By Daniel Keane
RAAF trainees playing a game of electric light cricket at Melbourne’s Exhibition Constructing in 1941. Note the elevated white boundary tape. If a ball is struck more than the tape on the complete, the batsman is out. (The Australasian / Trove)
The appeal of novelty is typically greater than the appeal of history, which is perhaps why most of the talk ahead of the first pink ball Test at Adelaide Oval has been of new beginnings, rather than homecomings.
But Adelaide can make a reasonable claim to becoming the original and rightful residence of cricket below lights simply because of a variant of the game pioneered in the city.
“Evening cricket actually most likely began with electric light cricket here in Adelaide, years prior to Packer came along,” stated former Norwood footballer and night cricketer Roger Woodcock.
Born in a suburban back garden, “electric light cricket” was, as its name suggests, played at evening with the help of artificial illumination. A tennis ball was utilised and bowling was underarm. Runs have been awarded based on where the ball was hit.
“[It’s] a standalone sport,” mentioned cricket and social historian Bernard Whimpress. “It wasn’t just a 1-off experiment.”
The game was invented by returned serviceman and tram dispatcher Alf Stone at his Cowandilla residence in Adelaide’s west in 1930, early in the depression. In an interview 19 years later, Stone described its serendipitous beginnings:
“I have a fair-sized back lawn at my home in Cowandilla and decided 1 day to roll element of it for a cricket pitch. When that was done I invited the nearby young fellows – most of them unemployed – for a hit with the bat at evening,” he stated.
External Hyperlink: A demonstration of electric light cricket: diggers play a game at Caufield.
“Soon up to 50 youths had been coming in each night. I had rigged up an overhead light, utilizing most of the home light globes. My wife did not take kindly to that at very first.”
Stone shared the game that evolved with mates at the Hilton branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League, and it spread throughout the state’s RSL clubs. In the meantime, Stone patented it. The initial official match was in 1933.
As a result of its RSL association, electric light cricket became identified as the Diggers’ Game and made restricted inroads interstate, with Test players which includes “Chuck” Fleetwood-Smith, Ernie McCormick, Lindsay Hassett, Bert Ironmonger and “Nip” Pellew taking portion. Wimbledon finalist John Bromwich also played, but the sport remained distinctively South Australian.
“Back in the 1980s, when I was attending a sports history conference interstate, and told individuals about this sport, everybody believed that I was just having them on,” Whimpress stated.
“By the mid-1930s, it had undoubtedly been established among a lot of organization houses, factories, workshops, sport clubs and so on about the city.”
Dozens of teams sprouted up, and separate men’s and women’s competitions were formed.
The only rival to its claim as the original night cricket is most likely the so-called Gaslamp Game of 1889 at The Oval in London. As the match in between Yorkshire and Surrey neared a conclusion in fading light, lamps in the pavilion and surrounding streets have been turned on but proved to be of restricted worth. One particular batsman reportedly received bruises on the hands from balls he could not see.
An post from November 1934 in Adelaide’s The Advertiser reflects the developing rise of electric light cricket, which also became knows as the Digger’s Game. (The Advertiser / Trove)
The experiment was not repeated in England until 1952, when Middlesex took on Arsenal Football Club at Arsenal’s residence ground in Highbury, which had new electric lights.
“Flood-lit cricket has great possibilities,” stated England captain Len Hutton, right after taking part in a related game in Bradford in the identical year. But the remark earned him a rebuke from an Adelaide Advertiser journalist, who noted “Hutton certainly does not know about our electric light cricket”!
Former Secretary of the now defunct Electric Light Cricket Association, Roger Woodcock, played the game for 35 years. Woodcock mentioned the rules were revised a number of instances, but the simple characteristics remained constant.
Electric light cricket was played in an enclosed location about three quarters the size of a tennis court. Shots that created it to the fence had been, depending on where the ball landed, awarded two, four or, in later years, six. There have been 36 overs in an innings, and every single over was created up of 12 deliveries. Teams had up to 18 players. Batsmen did not run, so only one particular was on the pitch at any time. “That batsman had to retire at one hundred runs, and he may well make that in three-and-a-half overs,” Woodcock said.
