There is no job too menial for Angus Fraser, the unstinting Middlesex seam bowler who became their managing director of cricket and once volunteered to paint the north London flat given to him by the club, rather than pay a professional decorator. Before each Middlesex match at Lord’s, Fraser retrieves a small stack of engraved plastic badges in navy and white – the county’s colours – from the dressing-room attendant’s office. He slots the badges, which bear the names of the first-team squad, into brass holders next to the coat hooks dotted around the walls of the home dressing-room. When a player leaves the club, his badge is screwed to the inside of his locker, allowing his successors to see its history.
Such a seemingly minor detail is Fraser’s way of trying to stamp some of his county’s identity on a ground that has been their home since 1877, but over which they have precious little control, and certainly no ownership. His aim is to strike a balance: he wants his cricketers to feel at ease, while retaining respect for their surroundings. “As Middlesex players we’ve always been aware that it’s not our ground,” he says. “But that has made people who risk being a bit full of themselves humbler than they might otherwise have been. You’re always aware there’s something bigger here than you and Middlesex.”
This year is the 150th anniversary of Middlesex County Cricket Club, not to be confused with Marylebone Cricket Club, their landlords and owners of Lord’s, who are themselves celebrating 200 years at the world’s most venerated venue. Whether by design or coincidence, these milestones have prompted the clubs to renegotiate their unique relationship. It is not so much a renewal of vows as a pragmatic reassessment by two organisations who still need each other – even after all this time.
For Middlesex, a county which in administrative terms ceased to exist in 1965, leaving Lord’s is inconceivable. “We would be no bigger than Leicester or Derby,” is the blunt, not to say condescending, view of one long-standing Middlesex (and MCC) member. Market research is not required to appreciate that, for a large proportion of Middlesex’s 8,000 members, the main attraction is watching cricket at Lord’s.
For MCC, Middlesex’s presence is less about income, as it has sometimes been in the past, than offering first-class cricket to their 18,000 members and retaining a link to the professional game. “It’s about reputation, quality of cricket, and community,” says Derek Brewer, the MCC secretary and chief executive. It is a relationship that, according to Fraser, who is also on MCC’s main committee, has “ebbed and flowed” and has even been characterised by “childish squabbling”.
Disputes have arisen over fixture scheduling, pitches and the leeway given to Middlesex to run their own affairs – and make their own money – at a venue which prefers no blade of grass out of place. Middlesex came to Lord’s in 1877 because MCC needed to bolster a fixture list that, two years earlier, had been publicly derided by one member as “rubbishy”. They had twice before resisted MCC’s overtures, but finally moved to Lord’s after becoming dissatisfied with their own ground, Prince’s, near Harrods in Knightsbridge, where the dressing-rooms were considered “hardly fit for gentlemen”. The initial agreement was for a year only, but MCC secretary Henry Perkins said: “Provided the rules of Lord’s ground were observed, there could be no doubt that MCC would joyfully retain the Middlesex County Cricket Club at Lord’s.”
As any visitor to Lord’s knows, MCC are partial to their rules – not to mention their Laws – and Middlesex’s status as high-profile tenants has not afforded them special treatment. “It was clearly understood that MCC ran Lord’s, and Middlesex were, so to speak, guests,” says Jack Bailey, MCC secretary from 1974 to 1987. Until at least the 1980s, players were required to wear whites in the nets or simply to walk across the grass from Pavilion to Nursery Ground – although, according to Simon Hughes, the former Middlesex seamer, Phil Edmonds and John Emburey used to prefer to drive even when fully padded up.
Bailey’s tenure is remembered as “magisterial” by Tim Lamb, a Middlesex seam bowler in the mid-1970s who returned as secretary from 1984 to 1988. “We were always made to feel slightly like second-class citizens,” says Lamb, who still recalls a breach of protocol in August 1985. “We were playing the Australians. It was a beautiful, sunny day, but the ground was saturated, and a big crowd were frustrated there was no play. I went out on to the field to encourage the umpires to get the game going. Early the following week I got a letter from Jack along the lines of: ‘Dear Tim, I understand that you walked on to the outfield on Saturday to enquire about the prospects of the game starting.’ The last line read: ‘It must not happen again. Yours sincerely, Jack Bailey.’”
