A history of wicket-covering in England

Irving Rosenwater

An examination of the covering of pitches in first-class cricket in England provides an interesting study of a law that has progressed from the most primitive terminology to the most involved. As the provisions in this regard do not pertain to the actual playing of the game, but come into force only when play is not in progress (either before or during a match), the opportunity for a possible breach in the law to occur is all the more real. Breaches certainly have frequently occurred -- even in Test matches -- but as they are most likely to occur out of the public gaze or when the public are scurrying for shelter in a sudden downpour, they escape public censure -- always supposing, that is, that the public are aware of the precise regulations obtaining. Ground authorities and the appointed umpires have more than once blatantly acquiesced in a flouting of the law with regard to covering, and indeed sometimes seem to have created their own laws for a particular match or matches. The absence of a groundman at a crucial moment may also add to the difficulty of applying strictly the letter of the law.

The earliest laws of all contained no provision for the covering of the wicket, but before the eighteenth century was out the first mention had appeared. This is an interestingly early emergence of a law not dealing with the conduct per se of the game, and it is legitimate to surmise that the practising cricketer of 200 years ago was as much concerned with the effect of the weather on his game as is his counterpart of today. What more natural, then, than to seek some measure to combat the vagaries of the climate? The first revision of the laws carried out by M.C.C. -- in May, 1788, shortly after the club's formation -- provided for the covering of the pitch during a match by mutual consent. *

*Though no version of the 1788 revision can be traced, the edition of Britcher for 1796 (the first edition to include the laws) attributes this provision to 1788.

And this right remained with captains for very nearly a hundred years, until the substantially revised code was adopted in April, 1884.

However, any form of covering in those years was very much the exception, rain falling freely on all grounds so that it was not uncommon for fresh wickets to be pitched in the midst of a match (e.g. during Canterbury Week of 1872). Some captains even agreed beforehand to play each innings on a fresh pitch. M.C.C., in a spirit of reform in 1872, tested the idea of covering the wicket at Lord's with tarpaulin, but the experiment -- in a very wet summer -- was a failure. Lillywhite's Companion, reviewing that season, remarked that "if one contemplated a visit to Lord's or Prince's, it was about an even chance whether one found the match progressing, or the wicket covered with a tarpaulin and the elevens shivering disconsolately in the pavilion." This seems to be the earliest regular use of pitch-covers in major cricket. Tarpaulin covers protected the carefully-prepared wicket before the start of the University Match at Lord's in 1875, but when these were similarly laid down to protect the pitch from a storm on the eve of the 1878 match, there was an objection on the morning of the game so that the stumps had to be drawn and pitched on a then imperfectly prepared wicket higher up the ground. Tarpaulins were occasionally used elsewhere (without objection) and, by an arrangement between the captains, in the Surrey v. Middlesex match at The Oval in 1881 the wicket was protected by tarpaulins before the match and also at the end of each day's play.

The revised code of 1884 made it illegal to cover the wicket -- with or without consent -- once the game had begun. For all its merits, the 1884 code still left some untidy ends, one of which was the absence of any authority on the matter of wicket-covering before the commencement of a game. Lord Hawke successfully objected to play starting in the Roses match at Old Trafford in 1894 (John Briggs' benefit) when the wicket had been protected from rain, and a fresh pitch was marked out. Cricket (May 17, 1894) stated that it was an unwritten law, the outcome of established usage, that no artificial covering is admissible in the preparation of pitches for County matches. However, with nothing in the laws to prevent pre-match covering, groundmen, after suffering years of treacherous conditions due to overnight rain, in the course of time resorted to the protection of their wickets before county matches to such an extent that M.C.C. issued a specific ruling prohibiting the covering of wickets during the 24 hours prior to the scheduled start of a match. Still the injunction was ignored, and after several years of its being ignored -- perhaps its absence from the laws proper did not give it the force it required -- the M.C.C. Committee on June 20, 1907, reiterated the position and approved the following for publication:

"That the Counties should be advised to instruct their Groundmen not to cover a pitch within 24 hours of a County Match."

This followed the Sussex v. Hampshire match at Chichester (then staging a solitary first-class match a year) in May 1907, when the visitors consented to play on a pitch that had been protected from the rain of the previous days.

