“There has never been a more exciting time for cricket,” said Joe Root last October, when some of the stars and all of the franchise names for the England and Wales Cricket Board’s new, most-exciting-ever format, The Hundred, were announced, promising that “you are pretty much guaranteed exciting cricket”.
It turned out that we were not guaranteed any cricket at all, and the search for cast-iron excitement in the sport goes on. The Hundred is just the latest in a long line of initiatives intended to make it more likely, and it could be that sometime in the distant, murky future, the sport’s historians will write about it glowingly as a genuine attempt not just to make the game more popular and lucrative, but also in some way better. For now, though, they will just have to find something or someone else to praise, and in all of cricket’s rich history there have not been many people more committed to making the game more interesting than Bev/Beverley/BH (take your pick) Lyon, the former Gloucestershire captain and pioneer of freak declarations.
The outbreak of freak declarations in 1931, “a product of BH Lyon’s ingenious mind”, the Guardian concluded, came after a run of tweaks intended to produce more excitement. These included shrinking the ball (only by three-sixteenths of an inch, or a little under half a centimetre). “Spectators will no doubt be surprised that they notice no difference at all,” wrote Jack Hobbs. “To the players only, and the bowlers especially, will the change mean anything, and even to them, I suspect, not very much.”
They also tried bigger wickets, and extending the lbw law to include nicks into the pads. For the 1931 season it was decided to award 15 points for a win in the county championship, incentivising teams to go for broke rather than pocket the bonus available for leading after the first innings and not worry unduly about whether the match ended with a result.
Had the rule been in place the previous year, Lyon’s Gloucestershire – having won five more games than the champions, Lancashire – would have won the division easily. “The team he captains always plays for victory and not for decimals,” gushed the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in its preview of the 1931 campaign. And in his very first, rain-affected match, Lyon proved them right, declaring his first innings at lunch on the final day when trailing Surrey by 83 runs and with a draw looming. His opposite number, Percy Fender, got into the mood, declaring Surrey’s second innings at 60 for 6, leaving Gloucestershire to score 144 runs in 108 minutes. They did it with three minutes to spare.
“BH Lyon and PGH Fender, the boldest of the county captains, set a rare example of brighter cricket to the country yesterday, and, with their teams, there was no less honour for the losers than the victors,” wrote the Guardian. “From time to time cricket matches happen which outlast all statistical values, all the reckonings of championships,” Neville Cardus wrote in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. “They have reverberations which create traditions and new habits. I cannot help thinking that such a match was played at the Oval last week between Surrey and Gloucestershire.”
The following month saw Lyon’s most outlandish moment, as Gloucestershire travelled to their title rivals Yorkshire. The first two days were washed and a draw seemed certain, but in the pavilion on the second afternoon, watching the rain fall, Lyon had an idea. He sought out his opposite number, Frank Greenwood, who agreed to play along. The following morning, both declared their first innings after a single ball, with four runs scored. Back then it was seen as the height of daring.
“A spectator arriving at Bramall Lane at 11.50am and being told by the gatekeeper that both Gloucestershire and Yorkshire had completed their first innings would conclude that he was in the presence of a singularly unfunny humorist,” wrote the Guardian. “Those who were responsible for the award of 15 points for a win may find their sleep disturbed by monstrous nightmares before the season is over. Where will this ingenuity of captains cease?”
Again Gloucestershire benefited from Lyon’s bravery, winning the match. “One would not be surprised at any course adopted by Mr BH Lyon; he is a fanatic in this sense, and one to himself,” W Peckett, a furious Yorkshire member, wrote in a letter to the Yorkshire Post. “But in Mr Greenwood we look to a calmer mind. For him to follow Mr Lyon’s example was absurd and mere bravado.”
Lyon was forced to step away from the game for much of the rest of the summer for business reasons, but in his absence the trend continued. The following month Glamorgan and Northamptonshire both declared their first innings on 51, then in August, Glamorgan and Surrey, and a few days later Warwickshire and Leicestershire, all declared first innings at 0 for 0. On the same day as that last match, Greenwood was at it again, Yorkshire and Northamptonshire both ending their first innings on 4 for 0. The season ended with Yorkshire champions by 68 points, and Gloucestershire again second.
This all caused quite the scandal, and an attempt to stamp it out was inevitable. For the following year’s championship, captains were banned from declaring an innings until it had lasted at least an hour, and 10 points were made available for the side leading after the first innings of a match that remained unfinished. Freak declarations continued in various forms, but with less drama or surprise.
Still, Lyon was always good for a bit of fun. In 1933, for example, he bowled all 11 players in a bid to curtail a Warwickshire innings, including his wicketkeeper. “Van der Gucht sent down a weird kind of over while Baldwin, the umpire, stood and held his pads and gloves,” wrote the Birmingham Daily Gazette. “This was a little burlesque which did not add to the lustre of first-class cricket.”
The previous year Lyon had argued, in an article in the Daily Mail, that no one wanted to see county cricket die. “And yet it is ill. Very ill. In fact, so ill that without an injection of strychnine it will probably pass away,” he wrote. “Why? Why should county cricket be in such a critical position? I will tell you. I have been trying to explain for three years, but no one would listen – no one will listen. The most important part of the revenue must come from the shillings taken at the gate. Therefore county cricket has to draw a public which now has innumerable other attractions within easy reach; a public which dashes to these attractions in high-powered motor-coaches and on motor-bicycles, and feasts it eyes on various forms of fast-moving objects and animals.”
Had the Hundred only been played this summer, cricket fans would have plenty of fast-moving objects and animals to cheer. In its absence, stories of the likes of Lyon will just have to do.
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