An overview of Headingley during the England-New Zealand Test
© Getty Images


The thing about Headingley

A tribute to an underappreciated ground, 75 Tests old this summer

Duncan Hamilton  |  

The elderly man sat alone at a small table in the Dorset Square Hotel, a pricey establishment occupying that patch of Marylebone where Thomas Lord cut and rolled his first field at the end of the 18th century. He was quite portly, and wore a baggy oatmeal-coloured cardigan and a pair of square, steel-framed spectacles. His tanned face was creased and jowly, and his grey-white hair receded almost beyond the crown. At first I thought I was looking at an apparition. For a few seconds, staring at him from a wary distance, I couldn't believe the truth my eyes were telling me.

I remember he was reading a copy of the Daily Telegraph, holding it in thick, strong fingers. I also remember mumbling something pathetically inadequate as an excuse for bothering him. But rather than griping about the intrusion, Arthur Morris simply lowered his newspaper and looked at me with a kindly solicitude.

Only much later did I discover the detail that made our meeting seem even more improbable. The date - July 25, 2009 - coincided with the anniversary of that epic Test at Headingley in 1948, during which Morris stroked and fought his way to 182, shared in a stand of 301 with Don Bradman, and pushed Australia towards a target of 404 in less than a day. Those who saw it fully understood the historical scale of such a roaring achievement. No team had made a higher fourth-innings total to win a Test. To do so against the ticking clock - and on a wearing pitch - counted as positively wondrous, as unlikely then as a mountaineer leaving boot prints on the peak of Everest.

Brian Close, puffing slowly on his cigarette, once told me with a throaty laugh: "You walked out at Headingley and heard 5000 captains giving you advice"

I'd love to tell you that I asked Morris questions of blazing perspicuity about it. Alas, not. I was ever so slightly star-struck and what I said to him was limply trite and predictable; nothing, I'm certain, he hadn't heard innumerable times in innumerable places during the 61 years separating his career-defining hour and our chance coming together in a hotel lounge.

I told him that, along with the Bodyline series, Jack Hobbs' century of centuries in Bath and Len Hutton's marathon 364 at The Oval, I dearly wished I'd seen his fizzing innings, a sight which the unfortunate circumstance of not being born had denied me. He nodded politely. I took it as invitation to blather on, barely giving him a chance to get a word in. I explained that I lived in Yorkshire, which made Headingley my home turf. He nodded again before composing a short reply that has stayed with me.

"Not the prettiest," he remarked "but I liked it because Yorkshire knows its cricket and Yorkshiremen appreciated what you did - providing you did it well. The atmosphere was different from anywhere else. The cricket really meant something to the folk who were there." Morris, then 87 years old, started to discuss the "character" of Yorkshire before the thread of that thought unravelled abruptly. He gazed past me, as if seeing again the shallow banks of the crowd all around him.

Morris' match: when Australia chased a record 404 in less than a day, with a little help from AR Morris (182) and DG Bradman (173)

Morris' match: when Australia chased a record 404 in less than a day, with a little help from AR Morris (182) and DG Bradman (173) © PA Photos

His assessment of Headingley was spot on, and I knew the meaning of his half-compliment, conveying a take-it-or-leave-it ambivalence mingled with a good deal of respect. Yorkshire prefers plain speaking. So here's a blunt confession. Like Morris, I've never much cared for the ground's appearance either. I can't imagine it moving anyone to helpless protestations of awe. Were it practicable, rather than a piece of preposterously wishful thinking, I'd shift all Yorkshire's Championship matches to Scarborough, where I could spend every lunch and tea interval looking at the foamy chop of the North Sea.