Naturally, a good many pitches were damaged by rain even before a ball was bowled, and almost at once M.C.C.'s pronouncement -- in pavilions at least -- was regarded as an obsolete regulation. A writer in 1909 commented: "Modern resources could assuredly prepare a sixty-feet covering removable when play begins. No doubt this will come." The 1907 season itself, when M.C.C. showed renewed concern over illegitimate protection of wickets, had been such a wet summer that pitch after pitch throughout the country was either saturated or affected in some way by rain on one or more of the days.

It may have been the incidence of two even more shocking summers, those of 1909 and 1912, that brought the first inroads into the law. At the annual meeting of the county secretaries at Lord's on December 7, 1909, it was resolved that the county committees ask M.C.C. to empower the executive of each county ground to adopt any covering to protect the ground, before or during a match, against rain, provided that the said covering does not cover a larger area than 18 ft. by 12 ft. and does not exceed more than 3 ft. 6 in. in front of the popping crease. Warwickshire were asked to bring this resolution before the next meeting of the A.C.C.C. (at Lord's on March 21, 1910) and their hon. secretary, H. W. Bainbridge, did so. There was no question at this stage of total covering, but opinion was clearly concerned over the firmness of the ground in the bowler's delivery stride and in the stride or two immediately preceding it. At the Advisory meeting, which Wisden referred to as an important one, the resolution moved by Warwickshire was withdrawn (with the consent of Mr. Bainbridge) in favour of an amendment proposed by J. Shuter (Surrey) and seconded by J. R. Mason (Kent) which was carried and approved by M.C.C. in the following terms:

Pending an alteration to this Law the M.C.C. have advised the County Cricket Clubs to concur in the following procedure to adopt any covering to protect the ground against rain at any time after seven o'clock a.m. on the morning of the first day of a match. After the actual commencement of play the ground may be again protected when necessary, and shall be protected every night during the continuation of a match, but the covering shall be removed each morning, if fine, at seven o'clock a.m. The covering must not protect a larger area than 18 feet by 12 feet at each end, and must not protect more than 3 feet 6 inches in front of the popping crease.

This purported to no more than advise the counties on covering procedure, but not long after the resolution was passed, M.C.C. repeated the details in a notice to county clubs, and added: "Notice is hereby given that pending an alteration of the Law, M.C.C. assume that each County will make it a practice to carry out this resolution and will provide the necessary covering." Thus, with effect from the start of the 1910 season, was introduced the covering of ends (both before and during a match) -- a principle that was already being practised in first-class cricket in Australia.

However, what seems certainly to have been an improper procedure had taken place when Kent played Essex on the old Private Banks ground at Catford in 1909. H. R. McDonald of the London Evening News -- originator of the famous sporting feature The Twelfth Man -- was there and later wrote:

"Like everyone else present on the first day (barring officials in the known), I was very much surprised when, following morning rain, out came a troupe of groundmen at lunch-time to cover the ends of the wickets with green tarpaulins stretched over a rough wooden framework and pegged to the ground." According to the laws of cricket then in operation, such protection seemed illegal to me. This was also the view of F. E. Lacey, then secretary of the M.C.C., who, when asked for a ruling by the Evening News, wired us 'apparently irregular.'"

"Kent's captain, E. W. Dillon, however, had other views, for he told me at Catford that, in his opinion, the proceeding was quite within the laws."

If Dillon thought the practice was proper (though there was no authority for his view), so did Tom Pawley, the enterprising Kent manager. It was Pawley who invented and introduced such covering to county cricket, which led to the tarpaulin covers being nicknamed Tom Paulins.

