The Spin | Hairdryer treatment and other fads: a history of cricket pitch-drying ideas
In 1903 a poem was published in the popular magazine Truth about the English cricket season:
Sing a song of fixtures, of wickets never dry,
Two and twenty cricketers with visages awry;
Even when the rain stops play is not allowed;
Isn’t that the sort of thing to rile a British crowd?
The crowd waits in the beer-house, telling stories funny;
The teams stay in the club-room, grudging loss of money;
And so the county season swiftly ebbs and flows,
Till up comes the autumn to bring it to a close.
There’s nothing remotely funny about watching grass dry, a pastime frustrating enough to have triggered the inventive streak of generations of cricket lovers. On the anniversary of the first and so far as we can tell only trial of perhaps the most outlandish and ambitious solution of all, it seems as good a time as any to run through a few of their most memorable ideas.
We start in the 1930s, perhaps the golden age of quick-drying gadgetry. In the second year of the decade the MCC experimented with “a large box-like arrangement with a powerful electric fan, that is run up and down the pitch on a small truck” and also featured “a tapering funnel”.
The idea had been dreamed up by its clerk of works, RF Cotterell, and then pitched to the Sturtevant Engineering Company, “manufacturers of blowing and exhausting fans for all purposes”, who put together a prototype. “So great was the force of the air current that after 16 gallons of water had been poured on the pitch the moisture was entirely dissipated in half an hour,” it was reported. It created a hurricane of wind and of publicity, but little was heard of it thereafter. Presumably when it came to this idea the MCC was not, in the end, big fans.
The following year, Surrey experimented with a newly patented drying roller. “Its application after rain will remove 75% of wetness from the top of the turf,” reported the Mirror, which would have been extremely promising were it not for what followed: “The new roller, however, will leave the pitch jet black.” The invention’s prospects, like the pitches it was used on, were never particularly bright.
In 1932 the Illustrated News reported on “wholesale experiments throughout the country with absorbent rollers”, and in 1933 Bert Luttrell, the groundsman at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, created his own version. “Briefly stated, it consists of a machine like an ordinary roller, but with an absorbent surface instead of an iron one,” the Sporting Globe reported. “As the roller is pushed over the wet ground the rubber absorbs the water, while a wooden roller which presses tightly into it forces the water out of the rubber into a tank at the back.”
Sadly, Luttrell’s contraption absorbed almost as much time as water, its inventor boasting that with a 6ft-wide version “the whole of the Melbourne ground could be practically cleaned of lying water in five or six hours”.
A prototype was sent to a cricket-loving English entrepreneur, WB Thompson, who was so enthusiastic he promptly established the Absorbent Roller Company and convinced Aveling-Barford of Lincolnshire – manufacturer of 75% of Britain’s road rollers at the time – to produce them for him under the brand name Dryad. Inevitably, just as he was trying to establish his young business, in 1934, came one of the driest summers on record.
Due to hosepipe bans when Thompson took the roller out for demonstrations, he also had to drive around a tank containing his family’s used bathwater, with which he would drench a patch of turf before soaking it up again and driving it to his next appointment. One day, Thompson heard it was raining while Somerset were supposed to be playing the touring Australians (my source has the rain falling in Taunton, but the game actually took place in Worcester), smelled an ideal opportunity to prove his machine’s worth, jumped in his Bentley and set off. When he arrived three hours later the ground was bathed in sunshine and play had already restarted.
Luttrell also came up with another roller designed “for taking the first coating of fine soft mud off embryonic cricket pitches”, which Melbourne City Council later used to clean pavements, while at the time of his death in 1951 the MCG had three of his patented absorbent rollers still in active service. Two years later, the International Wool Secretariat backed a trial of “a revolving drum covered with thick wool felt” at the Sports Turf Research Institute in Yorkshire, which its inventors were too sheepish to further publicise.
Away from rollers, in 1937 Yorkshire were reported to have “purchased a new apparatus consisting of a portable mangle and blankets that are put on to the wicket to absorb moisture”. In 1949 a Mr L Milner, former chief constable of Chesterfield police, produced “specially prepared mats made of a kind of cellulose sponge” – in fact they were made by Sponcel, the Kent-based company behind Spontex washing-up sponges, and were basically outsized versions of their domestic bestseller – touring the country demonstrating them to groundsmen and club officials.
“The mats are laid on the wet ground, a board is placed over them, two men of outsize dimensions stand on the board … and the mats, rather like huge slices of surgical lint, soak the water into their systems,” the Bradford Observer reported. “I have a police pension, and haven’t put this scheme on the market to make money, but simply because I’ve loved the game all my life, and feel that my idea will be welcomed by thousands of other cricket-lovers,” Milner said.
And then there was the solution dreamed up in 1954 by Geoff Howard, the secretary of Lancashire. “Hair driers used for women gave him an idea,” the Lancashire Evening Post reported, “which was whether the principle could be developed for drying pitches quickly.” He did what anyone would do in such circumstances and contacted Rolls-Royce, maker of luxury cars and aeroplane engines, and asked the company to help. It is fair to say that it was not immediately enthusiastic. “It will be a shockingly expensive thing to use a jet engine to dry ground,” an official told the Guardian. “Besides, it might well damage the turf. And the consumption of fuel would be between 350 and 400 gallons of paraffin an hour.”
Howard dismissed their cost-based concerns. “The important thing to remember is that hundreds of people are left out of cricket grounds when rain interrupts play for long periods,” he said. “If you can get play restarted or resumed, you will be able to pay for the use of jets. If people can come and see cricket, it will not matter if the cost is £100 [around £3,000 now – ed].”
WT Taylor, the secretary of Derbyshire – Rolls-Royce’s local club – loved the idea. “It is well known that the jet engine gives off hot air,” he said. “We shall just have to give it a trial.” With his encouragement, on 30 March Rolls-Royce’s chief research engineer, H Pearson, supervised as an RB.50 Trent engine, as used in the Glostor Meteor jet fighter, was strapped to a lorry while the local fire brigade trained hoses on one of Derbyshire’s practice pitches.
Cyril Washbrook, the Lancashire captain, was among those present to witness the demonstration. “The lorry was driven up to a stretch of turf the fire brigade had flooded for us,” he wrote. “Judging that flooded turf by ordinary cricket standards, I would have said we wouldn’t have been able to play for two days. Yet after two bursts from the jet at half throttle – one of three minutes and another of five – all the water had gone. Given an hour of natural drying, or another short burst from the jet, it would have been fit for play. It was one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.”
Sadly very few other people got the chance, and unlike the Glostor Meteor this particular use of Rolls-Royce’s engines never really took off. Eventually even Howard and Taylor’s enthusiasm evaporated, which is precisely what rainwater has been left to do for most of their sport’s frustrating history.