Nor are Morris and I alone in our antipathy. Pre-war, Herbert Sutcliffe much preferred Sheffield's Bramall Lane: "a real shot-making wicket", where "the spectators are so highly educated in the game". Post-war, Norman Yardley found fault with Headingley's "hotch-potch design" (be patient, there's more of that to come) and the absurdity of lamp-dark backgrounds behind the bowler's arm, allowing "spectators to see more of the ball" and the batsman "less of it". The most poetic put-down is that of JM Kilburn, the doyen of Yorkshire Post cricket correspondents, a job that carries the tint of nobility. Essentially a romantic, disguising his soft heart behind an exterior as austere as a slab of limestone, Kilburn adored Scarborough, describing it as "cricket on holiday", an epigraph worthy of being chiselled above the main entrance. He never saw Headingley so rosily. "The touch of sentiment so strongly impressed upon other grounds has seldom fallen significantly upon the Headingley atmosphere," he wrote in his typically mannered way. As a local, this was as close as Kilburn dared come to condemning it outright as a terrible eyesore without alienating his strongly partisan readership.

It's an exaggeration to claim that all Yorkshiremen believe the most beautiful music in the world is the sound of their own voice; but they do know how to talk

I wince slightly when I think what he'd say about it now. The grandeur and sweep you'll find elsewhere - at Lord's, of course, but also at Trent Bridge and now at both Edgbaston and Old Trafford - is depressingly lacking at Headingley. Photographs from the Morris era show an orderly, if patently dour and unprepossessing ground. The focal point is the red tile and brick of the pavilion, which resembles the suburban home of someone decently well off - a posh banker or a doctor, perhaps. Beside it, the grey blandness of the football stand is a little ramshackle and anachronistic even for late 1940s make-do-and-mend. The current Headingley inspires no sonnets either. After the eye has taken in its disparate buildings, the mind wonders if everything in it was put together in the dark. This would at least offer some explanation - though not mitigation - for the architectural disarray.

Headingley, it must be said, is almost entirely devoid of aesthetic delight and utterly devoid of charming symmetry. The old pavilion remains relatively intact, as if waiting for English Heritage to pin a blue plaque on it simply to mark longevity. Worse, so is the dilapidated Football Stand. Sometimes I sit in it simply to avoid looking at the embarrassing shabbiness of its structure, but also because - and here's a black irony - it offers a connoisseur's vantage point. I relish another advantage it offers. If you go to the back row of the top tier, the downward slope of the roof is low enough to partly obscure the new pavilion, opened in 2010, and the East Stand, opened in the early noughties. If Pugin had designed the first of these, and Wren had designed the second, the hard clash of styles would undoubtedly be worthwhile, and thus forgivable. But since neither was available for a commission, what Headingley got instead were two uninspiring pieces of work that don't complement one another and aren't handsome enough to truly distinguish the landscape. They are more woe factor than wow factor. Indeed, the only majestic view you get has loomed in the middle distance since the late 19th century: the elegant spire of St Michael and All Angels' Church, which is best studied from the Western Terrace.

Vandals stop play: Ian Chappell and Tony Greig inspect the pitch in 1975 after it was dug up by protesters

Vandals stop play: Ian Chappell and Tony Greig inspect the pitch in 1975 after it was dug up by protesters © PA Photos

In the looks department, Headingley is the ugly sister of the ECB's Test match venues. In May, however, England face Sri Lanka in the 75th Test held there, a run stretching back to 1899, which is one of the last summers Queen Victoria ever saw. That total is below Lord's (131), The Oval (98) and Old Trafford (76), but surpasses Trent Bridge (61) and Edgbaston (48). Examine the full list and recent gaps are nonetheless conspicuous. Headingley was politely uninvited to all but one of the four Ashes series staged after 2001. Few outside Yorkshire cussed or complained because Headingley seldom enamours those unaccustomed to it. I'd still argue that its Test status is worth preserving for the reason Morris gave me: the Yorkshire "folk".

I have lived among them for only 13 years, which is no more than an eye-blink and certainly not long enough to grant me even a preliminary Yorkshire passport, let alone full nationality of the People's Republic. I daresay I'll never qualify for either. But what impressed me when I originally came, and what impresses me still, is the county's absorption in, commitment to and knowledge of cricket. As Brian Close, puffing slowly on his cigarette, once told me with a throaty laugh: "You walked out at Headingley and heard 5000 captains giving you advice."

