The weather is peculiarly important in cricket. Of course, it can be critical to any sort of activity that is taking place outdoors. “If wet, in the vicarage” was the time-honoured accompaniment to notices announcing a forthcoming village fete. But Plan B isn’t always available. A pivotal event in Jane Austen’s Emma is the excursion to Box Hill, where the eponymous heroine makes a gratuitous and hurtful joke at the expense of the foolishly talkative Miss Bates. There is much reference to the weather as the day – it is midsummer – approaches – and palpable relief when it dawns: “They had a very fine day for Box Hill….”
All outdoor sports are affected by the weather – and in England (and Wales), New Zealand, Bangladesh and Ireland in particular of the cricket playing countries, weather means rain. In England (and Wales) the most popular spectator sport, football, (and rugby too) is played predominantly outside the summer months – although the season has gradually encroached on cricket’s seasonal turf – so rain, and worse, can hardly be greeted with surprise by football supporters.
The theory is that summer is warmer and drier and therefore suitable for cricket and games like golf and tennis and athletics. Of course, rain is always likely to interfere. Even so, summers do seem to have got hotter and drier over the years. This summer in Europe, including Britain, appears to have been particularly hot and dry, prompting people old enough and with long enough memories to recall the legendary summer of 1976 (though a year before that, in June 1975, a county game in Buxton, Derbyshire was held up by snow). This made the loss of the entire first day and much of the second day of the Lord’s Test between England and India something of a shock. Weather breaking after a period of great heat is not unusual, but Lord’s appears to have been cold as well as damp on the second day, a reversion to the classic, miserable English summer of old.
Tennis and golf are equally susceptible to the weather in the sense that play may be abandoned or interrupted. But no player or group of players (in, say, the Ryder Cup) is likely to be greatly advantaged [Is that a word? Ed] or disadvantaged by the weather. This is because everybody is essentially doing the same thing, albeit at different times. With cricket, as could be seen at Lord’s, it is different. The weather made it a crucial toss to win, with the successful captain unusually seizing the opportunity to bowl first. in such conditions someone like James Anderson can present almost insuperable challenges.
In all honesty it is not the rain itself which makes a direct difference in such situations. The pitch is covered for a start. Drainage at modern grounds, at least in England, is astonishing; Anderson said he was amazed how dry the outfield was when play finally resumed at 5 pm on the second day. Moisture plays its part. Groundsmen will leave more grass on the pitch, and it will be well watered. (There should be no embarrassment about this. Eighteen months ago, India hammered England on a succession of flat tracks that crumbled to help the home spinners, although to be fair England won the toss and batted first in four of the five Tests.) When there is rain in the air the swing bowlers will be eager to get their hands on the ball.
The whole thing was more of a lottery when pitches were uncovered. In English domestic cricket pitches were totally uncovered until the mid-1950s. Covering gradually became permissible and in the early 1980s full covering was allowed. Some critics regret the loss of variety that came with uncovered wickets. Some bowlers – the left arm spinner Derek Underwood being a classic example – were literally unplayable.
An extreme instance of a match being played on a rain-affected uncovered wicket was the vital Third Test between Australia and England at Melbourne in 1936-37. England had won the first two games and reduced Australia to 181 for six when rain brought play to a premature close on the first day at the MCG.
It rained heavily overnight. The sun shone on the second morning and play started on the second day at 2.15. By this time the wicket had become a “sticky dog”; a wet surface affected by the sun brought about bewildering conditions for batsmen. Australia’s captain Don Bradman quickly declared, on 200 for nine, and got England in. They were bowled out for 76, in 65 (eight ball) overs. Bradman then reversed his own batting order and sent the tail-enders in first. When the fifth wicket fell with the score on 97, Bradman joined opener Jack Fingleton, who had gone. in at number six. They put on 346. Australia won by 365 runs and went on to win the series 3-2.
That’s all very exciting but most people would agree that it leaves too much to chance. Player safety was a significant feature in the debate about covered wickets as was the question of time; far less play is likely to be lost.
I was watching South Africa’s dismal defeat to Sri Lanka at Galle in April 2018. A strange thing happened during the afternoon session on the second day. A group of brightly dressed young men, a dozen or so of them, formed a line on the boundary edge in front of the Galle Cricket Club stand. It looked as though they were about to perform some sort of cultural show. Then I realised that they were the ground staff, poised for action. A local expert had decided it was about to pour. Clouds were lowering, though in fact it didn’t rain. But if it had done the covers would have been on straightaway.
Of the handful of Tests that have been abandoned, completely, because of the weather, two were set in Dunedin, New Zealand, and three were Ashes Tests, two in Manchester (1890 and 1938 and one in Melbourne (1970-71). The latter abandonment led to the two sides playing the first-ever one-day international.
The relationship between one dayers and the weather is a bit different because of the application of the Duckworth Lewis method of re-calculating targets when overs are lost. It seems to work very well; nobody complains about it, although South African captain Shaun Pollock famously got it wrong in the 2003 World Cup. It does seem a little reminiscent of the nineteenth century Schleswig -Holstein Question, of which British Prime Minister Palmerston said that only three people had ever really understood, not the Answer (there was no Answer) but the fundamental nature of the Question – Prince Albert, who was dead, a German professor, who had gone mad, and Palmerston himself, and he had forgotten.
Because of the covering of wickets it is not possible to be certain that, Lord’s notwithstanding, British summers are in fact getting hotter, at least not from cricket-related evidence. It seems quite unusual these days to lose an entire day’s play. It happened in 2012 and 2009. But it was much more common in the days of uncovered wickets.
In 1964 there was one of the most boring and frustrating Ashes series, in which the weather played a leading part, even though generally the summer was not bad. The first Test at Trent Bridge was deprived of almost half the playing time, including the whole of the third day. The first two days of the second Test at Lord’s were washed out. The fifth day of the third Test at The Oval. was lost to rain. All three matches were drawn. The third Test at Headingley saw the only decisive result, Australia winning by seven wickets thanks to a. magnificent 160 from the pugnacious Peter Burge. The best weather of the series came, ironically, at Manchester for the fourth Test. Australia spent two and a half days amassing 656 for eight (Australian captain Bob Simpson got his first Test hundred, and made it a big one, 311); then England made 611. There was enough time at the end for Simpson and Bill Lawry to go in again and make four for no wicket in two overs, one a maiden. Rain might have been better.
And despite the revolutionary changes in cricket since 1964 the weather, and its impact, is one thing that does not really change. It was a nuisance for the twenty-two players (and two umpires) that it rained so much at Lord’s but must have been much more than that for many of the thirty thousand plus spectators who turned up for the first day. Many would have come from across the country, if not the globe, many would have been looking forward to it for months, and not all would have been able to go again, say on the Saturday, when the weather was much better.
But we wouldn’t have it any other way. It is all part of the glorious uncertainty of cricket. it affects everyone involved with the game, at every level. The weather is the great equaliser. Club cricketers, school cricketers and county supporters jump into their cars and coaches to go to away matches with no certain idea of what the weather will be like when they reach their destination, but always with the hope that, as at Box Hill, they will have ” a very fine day”.
And Lord’s showed the great merit of the five-day game. Darren Gough is a fervent supporter of the move to four-day Tests. That’s the modern way, he says, the game moves so fast. He ended his latest radio show saying he was going to the first day of the Lord’s Test and was really looking forward to it.
Let’s hope he had a good time.
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