As we wait to discover the full extent of the experimentation promised by ‘the hundred’, memories stir of a previous attempt by the English cricketing authorities to spruce up the game: the 1981 Lambert and Butler Cup. Ten overs each, seven players a-side, played under floodlights at football grounds. It was professional cricket as never before. Or again.
The context for this innovation by the TCCB was, of course, the success of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket: night-time matches under floodlights, white balls, coloured clothes, aggressive marketing, unconventional venues and, most importantly, spectators. While WSC had finished in 1979, the lesson it left – that revolution in this most conservative of sports could bring in the crowds – was not lost on English administrators.
The first experiment in bringing the spirit of WSC to English shores was in 1980 when the touring West Indies side lost to Essex in a rain-curtailed 40-over fixture under lights at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. This was shortly followed by a similar charity fund-raiser at Ashton Gate between an England XI and a mouth-watering Rest of the World XI (including Gavaskar, IVA Richards, Abbas, Rice, Lloyd, Marshall, Hadlee). While some sneered at the spectacle, people came: 11,000 to the first, 8,000 to the second.
The platform was set for County Cricket to embrace this brave new world. Not content with the simple innovation of floodlit fixtures at football grounds (no cricket grounds of the time having floodlights installed) the concept, backed by the TCCB, went further in cutting the overs to ten and the players on each team to seven. A sponsor – Lambert and Butler cigarettes – was found and the competition was on. Four regional qualifiers were scheduled for September 17, 1981; semi-finals and a final to be played the next day. Stamford Bridge was procured to host the semis and final; Ashton Gate, Selhurst Park, The Hawthorns and Manchester United’s Old Trafford the venues for the qualifiers.
It was new, it was funky, and it was designed to catch the eye of those who didn’t normally attend cricket matches. The problem was that it didn’t really work.
While, in Australia, Packer had used alternative grounds to host World Series Cricket, those were great big ovals. In England, football pitches are rectangular, meaning that – however you laid the matting for a cricket pitch – two of the boundaries were always going to be ludicrously short. Together with longer grass compared to that on a cricket field, the obvious route for runs was aerial and the ball was destined to fly into the crowd repeatedly. The idea of a festival of boundaries may have seemed enticing but like any delicacy, when overdone, became dull. One batting collapse by Yorkshire aside, this was no fair contest between bat and ball. Surrey’s Alan Butcher had a field day in his side’s qualifier versus Kent, hitting a century off 28 balls in 25 minutes; a final contribution of 130 not out (14 sixes, 7 fours) to Surrey’s 185 for 2. A run rate of 18.5 an over.
The next day, Lancashire, Somerset, Leicestershire and Surrey travelled to London for the semi-finals. Surrey and Somerset fell in the first matches and an unbeaten 85 from Clive Lloyd saw Lancashire to victory against Leicestershire in the final. Over seven hundred runs were scored in those three matches but were witnessed by a crowd of only 2,564.
In retrospect, while the idea of floodlit cricket was good, the infrastructure had not been ready. The necessity of hiring football stadiums to facilitate the move to night-time had been costly for the organisers financially, kept spectators away with higher ticket prices and had affected the very dynamics of the game; the damp September setting not helping matters.
It had been new, it had been inventive, but it had not been right. In December 1981 a short paragraph appeared in The Times:
“The Lambert and Butler floodlit competition staged this year with the blessing of the TCCB is to be discontinued. Although the sponsors remain willing the weather tends to be against it and the cricket played has lacked conviction. There is some talk instead of staging at some future time a world double-wicket tournament.”