World Cup 2019: On Olde Meecham Green, make Crickette survive
It’s barely a 10-minute ride from the Morden Underground station in South London, past the Surrey Arms pub and around the kerb where the A239 meets London Road. Lined by old trees and two sightscreens is the Mitcham Cricket Green, believed to be the world’s oldest continually used cricket ground, possibly since 1685.
There are no stands around the ground, just rows of houses on one side and a busy road that comes between the green and the pavilion, currently housing the Mitcham Cricket Club. The second and third XIs of the club play in the Surrey championship and the first XI plays in the Fullers League. Apart from that, Mitcham also has three junior sides and a ladies team.
It isn’t a good day for the club. They have been just trounced in a county fixture, explaining the abundance of beer. Peter White Young, the chairman, has put out muffins, chips and spaghetti on the pass of the open kitchen. Secretary Julia Gault is going around, asking the players if they need anything. A civil servant at the pensions department, Gault is into cricket because her whole family is into cricket. Having grown around Mitcham green, she isn’t immune to its charm. But in order to save the present so that the future could stay in touch with history, she is locked in a 10-year long litigation with a real estate company which owns the clubhouse. It is alleged that the developer has plans to turn the clubhouse and the adjoining building, which used to be the a cricket pub, into a hotel. “I don’t think they realised what they bought. They probably didn’t know we existed in the back garden,” says Gault. “But we have support from the local Council that has maintained that the cricket green can’t be touched.” Also among the backers is former England captain Alec Stewart, who has tweeted about the club’s struggle.
Mitcham’s cricket connect is special. “The people at Mitcham were involved in setting up Surrey (cricket county), so there was always a close relationship. And some of the famous players used to walk from here to the Oval to play the game and come back again, about eight miles. There used to be at least seven clubs around here. Three matches could be held simultaneously. It was obviously a lot bigger area back then. This used to be the second XI ground for Surrey. Oval is where all the first XI games used to happen,” says Gault.
Records definitely date the ground to be at least 283 years old—the ‘County Journal’, dated June 26, 1736 records that, “The great match which was played between the Gentlemen of London and those of Meecham in Surrey, was won by the former by a considerable number of notches”.
But it could well be the oldest cricket ground in the world, if local legend is to be believed. EAC Thompson, founder and secretary of the Club Cricket Conference, one of the biggest associations of cricket clubs in the world, and a Mitcham man, has written that ‘While my father and I were watching a match on the Green one Saturday afternoon, he talked to an old villager who was nearer 90 than 80. He said that his own grandfather had told him he remembered seeing an old print of a cricket match with the inscription underneath “Crickette on Ye Olde Meecham Green”. It was dated 1685. He said that the print was hanging on one of the walls inside a room in one of the cottages surrounding the Green. Alas! It has now disappeared.” Apparently, even Lord Nelson was counted among the spectators at Mitcham Green several times.
Fast forward roughly two hundred years, and in 2002, Sir Ian Botham carried the Queen’s Jubilee baton to the Mitcham Green. A match between Mitcham, claimants to the oldest cricket ground in the world and Hambledon, claimants to the oldest cricket club in the world, was also organised. Yet this ground hasn’t attracted a lot of attention or the will to protect it. One of the biggest reasons behind this is it’s not owned by a private entity. “This is a piece of common ground, owned by the local council. A lot of places where cricket happened have just disappeared. It’s only because someone went to Lord’s and Oval and bought a large piece of land that it evolved to be what it is now,” says Young. A most curious attribute is the club pavilion that is located on the other side of the road (A239) that was just a dirt track until the 1920s. “We have special dispensation from the league saying you can’t be timed out since batsmen have to cross the road to enter the ground. Which is probably better than batsmen getting run over attempting to cross the road,” said Gault.
The story of how Mitcham greens became a centre of cricket is also interesting. James Southerton, a Mitcham man, was a member of the England team that played the first ever Test against Australia in Melbourne, in 1877. That also made him the oldest player (49) to make his Test debut (as well as the first Test cricketer to die). After he retired, Southerton had bought a pub on the other side of the green. When the Australians came touring in 1880, under the captaincy of WL Murdoch, they came over to train at Mitcham because they knew Southerton. It is suspected that one of the main reasons to arrange the practice facilities at Mitcham was to drum up business for Southerton’s pub. The Aussies returned in 1884, 1886 and 1896.
“It’s like a hidden gem. People don’t appreciate the history, which is odd,” says Gault. “A lot of grounds didn’t allow ladies to play. This was (once) the only place where ladies could actually play. There was a game between Surrey and the Australian Ladies touring side here in 1937. Newspaper reports peg the attendance at around 10,000.”
With around 150 members and another 70-100 juniors, Mitcham is a proper cricket club in these parts of London, but they may soon loose their historic grounds and their clubhouse. The locals are taking guard for a difficult innings on a sticky wicket.
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