Pitch preparation has been a perpetual area of contention. “At one point the MCC forbade the groundsman from speaking to me,” says Mike Brearley, who captained Middlesex from 1971 to 1982. “I am against fixing pitches, except in the broad sense that one should aim for a good balance between batsman and bowler, and give a chance of results. We sometimes felt that pitches were damped down to make sure they didn’t break up, which was exactly the worst pitch for us. I used to get a bit annoyed, and no doubt I was a bit arrogant.”
Brearley’s other gripe, shared by captains before and since, was that Middlesex matches were shunted to the edges of the square. If the county felt disadvantaged, then results – at least during the reigns of Brearley and his successor Mike Gatting (MCC president for 2013–14) – would suggest otherwise. And playing for Middlesex was often seen as a ticket to greater things. “When I considered who to sign for,” said Edmonds, “I had in my mind’s eye the big press box above the Warner Stand. It would be far easier to play for England by doing well at Lord’s than miles away in Glamorgan.”
Gatting was known to have had a tetchy relationship with groundsman Mick Hunt, who still prepares the pitches. But Fraser’s managerial role has removed some of the heat and opacity. He readily admits to making an annual request for seaming – rather than turning – pitches, but adds: “MCC want to do what’s right. I believe that’s what most groundsmen around the country would prefer, rather than having to please the head coach.”
It inevitably requires a degree of compromise to fit Middlesex’s match schedule around the Lord’s Tests and one-day internationals. But in previous generations there were different priorities. Middlesex won the Championship in 1947 and shared it two years later, but would have to wait until 1976 for their next triumph. The season often followed a familiar pattern: near the top of the table by the end of June, they would fall away, having typically had to complete around two-thirds of their home games before July, when Lord’s was given over to schools and services matches.
At a meeting in 1957, Gubby Allen – the Middlesex and MCC grandee who had his own private entrance to Lord’s from his house behind the Pavilion – informed the Middlesex committee that a scheduled home match for the following summer clashed with the annual Clifton v Tonbridge fixture. In 1959, Middlesex played Hampshire at Hornsey in north London but, after making a loss in front of their lowest crowd of the season, they did not repeat the experiment until 1980, when Uxbridge became the first of their regular out grounds.
The behind-the-scenes, business relationship between MCC and Middlesex has rarely been straightforward or transparent, and has been refashioned often on an informal basis. In 1908 A. J. Webbe, Middlesex’s honorary secretary and former captain, felt compelled to provide all the other first-class counties with a detailed breakdown of the business relationship between Middlesex an MCC because it was “misunderstood”. It was at this point that MCC effectively took over the running of Middlesex, which included paying the professional players’ wages. Gate receipts were shared on a sliding scale according to revenue.
It wasn’t until 1952 that Middlesex had their own office, a converted tea house at the back of the Pavilion next to the Harris Garden where it remains, alongside the club shop, to this day. Arthur Flower, a Lord’s lifer, oversaw Middlesex’s affairs from immediately after the Second World War and became the county’s first professional secretary in 1964. Mike Murray, who played briefly for Middlesex in the 1950s and was later treasurer and chairman, wrote an obituary of Flower in the club’s annual review of 1986: “In those days it was nothing unusual to put one’s foot through the floorboards. The heating was the wrong way round – hot in summer, cold in winter. There was no running water and the nearest toilets were in the Pavilion.” According to Murray, Flower once described the little road that runs between the Pavilion and the Middlesex office as “wider than the Atlantic Ocean”.
In the immediate post-war periods of the 20th century, Middlesex’s on-field success (they won outright Championships in 1920, 1921 and 1947) filled MCC’s coffers. Gates were closed by 3.15 on the first afternoon of the crucial final match of the 1920 season, also Pelham Warner’s last. Crowds poured in for the rest of the game as Middlesex beat Surrey by 55 runs with 40 minutes to spare, to seal their first title since 1903. In 1947, the annus mirabilis of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, around 300,000 people paid to watch Middlesex at Lord’s.