It was not long before the first murmurings were heard about covering the whole of the wicket, and the exceptional rains of 1912 prompted serious thought to that end. The Lord's pitch itself at the end of that season was in such a bad state that expert opinion had to be called in to improve the turf, but it was Yorkshire who took positive steps. They could look back at the end of 1912 at three successive seasons of financial losses, amounting in all to nearly £3,000, and this despite subscription income of almost £8,000 in the same period. But those three years had also seen Yorkshire's worst gates and receipts figures for a long time, reaching a dismal low in 1912 when Yorkshire actually won the title! The Champions' loss on the year was £948 13s. 7d. -- and of their 19 home matches only one was played without interruption by rain. Their pitches took a terrible battering, and after the close of the season the Yorkshire secretary sent notices to the other counties asking if they would support a Yorkshire motion that the whole of the wicket be covered in first-class county matches. When the Advisory next met on January 13, 1913 (at the Junior Carlton Club), Lord Hawke, on behalf of his county, formally moved this motion, saying that his secretary had received from the counties the necessary assent. It was common knowledge that many counties were in financial difficulties, aggravated by the wet of 1912: Kent's receipts during Canterbury Week fell £700 below average and five out of Nottingham's nine championship matches at Trent Bridge produced receipts of under £50 each. Worcestershire and Somerset were struggling gamely, and even the London clubs, Middlesex and Surrey, showed losses.

Was covering the whole pitch the way out of financial difficulties? Lord Hawke, with a conflict of emotions, declared that it was, and said Yorkshire suggested that wickets be covered at 7 a.m. on each morning of a match to try to ensure play on each day. But he confessed that he personally thought it was not in the best interests of the game to cover the wicket, though at the same time the financial side of the game must not be lost sight of. Lord Hawke had sought the opinion of several notable cricketers on the issue and practically all agreed that covering would adversely affect the spirit of the game. Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Hampshire spoke in support of the Yorkshire motion, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire against it. But there was no decision, and six weeks later F. C. Toone, the Yorkshire secretary, proposed that the whole question be withdrawn. The county had evidently had second thoughts, and there the matter rested until after the war.

The covering of ends, upon the efficacy of which there were varied opinions, could in the nature of legal evolution be but a start. It was clear that straws having been raised in the wind it needed only one more abysmal season to set the clamour for reform in motion again. This came with a wet vengeance in 1924, when eight out of ten drawn games were due to the weather, and after a damp and cold start, rain seemed to fall every day after the middle of July. During the opening match of the South Africans' tour, against Leicestershire at Aylestone Road, H. W. Taylor and Major G. H. S. Fowke concurred in a deliberate breach of the law after little more than an hour's play had been possible on the first day (Saturday): they agreed at six o'clock that evening that the whole length of the pitch be covered, and covered it was. One of the umpires, W. A. J. West, had had thirty years' experience as an umpire and had stood in Tests, but the irregularity was not prevented. At that time it was already the practice in domestic first-class cricket in Australia to protect the wicket from rain (and even from dew at night) but the usage, then still optional, was by no means universally approved in Australia, where one critic spoke of that "fungus of the game, the covering of the wickets." The practice in the course of time inevitably brought the criticism -- e.g. in 1934 -- that Australian batsmen, unversed in the vagaries of uncovered wickets, were an easy prey on them. *

*The complete covering of wickets in Sheffield Shield cricket from the early 1920's was said to be responsible for the decline of bowling in Australia and the almost entire absence of finger-spin. Distinguished practitioners of former days, like C. T. B. Turner, Hugh Trumble, W. P. Howell and J. V. Saunders, all said they owed their success to uncovered wickets. Arthur Mailey, in December 1925, when referring to an approaching Australian trial match, advocated the flooding of the wicket in order to accustom the players to English conditions. Compulsory covering in Shield matches was introduced in 1934-35. As early as September 1920 Australia recommended to M.C.C. that complete covering of the wicket be introduced to the laws of the game for application in first-class cricket throughout the world.

In extenuation of the Leicester proceedings it was pointed out that covering the whole of the wicket was by then the normal procedure at the Scarborough Festival, and so far as one can trace it had been practised there without demur: Frank Chester had been a Scarborough umpire in 1922 and 1923, and that great student, Rockley Wilson, one of the 1922 captains. Of even greater significance was the fact that M.C.C. were regular participants in the Festival.

