I made my Test debut against Australia at Old Trafford. Friday, June 7th 1968, it was, although we couldn't get to the ground till the second morning because my Dad was conducting a funeral on the Thursday. If only I'd had a central contract....
Sitting on the grass in front of what is now the Lodge, all the clichéd possessions of a schoolboy fan in place - the scorebook, the orange squash, the sandwiches, which were eaten by noon – my mate Howard West and I watched Australia collapse from a healthy overnight 319 for four to 357 all out. Boycott and Edrich then batted safely for England until the rain arrived. The cricketers seemed giants in white and the two towers of the pavilion stretched up into the atmosphere. It was a lovely baptism.
Since then, while I would not claim to be even a closet member of the diehard Society of the Red Rose, Old Trafford has always drawn me back: as a Lancashire member, I watched every ball of the 1976 West Indies Test; as a not Very Important Person, but on a freebie all the same, I saw Graham Gooch given out handled the ball in 1993; and as a clueless journalist, I reported my first day of county cricket from the old press box.
In 2005 I even shelled out ten quid and was one of those lucky enough to get into the ground to see Ricky Ponting’s 156 secure a wonderful draw for Australia. I had arrived hoping England would win but it only took a few gormless choruses of, “You all live in a convict colony,” to turn my loyalties around.
Yet if the last sessions of that 2005 Test were fit for Elysium, they were also played out on a ground which, to put it kindly, was just a little bit shabby and badly in need of refurbishment. “Old Trafford was tired, it was an old lady that on her day could produce a fantastic show,” said Lancashire’s commercial director Geoff Durbin. “We had some amazing moments in that old stadium and they were what masked the reality of what we had to do.”
Well, this customer certainly had a great experience and it came as something of a shock in 2006 when the ECB made it clear that it was not as tolerant as the many thousands who had roared on Andrew Flintoff and his mates a year earlier. Lancashire were informed that they would not be getting an Ashes Test in 2009. Cardiff, well-funded and soon to be well-appointed, had beaten them to it. There was moaning in the Rossendale and Ribble valleys, but it was tough to argue that the old place truly deserved the gig.
“I remember the day when we weren’t awarded a 2009 Ashes Test very well,” said Durbin. “I can still see Jim Cumbes coming into my office with a look on his face saying he had some bad news. I felt shocked, numb, disbelieving, angry. But I honestly believe it was that moment that fostered everything that has now happened. We had sunk to a very low place and we had to put it right.”
And this morning Lancashire will find out whether they have succeeded in their mighty quest. The complete redevelopment of Emirates Old Trafford is a £44m project and it has helped to produce a stadium with a 25,750 ground capacity only Lord’s can better. The pavilion has been virtually gutted and rebuilt with two more storeys above the famous towers; there are new players’ dressing rooms and a media centre, both of which seem to have the “wow” factor; there is tiered seating which, it is hoped, does not elicit the “ow” factor; a staff of 2,000 will be on duty during the game against Australia, plus 100 volunteers, Test-makers, if you will The full rebuilding programme is not yet complete but Emirates Old Trafford finally looks like a stadium rather than a vaguely endearing collection of bits and pieces, eccentric at its best but a problem if you were queueing for things.
“This is about showcasing to the world what we are all about,” said Durbin. “We believe the stadium is one of the finest in the world now and it is for other people to tell us that. This is the opportunity for them to do so.”
“We have been preparing for this for seven years,” said Durbin, referring not just to the redevelopment but to the long-running legal case which threatened not just the project but the very future of the county club. “It has been a hard slog and a battle on many occasions. We got the champagne out at one point thinking it was all over only to hear we had another challenge and another court case. You felt this massive concern but there was always this inner belief that it had to happen, even though we didn’t know how.”
Ultimately, perhaps, the story of Old Trafford’s rebirth illustrates the granite truth that heritage counts for very little in the brutal business of international cricket. County clubs bid for packages of matches and those that present the highest tenders and best cases are successful. Little consideration is given to grainy black-and-white footage of Jim Laker modestly hitching up his flannels after taking 19 wickets against Australia in the 1956 Manchester Test; even less to the epic battles of 1902 and 1896, both won by Australia and lovingly recreated - some might say “created” - by Lancashire’s own bard, Neville Cardus. For cricket’s historians, these games are as vivid as last week’s Lord’s Test. For the suits? Do me a favour.
And perhaps we should also acknowledge that the last seven years have been good for Lancashire. Being reminded that hosting an Ashes Test was a granted privilege, not an inalienable right, was good for the club. It will make today’s s feeling of satisfaction all the greater, even if there will be but a second to savour it.
“From five o’clock in the morning until the start of play I will be very focused on making sure everything is right,” said Durbin. “Then at eleven it will change to emotion The first ball of a Test is very special anyway, but this will be a hugely symbolic moment. A lot of people have been through this journey who will find it very emotional and I think for a moment we will be allowed to enjoy it.”
Photo (c) Simon Pendrigh