As interest and revenue waned in the 1950s, those most closely associated with Middlesex felt unappreciated by their landlords. This resentment boiled over in a letter from a member, John H. Carrow, to the county committee in 1956. Carrow wrote: “Middlesex members are dissatisfied with their subordinate position. MCC members appear to resent the presence of Middlesex members, whom they tend to regard as inferiors.” MCC restricted the size of the county’s membership, which in turn limited their income; unlike today, members’ privileges on Middlesex match days at Lord’s were not equivalent to those of MCC members.
By 1958, Middlesex were paying MCC over £4,000 in rent, and fees of 15 shillings per member. In 1960, after a £5,000 loss, Middlesex made it clear to MCC that they considered this arrangement unsustainable. They also grumbled about the quality and cost of the players’ lunches and teas: a far cry from the lavish Lord’s catering of today.
In November 1963, conveniently just after Gubby Allen had assumed the MCC presidency, a subcommittee was convened to discuss the problems. Middlesex president George Newman complained of “this crippling levy”, saying the membership cap made it “impossible to build up capital reserves for the club”. At a stroke the levy was scrapped, and Middlesex were allowed to keep all gate receipts as an “incentive to produce better cricket and bring more spectators in”.
Allen became MCC treasurer the following year and held the post until 1976. In terms of Middlesex’s ongoing relationship with MCC, “Gubby was basically negotiating with himself,” according to Bailey. The clubs’ agreement remained almost unchanged for more than 30 years: Middlesex kept two-thirds of gate receipts, MCC the rest. It was an arrangement Lamb believes was “very advantageous to Middlesex”.
Things changed at the turn of the millennium. Following the arrival from the hospitality industry of David Batts as deputy chief executive, MCC sought to up their commercial game. Now, Middlesex pay MCC a daily fee (thought to be around £3,300), plus the cost of players’ catering, for their home Championship and one-day matches, and keep most of the gate receipts. For Twenty20 games, all ground costs are covered before net revenue is distributed. The split is 70–30 in favour of the county, though it had been 80–20 until the roaring success of the first Twenty20 match at Lord’s, in 2004, when Middlesex and Surrey produced the highest county crowd outside a one-day final since 1947. All other match revenue, such as from food and drink – around £200,000 for a well-attended Twenty20 game – is retained by MCC.
During the 1970s, as cricket woke up to its commercial possibilities, Middlesex had felt increasingly hamstrung by MCC’s inflexibility. The county were given a share of MCC’s advertising revenues but, while other grounds have developed myriad ways of earning money, Middlesex still have limited opportunities. “It’s swings and roundabouts,” says Brewer. “They don’t have the overheads and all the hassles of running the place, but nor do they have the opportunity of maximising their revenues from catering, events and conferencing.”
Brewer’s predecessor, the Australian Keith Bradshaw, tried to bring MCC and Middlesex closer together. “When I first arrived [in 2006], I felt that we as MCC didn’t embrace Middlesex as much as we could have,” he says. Bradshaw’s proposal was effectively a merger, or perhaps a buyout. “I felt if Middlesex came under our umbrella that we could create a team which, with MCC’s resources and infrastructure, could be – as I put it at the time – the Manchester United of cricket.”
Bradshaw, now chief executive of the South Australian Cricket Association, foresaw a situation in which MCC might not always be guaranteed, for example, two Tests a summer, and was looking at the domestic game as a revenue generator. His colleagues, however, were wary of closer ties with Middlesex, fearing it would compromise the club’s cherished independence. But MCC did underwrite the signing of Adam Gilchrist for Middlesex’s home Twenty20 matches in 2010 by offsetting his fees against their ground costs for those games. At MCC’s annual general meeting that summer, one member questioned whether other counties might object to “MCC, a national organisation, supporting stars for Middlesex”.
And so to the present – and the future. Vinny Codrington, Middlesex’s chief executive, says: “The new agreement will be simpler, and based around the need for both clubs to drive revenues on non-major match days [in other words, when Middlesex are playing]. I anticipate it being a closer relationship than has existed for at least 50 years. I see it more as a partnership.” Brewer agrees: “Partnership is an important and powerful word.” But, after all that has gone before, will it be a civil one?
This article appeared in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2014. You can buy it here.