To score, the batsman had to hit the ball via a U-shaped ring of fielders guarding the fence behind them. “There was a line running about the perimeter of the fence about six feet above the ground. If you bounced the ball into the ground and [it] went over that line, that was six.” Team totals of much more than 1,000 have been not unheard of.
RAAF trainees play a game of electric light cricket in Melbourne in 1941. (The Australasian / Trove)
Six particular courts and a clubhouse have been built in Adelaide’s southern parklands on Peacock Road, among King William Road and King William Street. “The lights had been strung up directly above every single court, and there were 3 of these huge bulbs straight above the middle of every single court, operating down the guts.”
The game encouraged innovation. A single report from the late 1930s noted it involved batsmen creating shots “Bradman does not know exist”.
“It provides you an appreciation of the old form of cricket when cricket itself was all underarm bowling,” Whimpress stated. “Even with a tennis ball the bowl could be bowled quite quickly.”
After Planet War II, electric light cricket grew in popularity, with 7,000 players by 1949. It also spread to a new generation of Test cricketers. Sir Garfield Sobers, Ian Chappell, Gil Langley, Barry Jarman and, much more lately, Wayne Phillips (whom Woodcock rates as the very best electric light cricketer he’s seen) are among these who took element.
“Sturt Football Club had some amazing evening cricketers and essentially they did this, not so a lot to attempt and keep fit, but to preserve the guys with each other in the off-season,” Woodcock mentioned.
Glenelg’s Colin Churchett and Sturt’s John Halbert played with distinction.
“It was bloody serious in the ’70s and ’80s , I will tell you,” Woodcock recalled.
“It was fantastic. The sledging was unbelievable. It was unbelievable!”
There was also a great deal of skill involved.
“One particular guy in our side, he was a left-arm spinner and he had an action that you couldn’t [pick],” Woodcock mentioned.
“He used to spin it about a foot and he was practically unplayable.”
An electric light cricket “Test match” was played in St Kilda in 1938 as component of a push to introduce the sport to Melbourne. (The Argus / Trove)
But electric light cricket proved unsustainable. It entered a twilight phase in the 1980s, largely thanks to the rise of indoor cricket. After a mini-revival in the 1990s, waning interest and rising costs helped hasten its decline. The association pulled up stumps in the mid-2000s, and the game seems likely to fade additional into obscurity.
Novelty has become history: the clubhouse in the southern parklands has been demolished, the courts replaced with wetlands. Significantly less than a decade right after its disappearance, tiny trace of the game remains. Only a small sign marks the spot where it was as soon as played by hundreds of folks.
Electric light cricket even lacks a Wikipedia page which, given the entries for non-entities such as the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence System, is not a very good sign of its prospects for retrospective glory.
Electric light cricket has turn into a ghost game, surviving only in the memories of these who after played it. The English nature writer Robert Macfarlane has referred helpfully to “ghost species”, a notion from conservation science:
A “ghost” is a species that has been out-evolved by its atmosphere, such that, whilst it continues to exist, it has small prospect of avoiding extinction. Ghosts endure only in what conservation scientists call “non-viable populations”. They are the final of their lines.
Macfarlane goes on to note that “the species most most likely to grow to be ghosts are those that are most spot-faithful”. Electric light cricket was indeed that. Both Whimpress and Woodcock contemplate its fate a great shame.
“I never know that anyone at the ICC would have had electric light cricket in mind when they [chose Adelaide for the 1st day-night Test],” Whimpress observed.
“I doubt whether or not any person creating the decision either at the ICC level or at Cricket Australia level would have known such a game existed.
“It makes it a nice coincidence.”
Subjects: history, historians, community-and-society, human-interest, sa, cowandilla-5033, adelaide-5000
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