Whether the 1924 South Africans were oblivious of the law or not, they proceeded to break it again in their very next match, against Derbyshire at Derby. This was a most dismal game, in which the first two days produced only ten minutes' play. Taylor again -- with umpire West once more not dissenting -- had the whole of the wicket covered, with G. R. Jackson's concurrence. M.C.C. now stepped in, and at a meeting later that month they pointed out that these events were in disregard of an arrangement made by the counties themselves, subsequently confirmed by M.C.C. Despite the participation in the Scarborough Festival of some of the most prominent amateur and professional cricketers of the day, M.C.C. pleaded ignorance of the Scarborough practice, as the following statement, issued by M.C.C. in May, 1924, shows:

"They [M.C.C.] now, for the first time, are informed that it has been for a long time a regular practice to cover the whole of the pitch at Scarborough, and possibly at other matches played later in the year. M.C.C. realise that under some climatic conditions play is rendered more probable if the whole rather than the limited portion as already provided for is covered. But they earnestly trust that the counties will set their face resolutely against the covering of the whole of the wicket, as they feel satisfied that such a practice would not be in the best interests of the game."

This was clear enough, but the climate of opinion seemed already to be veering away from the M.C.C. standpoint. The year 1924 was an important one in the evolution of covered wickets in England. Early that year, before the start of the season, one W. R. Fowlstone a Yorkshireman and a practising cricketer, advertised himself as the inventor and patentee of what he called 'The Dreadnought Wicket Cover,' which he declared made it possible for most matches to be finished, not drawn. The covering was 30 yards long by 5 yards wide, supported by iron rods on stakes, and was alleged to take only five minutes to set in position. This was never intended for the outfield, and as such was an accessory not permitted by the laws. Mr. Fowlstone addressed himself to club cricketers, and while fully aware that his invention contravened the law, he contended that in league cricket in Yorkshire and Lancashire especially, there was a desire among players that the law be modified.

Warwickshire -- interestingly, in view of their later efforts in this field -- entered the fray in direct opposition to M.C.C. almost as soon as the M.C.C. statement of 1924 appeared. They, terrible sufferers through the weather that year, proposed that the whole of the wicket be covered. In concert with representations from Leicestershire (in whose name the motion was drafted) the proposal came before the Advisory County Cricket Committee meeting at Lord's on October 28, 1924. (Before that, by the way, the usual covering of the whole of the wicket during the match had taken place at the Scarborough Festival.) The A.C.C.C. were faced with the public impression that the authorities were not sufficiently interested in taking steps to combat the weather. Those on the side of M.C.C. quoted the usual assertion that covering would destroy the charm, variety and uncertainty of the game and even declared that Australians enjoyed the game much more in England than on their own covered wickets. P. F. Warner opined that perhaps on the whole it would be unwise, on the strength of one abnormal season as regards weather, to pass legislation which might give an unfair advantage to one side and, what is more important, destroy the uncertain charm of the game.

But legislation was passed, albeit in a limited way, when the Advisory, after a long discussion and by a majority of 12 to 5, adopted the following recommendation at their October 1924 meeting:

"Any covering may be adopted to protect the whole of the pitch at any time after but not before 11 a.m. on the day immediately preceding until the time fixed for the match or until it begins. After the actual commencement of play the ground may be again protected when necessary and shall be protected every night during the continuation of a match, but the covering shall be removed each morning, if fine, at 7 o'clock. The covering after the commencement of the match must not protect a larger area than 18 ft. by 12 ft. at each end and must not protect more than 3 ft. 6 in. in front of the popping crease." *

*This was an expanded version of the Leicestershire motion, which had merely asked that the A.C.C.C. recommend to M.C.C. that Law 9 be added to in the following manner: "nothing in this Law shall prevent the covering of the whole wicket, when necessary, for a period of 24 hours prior to the commencement of a match." At a meeting of the A.C.C.C. sub-committee on October 6, 1924, it was recommended that this be amended, and at the meeting proper on the 28th Leicestershire withdrew their motion in favour of the sub-committee amendment in the terms as carried.

The following month M.C.C. approved the recommendation, which was to apply in 1925, the counties to report on their experiences at the end of that season either to the A.C.C.C. or M.C.C. Thus the whole wicket could be covered for 24 hours (or more often in practice 25) before the start of a match -- and Mr. Fowlstone must have rejoiced! It is important to remember that the new regulation was optional and not compulsory -- it would not, for example, have been possible on a ground like Lord's, where matches were played almost every day, and Canterbury Week would have come to an end, as indeed would the playing of any two successive county games on any ground. Surrey were one county who quickly decided not to adopt the new 1924 regulation.