Nowhere else but Headingley - no, not even at Lord's - do I sense the past rubbing up so strongly against the present

It's always been like this. William Pollock, who long ago wrote for the Daily Express under the pseudonym "Googly", complained that "a word of criticism about Yorkshire" would precipitate a "torrent of argument... and occasionally even personal abuse". During the age when the portable typewriter counted as trailblazing technology, PG Fender provoked the ire of a Headingley member with his loud, repetitive tap-tapping. He was accused of spoiling the game. The upset member threatened to write a letter of complaint "to the secretary" and became more enraged than ever when Fender asked drolly: "Shall I type it for you?" Denis Compton, the suave Brylcreem boy, was perceived as too Fancy Dan and too insouciantly cavalier by Yorkshiremen, who instinctively favoured unshowy Roundheads. Once, after a dog escaped on to the outfield, Compton gave chase and caught it. He carried the mongrel triumphantly to the pavilion gate, where it bit him on the forearm. He dropped the animal and began rubbing the welt. He expected sympathy but got derision. A voice simply growled at him from the crowd: "Put some bloody Brylcreem on it, Compton."

I like those vignettes. For slightly disparate reasons each illustrates how much cricket matters in Yorkshire; and also how much those who watch demonstrably care about it to a degree that, just occasionally, suggests the rest of life is "summat abaht nowt" in comparison.

Way back when: Headingley in 1930

Way back when: Headingley in 1930 © PA Photos

Nowhere else but Headingley - no, not even at Lord's - do I sense the past rubbing up so strongly against the present. That's because cricket fosters a community spirit here and also because, irrespective of which corner of Headingley you park your backside, you soon become aware how the lineage of the Yorkshire game has spread among its followers, like the branches of some distinguished family tree. I've shared conversations with strangers whose fathers saw Wilfred Rhodes and Hedley Verity bowl and whose grandfathers watched Lord Hawke flick ha'pennies into the eager hands of whoever carried his kitbag from the dressing rooms to his horse-drawn carriage. I've heard eyewitness testimony of Bradman's genius, the rheumy reminiscences of aged pensioners who, as boys in short pants, sat on the boundary rope.

I've listened to a lot bragging about "being there" too. For that unbeaten triple-century John Edrich made against New Zealand in 1965. For the orchestra of booing that accompanied Keith Fletcher's debut against Australia in 1968 when disgruntled locals pilloried him - first for merely being chosen ahead of their favourite son, Phil Sharpe, and then for spilling three catches in Sharpe's specialist position at first slip. For the "Fusarium Test" (named after the destructive fungus that rendered the pitch grassless) that saw Derek Underwood blow Australia away in 1972 like a handful of dust, with six second-innings wickets. And for another Ashes Test, only three years later, when Yorkshire awoke to discover vandals had dug up the square, a warped way of protesting the innocence of a convicted criminal.

The current Headingley inspires no sonnets either. After the eye has taken in its disparate buildings, the mind wonders if everything in it was put together in the dark

These yarns, and many more besides, get passed down the generations like heirlooms. I have no idea whether the teller really was "there" or willed himself to be, an innocent fabrication to balm the disappointment of missing them. I do know that I've met a ridiculously high proportion of men who miraculously managed to reach Headingley in time to see Geoffrey Boycott punch the on drive that brought up his 100th hundred in 1977, and also saw Ian Botham belt the ball "into the confectionery stall and out again" during the Miracle of '81. On the basis of such anecdotal evidence, I can only assume that official attendance figures for both Tests were hopelessly miscalculated; for clearly the numbers squeezed inside outstripped even the size of the army Caesar dispatched to the Gallic Wars by a minimum of three to one. Never mind. The standard of the stories and the general "chunter and chelp" are integral to Headingley's appeal, which is why I don't believe there is any contradiction in recoiling from the grim sight of the place and relishing the company I find there.

