring in 12 consecutive innings in 1990, albeit for Yorkshire. His 16 First-Class innings had yielded 3 runs that season.

If Robinson was out there, and Kirtley batted after Robinson (this was unfair: Kirtley would never reach Robinson’s dizzying lows with bat, though that is hardly saying anything), could Gloucestershire pull off a tie?

But it was not to be. Alleyne’s ball was not on the stumps, but Russell — arguably the finest England wicketkeeper since Bob Taylor — responded quicker than anyone had expected. A howzzat later, Robinson was on his way back.

There was, however, a catch. Alleyne’s ball was actually too far from the stumps — far enough to be called a wide. The square-leg umpire had raised his finger before. Now, as the telltale hands went up signalling that extra run, the Sussex men celebrated amidst confusion.

Indeed, they had won. But was Robinson out? Did they actually win a match, chasing, with one not out batsman?

Should the ball not have been dead, once it was called wide?

The umpires, Allan Jones and Nigel Plews, conferred, and passed on the message to Sussex scorer Len Chandler and Gloucestershire scorer Keith Gerrish: Robinson was out, stumped, but the wide was registered.

But what was the law?

The current law, obviously, mentions that it was an error. But let us go back to the era, when laws were slightly different. MCC, in consultation with Association for Cricket Umpires and Scorers (ACU&S), had addressed this as a response to Question 34.

Ron Knight, then at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had produced the response to the question in verbatim (is the internet not an outstanding concept?).

Question 34
One run needed to win; No ball (or Wide) called.
There are two principles involved.
– The 1-run penalty is not awarded unless no other runs are scored.
– As an exception to the dictum that “once the match has been won, nothing thereafter shall be regarded as part of the match.”
Note (b) to Law 21 specifically allows a boundary to count even though fewer than the 4 (or 6) are needed to win.
Comment: Of course a nonsense would arise if a subsequent dismissal were to be allowed. No such fall of a wicket can be valid, after the No ball/Wide call. The ball may be allowed to become dead naturally. Then any incident which could not be part of the match would be discounted, just as in other circumstances the 3rd run is not allowed, if the batsmen run 3 when only 2 are required.
If the batsmen are successful in running a single, or if the ball reaches the boundary without incident, that will be scored and not the 1-run penalty. Any other occurrence — a run out for example — would be discounted.
Indeed, the umpires had erred, but the error had stayed; and another blob was registered against Robinson’s name.

One question, however, continues to haunt me: had Sussex been nine down, would they have won by zero wickets?

Brief scores:

Gloucestershire 141 for 9 in 40 overs (Paul Jarvis 3 for 32) lost to Sussex 142 for 9 in 39.1 overs (Keith Greenfield 62; Shaun Young 3 for 32) by 1 wicket with 5 balls to spare.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)