The experiences of 1925 proved inconclusive, and the experimental scheme was thereafter continued, with minor modifications, right up to the coming into force of the 1947 code (i.e. up to and including the 1947 season). At the A.C.C.C. meeting of November 23, 1931, a Nottinghamshire proposal, seconded by Warwickshire, was passed whereby in those cases where wickets were covered prior to a game, the rule of the ground should prevail regarding covering on Sundays: prior to that, for the five seasons 1927-31 complete covering on Sundays could only occur with the consent of both captains. The 1927 season had been important as being the first season (apart from the earliest times) in English cricket in which the whole of the pitch could legitimately be covered after the start of a game, albeit only on Sundays. Following their success of 1924, Warwickshire achieved this further advance in February 1927, though the captains could only jointly opt for Sunday covering where pre-match covering had already taken place. Moreover, the captains were obliged to make their decision about Sunday covering before they tossed on Saturday: it may have been some laxness in this respect that led to the acceptance of Nottinghamshire's rule of the ground proposal, which in effect meant that in virtually every case of pre-match covering, Sunday covering followed without ado. But the whole question of permitted covering always remained optional.

To some extent it was fortunate that covering in county cricket in the 1920's was not compulsory, for in many cases covers of the proper calibre were just not available. (It is remarkable that this problem has still not been overcome to this very day.) One instance will suffice: in the Hampshire-Nottinghamshire match on the United Services ground, Portsmouth, in 1927, rain on the last day fell for four hours from 7 a.m. Although it ceased about 11 o'clock, no further play was possible due to the waterlogged pitch: owing to defective covers employed, the water drained off on to the pitch itself and accumulated at both ends, so that the area around the batting creases was a quagmire. Though no further rain fell, the match had to be abandoned at 4.15, there being no improvement, and it was remarked at the time that with efficient covers play would certainly have been possible that day. In certain circumstances this sort of happening could have meant the difference between winning the county championship and not.

One unsatisfactory feature of the permitted practice revealed itself in the dry summer of 1928, when some of those counties who had adopted total covering prior to a match found that their wickets were often being deprived of rain which was necessary for their maintenance. So both too much and too little rain posed its problems! Any county, of course, was at liberty to discontinue the practice and to re-adopt it (or adopt it for the first time) as it chose, but this had the disadvantage of tending to negate the rule of the ground, which in certain circumstances -- in the Tests of 1929 and 1930, for instance -- could have been of prime importance.

The views of umpires and groundmen were also sought. In the autumn of 1930, Messrs. Chester, Hardstaff, Parry and Braund, on being asked their opinion on the total covering of wickets prior to a match, stated that such a course was a direct opposition to the proposals then afoot to help the bowler. Chester referred to the fact that when the wicket had been completely covered during the Sunday of a week-end start, the covering had been removed at 7 o'clock on the Monday morning, fine or wet, and stated that he thought if the wicket were covered over the week-end -- which he did not favour -- the covering might be allowed to remain until the restart of play. *

*The relevant regulation referred to the 7 a.m. removal of the covers if fine; though it seems, both from Chester's and other evidence, that they were removed whether fine or wet.

Before 1930 was out Chester's suggestion was officially adopted for Monday morning covering which could, as from 1931, remain in position, if necessary, until the restart of play in county matches. Bosser Martin, the famous Surrey groundman, suggested that the wicket should be left to the groundman until play begins and that he should be authorised to cover the wicket or not as he thought fit -- a reversion to the actual (though improper) position at the beginning of the century. The experienced Walter Marshall, the head Nottinghamshire groundman, still then in harness at the age of 76, said that on many occasions no play would have taken place at Trent Bridge had the wicket not been covered. He suggested that if it was thought fit to limit the time prior to the start of a match when the wicket may be covered, 6 p.m. on the previous day would be a suitable hour. Neither of the groundmen's suggestions was adopted.

The Advisory recommendation of 1924, and any subsequent modification, only referred to inter-county cricket. Matches played by the Universities, for example, were not affected, and to them the ordinary law applied. Test matches, too, were not affected -- except, of course, by any Board of Control decision. In fact, the first time Test wickets in England could be covered prior to the commencement of a Test was in 1926, when it was laid down that the practice in vogue at each ground should be adhered to. No option has ever been granted with regard to Test match covering, either before or during a match, and it was not until 1960 (the England-South Africa series) that a Test wicket in England was completely covered after the start of the match. That was compulsory covering at close of play, a procedure that the Board of Control had resisted for more than 30 years. The strictest rules of all applied in the Tests of 1928, 1931, 1932 and 1933, when not even the rule of the ground could apply: no covering was possible either before or during a match.

