When the Pit of Hate rose to applaud

The Pavilion at Old Trafford

In writing about Viv Richards yesterday, I almost overlooked the example it provided of one of the reasons I love cricket.
Remember the context: an International match, played in England, in front of a mainly English crowd (though with the large West Indian contingent who used to make such games so enjoyable, before the EBC more or less priced them out), at possibly the most partizan Test ground in the country. The West Indies were the dominant force in World Cricket, with their brilliant cavalier batsmen and their battery of fast bowlers, and here was England sweeping them away in a glorious rush of wickets: batsman after batsman falling in single figures. Even after the hold-up when Baptiste joined Richards, we were on course to dismiss them for less than 200 runs, and with as many as ten overs unused. Everything was going England’s way.
Then, in the space of an hour, Viv Richards took it away. That last wicket partnership that we couldn’t break, took the momentum, the lead and the game away from England, turning the match into a damp squib, in which England could only play out time until certain defeat.
And I would confidently bet you that not a single England supporter in that crowd, no matter how buoyed up by the thrill of easy wickets, would have changed a single moment of it.
Let me make the point more starkly.
Move forward a matter of four years, to 30 August 1988. It’s once again Old Trafford, but this is County Cricket. More than that, it’s the Roses Match, Lancashire vs Yorkshire, the age-old rivalry, more determined even than England and Australia.
By this time. I’d become a Lancashire member. The County Championship was still a single Division on 17 clubs, it being four years before Durham will be accorded First Class status. The season consists of 24 matches: sixteen three-day games against each of the other Counties, eight four-day games against eight of them. Lancashire and Yorkshire still clash twice a season, at Headingley and Old Trafford. The Headingley game has been played in May and Lancashire have been humiliated, going down to defeat in only two days. We wanted revenge, and in the Yorkshire first innings, it looked like we were getting it.
Those of us of a certain generation known this game as Dexter Fitton’s match, Fitton being a young off-spinner who failed to make a long-term impact in the Lancashire team, but who had his day in the Yorkshire Second Innings, bamboozling the Tykes, and ending up with 6 wickets for 59 runs, his best ever figures.
But this was the First Innings, on the First day, a mild Tuesday, and we were rushing them out for a low total, looking at immediate revenge for what had happened three months earlier.
There was just one snag, and that was Peter Hartley. Hartley, batting at 8, was putting up a determined resistance. Hartley, who would go on to win a handful of caps for England, was a fast bowler, a good, honest, county pro, who’d been leading the Yorkshire attack for something like six years. He wasn’t noted as a batsman, but here he was, doggedly holding us up, advancing the score, past his fifty, sixty… Yes, it was another last-wicket partnership.
I was sat in my usual spot in front of the Pavilion, though none of my usual ‘crew’ were around me, this being midweek (I used to take holidays to go to things like the Roses Matches and the Old Trafford Test). And because of its generally hostile approach to opponents, the Pavilion had been nicknamed the ‘Pit of Hate’.
And someone a few yards away asked out loud, “has he ever got a ton?”. Needless to say, someone had the ubiquitous Playfair Cricket annual, and a quick consultation revealed that, no, P. J. Hartley’s personal best at the start of that season was 87.
The atmosphere changed in a moment. Hartley was in sight of a tremendous personal landmark, a maiden century. And everybody was willing him on. Out loud too. Not particularly loudly, except when he scored another boundary, and the applause was generous. But little, not-quite-under-the-breath encouragements. ‘Come on, lad’ ‘ ‘Keep it steady.’ ‘Don’t throw it away.’ All through the eighties, into the nineties, fervently concentrating upon every ball he faced, until he reached his century off a boundary, and everyone was on their feet, applauding Hartley’s achievement as whole-heartedly as if it had been a Lancashire batsman reaching his first ton.
Hartley acknowledged the applause from all corners of the ground, the potential landmark having spread to all corners (cricket fans think about these things!), and it must have had a certain sweetness for him that he’d done this on the enemy’s ground (this was when Yorkshire still only accepted players born within the County boundaries).
And then we all sat down, and he prepared to face the next delivery and it was all ‘right, get this bloody Tyke out now!’.
And the sod carried on for another 27 runs, undefeated, before we finally got that last wicket, 224 all out, after we’d had them at 133 for 9.
But that’s the point, just as it was with Viv Richards in 1984. An opponent achieved an individual feat, taking away the prospect of success, or of early success (the Roses Match was eventually drawn, rain preventing play for the last day and a half). And we as fans not merely applauded his achievement at our expense, but positively willed him on to do better and better. To confound us, to throw his skill in our faces.
You’ll never get that in Football. But the fact that this happens time and again, that cricket fans respond to great feats irrespective of team loyalties, that they relish, understand, approve and are enthralled by the pure aesthetics of great players and great performances.
Hell’s bells, why else would the Pit of Hate cheer on a bloody Tyke to score a ton on our patch? I should know. I was there.

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