Having told the story of early county cricket in Sheffield in last week’s edition of this series, Paul Dyson now turns his attention to Bramall Lane – the city’s cricketing centre for well over 100 years.
When the 1850s arrived the cricket-watching and -playing public of Sheffield were in the horns of a dilemma. Their main ground, at Hyde Park, was in serious decline; the town had doubled in size between 1821 to 1851 and had a very keen interest in the game so something had to be done urgently. Up stepped Michael Ellison; his father was agent for the land in the Sheffield area which belonged to the Duke of Norfolk. By early 1854 Ellison was able to announce that he had been able to obtain a lease on almost nine acres of land on Bramall Lane which at the time was on the edge of the built-up part of the town. Bramall Lane was so named because it led to the factory of David Brammall (note the slightly different spelling).
The enterprising Ellison persuaded six of the town’s clubs to join with him in forming Sheffield United CC. Because, however, each of the clubs wished to retain their own independence the new SUCC would simply be an administrative set-up and not have any players of its own. Enough money was raised, a pavilion built, and in April 1855 a match between Sheffield and Sheffield Next XXII, in which members from all of the constituent clubs took part, was the ground’s first recognised match. In the August of the same year the first county game took place when Sussex (formed in 1839) visited and played against ‘Yorkshire’ (yet to be formed officially) and won by an innings. Ellison was the captain; he opened the batting in the first innings, came in at number eight in the second and, at the age of 38, it was the last of his 16 first-class matches.
Away from London, only Nottingham and Sheffield could boast decent cricketing venues, but Ellison would not rest on his laurels. Partly because his enterprise was not making enough in the way of profit, partly through ambition, he set out to persuade other like-minded people that what was needed was a constituted Yorkshire CCC so that the informal approach to using the county’s title to describe teams on a whim would cease. Nottinghamshire (1841), Surrey (1845) and Kent (1859) had all followed the example of Sussex and so the country’s fifth county club was born on 8th January 1863 at the same Adelphi Hotel as had been used to negotiate the use of Bramall Lane.
Although rugby (union) was the established Yorkshire winter sport, association football (as it would become known) was gaining in popularity and Sheffield FC was the first such organisation for the new sport, not just in Yorkshire, not just in Britain but in the whole world. (Formed in 1857 it is still going strong today, has its own ground in Dronfield and plays in the Northern Premier League. Its excellent website pays testimony to its rich heritage and one of which it is obviously very proud.) The first game at Bramall Lane took place in late 1862, between Sheffield and Hallam, and although three acres were added in 1875 there was still not enough room for both sports to have their own separate, dedicated playing areas.
With Yorkshire CCC being run from its Sheffield base, most of the county’s matches took place at Bramall Lane and, with many important football matches – including internationals – being staged there, the ground became an all-year-round facility and so stands on the eastern and western sides of the ground were erected. That on the west became colloquially known as the ‘grinder’s stand’ as that is where those whose occupations were so described tended to congregate. The success of football led to the setting-up of Sheffield United’s football section in 1889 and that date is still clearly part of SUFC’s ubiquitous badge. Surprisingly, it was not until three years later that the playing part of SUCC was born and a large pavilion with many rooms of different functions was starting to be erected in the later part of the decade on the site of the original edifice.
Meanwhile, however, Headingley Cricket Ground had been opened, its first Yorkshire match being staged in 1891, and the influence of Lord Hawke in this development was vital. He encouraged its greater use over Bramall Lane and the six county matches which the latter had staged in 1886 had, ten years later, been reduced to only three. Leeds staged its first Test match – against Australia – in 1899 but when the tourists returned three years later it was Bramall Lane which had the honour of hosting the only Test match in the county. Although SUCC was proud of this scoop it was never repeated, one of the reasons being that gate receipts were lower than anticipated. Also, MCC felt that the facilities were not in keeping with those required for Test cricket, not to mention the industrial landscape and its resultant ash and dust, which had developed around the area, was rather unfamiliar with that seat of power’s experience of more leafy surroundings in which to play and enjoy watching the game.
During the first 60 years of the 20th century, though, Bramall Lane was regarded as one of Yorkshire’s premier venues and, along with Headingley and Bradford, dominated the county’s fixture list. In addition, with Headingley regularly staging Test cricket, it was often the case that tourists would play their two games against Yorkshire (yes, two) at Bradford and Sheffield. Because of its urban backdrop and three-sided playing area it developed its own atmosphere; the crowd were very knowledgeable about the game but one consequence of this was that they could be very critical too and the experience of Middlesex in 1924, when it did not declare in its second innings, contributed to the souring of relations between the two counties for some considerable time.
Sheffield, with its heavy reliance on its steel industry, suffered considerable damage during the 1939-45 War from heavy bombing and the ground did not escape, with not even the cricket square being spared. This was in 1941 but the efforts of the groundsman enabled the game to continue throughout the rest of the conflict and one of 1945’s three Victory Tests between England and Australia took place at Bramall Lane.
Interest in cricket, nationwide, declined during the 1950s and although a new balcony was added to the pavilion in 1954, football was starting to dominate the venue’s raison d‘être. Sheffield United FC were often in the top division, had won the league once and the FA Cup four times, and felt they were disadvantaged both financially and atmosphere-wise with a three-sided ground. This viewpoint gathered pace during the 1960s and when The Blades were promoted to the top tier at the end of the 1970/71 campaign it was announced that cricket at the ground would cease after the 1973 season.
Main sources: Steven Draper Cricket Grounds of Yorkshire
Photographs courtesy of Mick Pope