These were still formative days so far as Test covering in England was concerned, and the question of covering the whole of the wicket prior to the start of a Test came up for discussion by the Imperial Cricket Conference at their meeting at Lord's on September 8, 1930. It so happened that P. F. Warner, an implacable opponent of covering, attended the Conference as the representative of South Africa, and he naturally declared himself strongly opposed to the wicket being completely covered as he considered in certain circumstances it might be very unfair to the side batting second. (This opposition, it must be remembered, related only to pre-match covering, which of course was then the practice in some county matches. Covering after the start in a Test was still too distant a concept for the I.C.C., or any other body, to even discuss.) The 1930 I.C.C. meeting referred the matter to the English Board of Control who, no doubt with Warner's strictures in their ears, shut out, as has been stated, any form of Test covering (other than bowlers' ends) for the next three years.

Meanwhile, an interesting situation had arisen in the Test series played in the West Indies in 1929-30, when the whole of the wicket had been completely covered in all four Tests -- a procedure for which there was no authority and which was in fact wholly improper. The English captain might, in the circumstances, have refused to play any of the matches under those conditions -- an earlier English captain in Australia had once successfully declined to accept an Australian deviation from the laws. The matches, of course, were played, the West Indies Board of Control in due course, when the matter was raised with them, formally regretting their failure to adhere strictly to the laws. But at Georgetown on the following tour, in the third Test of 1934-35, the same breach was committed again, for The Times reported that the wicket had been completely covered; this again was contrary to the laws of cricket and to the specific agreement on this point made with the West Indies Board of Control in 1931.

The most common rule for Tests in England was that which applied to the 18 Test series between 1934 and 1957, inclusive. It read as follows:

"The wicket shall be completely protected against rain if necessary and as far as practicable twenty-four hours before the time advertised for the start of a Test Match or until play begins. After the first ball has been bowled the covers shall not protect more than 3 ft. 6 inches in front of the popping crease at each end."

The above pre-match protection was always possible in England after the war, all Tests being arranged to commence on a day following no match activity on a county ground. But the non-optional rule was frustrated in 1936 -- and only saved from being an outright breach by the as far as practicable clause -- when the Test against India at Lord's was scheduled to begin on Saturday, June 27, following the Middlesex-Gloucestershire match on the same ground on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Had the traditional Lord's Test weather prevailed, all would have been well. But the Friday -- the crucial covering day -- was wet, and in the event no play was possible: but the abandonment did not come until 4 p.m., when for the first time the Test pitch was covered with blankets. Umpire Arthur Dolphin, officiating in both the county match and Test, must have held a delicate balance between his respective duties. Never again was a Test in England scheduled to begin so soon after another match.

The 1934-1957 Test provision meant, of course, that if the start of a Test were delayed by rain, the whole of the wicket would be protected for more than 24 hours -- until the first ball was bowled, even though the covers may already have been removed in readiness for a start and the players and umpires taken the field. An interesting situation arose on the first morning of the Trent Bridge Test against Australia in 1956. Rain prevented a prompt start, but at 11.50 Ian Johnson led his team on to the field. The umpires were in position, but as Richardson prepared to take strike from Lindwall, further rain sent the players off. The wicket was thereupon fully protected once again -- a course that would not have been possible had Lindwall delivered even a single ball. In such circumstances the hasty delivery of the initial ball, or a corresponding tardiness on the part of the opening bowler, could be of vital importance tactically. In this particular respect the same situation obtains in Test cricket in England today.

In the years leading up to the second world war M.C.C. stood firm against the total covering of pitches, though the pressures from abroad were becoming more insistent. Australia, with total covering in domestic cricket compulsory from the mid-'30s, naturally would have wished for the same conditions in the Tests of 1936-37, but the only covering in that series was of bowlers' ends. In fairness to Australia, the nature of the soil there was and is so d

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