The forgotten story of … Britain’s first floodlit cricket match


Bridging the gap

It’s that time of year when football traipses its muddy boots into cricket’s freshly vacuumed deep pile. We still have five ODIs and a T20 remaining in Pakistan’s tour not to mention five rounds of County Championship fixtures to play before the final day of the season on 23 September, by which stage the Champions League will be in full swing, the Premier League will be reasserting its dominance in the sporting consciousness and any optimism surrounding the future of the England national side will presumably be a fading memory on the back of Sam Allardyce’s first match in charge.

versus football in August (and, increasingly, September) has long been an annual British turf war – like the Boxing Day battle between Bridge on the River Kwai and a nice long walk – with the general tone one of mourning that the summer sport has to give way so soon to its winter equivalent, pads and gloves stomped into the outfield by the latest Nike/Adidas/Puma ÜberStrike boot as it hares down the wing.

It’s an odd complaint. Largely because mixed in with the moaning is a pining for a time that didn’t really exist. A week separated the first county championship, which ended on the 30 August 1890, from the start of the fledgling Football League on 6 September but just two years later there was overlap, Sussex and Somerset waiting for the rain to stop at Hove while Newton Heath, The Wednesday and co were kicking off on 3 September.

So you won’t hear the Spin bemoaning the encroachment of association football, with all its ill-advised tattoos, disrespect for officials and ugly commercialism, on the rarified land of cricket (with … … … ). Instead we’ll remember a time when the two sports came together to put on a remarkable cricket match.

Thirty-six years ago last week, Britain’s first floodlit cricket contest took place. And it took place at a football stadium. Kerry Packer’s colourful World Series in the late 70s had whet the public’s appetite for floodlit cricket. While plenty of counties talked the talk, in 1980 Surrey walked the walk and were the first to take the plunge.

With cricket grounds – even established Test venues such as The Oval – not equipped with floodlights, an alternative venue was required. Packer had encountered similar issues and innovated by using stadiums usually reserved for Australian rules football but with Aussie rules venues in short supply in south London, Surrey opted to use Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. The touring West Indies team were persuaded to provide the opposition. More than 10,000 tickets were sold. An artificial pitch was put in. So far, so good.

Surrey, though, had a problem. Their Gillette Cup semi-final against Yorkshire on Wednesday, the day prior, was rained off. Thursday was the designated reserve day and the Brown Caps were obliged to play. Which they did, beating Boycott and co comfortably at The Oval (Yorkshire having raced to 135 all out from 53.5 overs).

Fortunately Essex had already been placed on standby. “It was all teed up, we’d been standing by just in case so weren’t totally surprised to be there,” said Graham Gooch, the Essex opener. “It was a great evening, 11,000 people turned up and there was a really good atmosphere.

“The dimensions at the ground were obviously unusual – it was short at the sides, longish at the ends. You got good value for your shots, and I think the crowd got plenty of fielding practice. I remember the wicket actually played quite well, which was paramount if you were playing the West Indies, with their pace.”

West Indies batted first and made 257 from their 40 overs, Viv Richards, Faoud Bacchus and Collis King all hitting half-centuries. In reply, Essex lost Neil Smith early on before Gooch and Ken McEwan began peppering the terraces. They were 192 for one when rain brought things to a premature conclusion after 28 overs. .

“Not everyone found it that easy to make runs, despite the short boundaries,” said Gooch. “Though having to face Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding might have had something to do with that. Still, we did OK and won on a faster scoring rate when the rain came, with me still in on 111.

“It was a fun night, but played fairly seriously. If people put big man-of-the-match prizes up you tend to find that the players try a little bit harder. But West Indies were the team of that era, and it’s always nice to beat them in any competition. I think the man-of-the-match award was a holiday for two in Tobago, but I never took it. I think I only phoned up a couple of years later and they told me I was too late.”

The following weekend, Chelsea laboured to a 2-2 draw with Wrexham and at particularly soporific points the home fans could be heard chanting: “We want cricket.” Cricket has never returned to Stamford Bridge, however, and it’s a long time since Test cricket in England shared a pitch with a football club (1902 at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane). But as the Premier League’s deafening roar shunts cricket further from the spotlight over the final weeks of the season, it’s worth remembering that the sports once went hand-in-hand rather nicely.

This is an extract taken from The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe, .