It's an exaggeration to claim that all Yorkshiremen believe the most beautiful music in the world is the sound of their own voice; but they do know how to talk and they also believe any argument is time well spent. Last summer I was caught on the periphery of a sparkly to and fro about which batsman - Hutton, Maurice Leyland, Michael Vaughan or Joe Root - possessed the most sumptuous cover drive ever seen. Soon this swam into another about whether the current Yorkshire team would defeat the six-time champions of the swinging 1960s. I can report that the exchange, though heated, was more Socratic debate than slanging match. Each question was properly weighed and measured. Hutton et al were analysed minutely in regard to stance, backlift, follow-through and foot movement, and marks were awarded for artistic impression. The anatomy of those Championship wins was summoned as though the speakers possessed an eidetic memory of every Wisden since 1960.

Both debates eventually led into the cul-de-sac of "what if" and subjective opinion, but I abandoned them convinced that the county's pre-eminence in the four-day game has brought back the bolshie swagger to Headingley. This adds considerably to the entertainment. In the 1930s Yorkshire intimidated its opponents, telling them: "Just book two nights in a hotel - we'll beat you on the second day." In place of such cocky boastfulness, there's now a sense of comfy satisfaction. The return of the Championship is regarded by Yorkshiremen as restoring the natural order of things. After the years of hardscrabble impoverishment, going there is like visiting aristocracy who have reclaimed not only the silver but also the stately home.

It felt likes old times again after Yorkshire claimed back-to-back Championship titles in 2014 and 2015

It felt likes old times again after Yorkshire claimed back-to-back Championship titles in 2014 and 2015 © Getty Images

A Test is Yorkshire's excuse to showboat that fact. One of the most evocative descriptions of such an occasion, which I admire for its lyricism, belongs to Fred Trueman, a debutant there in 1952 when India, shocked to the core, found themselves 0 for 4 in the second innings. In writing about it in his very readable autobiography, As It Was, Trueman dwelt on what Morris briefly touched upon - the character of the Yorkshire spectator. "People came from the North, East and West Ridings, the Dales, the mill towns… the mining communities... There were always fishing folk… railwaymen… brewery lads. They brought thermos flasks, 'snappin' tins of sandwiches… Tell these people cricket is nowt but one side trying to get t'other out so they can go in, and one might as well say the Bible is only so much paper and ink, a Stradivarius simply wood and catgut."

Much has changed. The Ridings, that geographical division of God's Own Country, were abolished decades ago. The mammoth mills and the mines are gone too, and the fishermen, like so many fish, count as an endangered species. Today you'll see more beer snakes than thermos flasks and more burger wrappings than snappin' tins. And men, who in Trueman's time wore a trilby and a collar and tie on the Western Terrace, now dress as chickens or caped heroes from comic books (in 2013 I sat for a while behind a bearded group of boozy Bavarian milkmaids). Trueman nonetheless felt "something" extraordinary was always likely to happen at Headingley, ascribing it partly to the atmosphere and partly to the conditions - in the air as well as off the pitch. Those of us whose compass naturally points north are conditioned to expect bad weather. We recognise a nimbostratus cloud when we see one. Headingley, especially in the spring, often hosts a low, glowering convention of them, which can make it seem gloomily Gothic and claustrophobic. In the early 1970s I recall a physicist theorising that a cricket ball's swing through the air was nothing more than a trick of the eye. I also recall - though admittedly not verbatim - Trueman's response to such ripe nonsense. He suggested that the hapless chap pad up and face him on an overcast morning at Headingley. He'd promptly expose him as an idiot by knockin' back his "middle pole". I'm not entirely sure he was referring to the stumps.

We can only hope England and Sri Lanka are washed in sunshine rather than rain. That would befit a landmark occasion and rid outsiders of the notion that almost all Headingley Tests are played in sepulchral half-light.

Finally, I ought to add that this Test is significant for something other than the celebration of a statistic. It is one of the last the Football Stand will see. By the end of 2017 it should be nothing but brick-dust and splinters. Construction on a splendid replacement - white and gleaming - is scheduled to have begun, the next phase in a grand parade of improvements designed to turn Headingley eventually into what was once described as "the Lord's of the North". I'll believe this only when I see it.

But, if called upon, I'll gladly press the button that propels the wrecking ball on its merry way; and I'll think again of Arthur Morris.

Duncan Hamilton is a journalist based is Yorkshire. He is proud to say that he can see Bill Bowes' former house from his kitchen window