Memories. When the heavens wept.

Gillette Cup Semi-Final. Middlesex v Somerset. 17th, 18th, 19th, 24th, 25th and 26th August 1977. Lord’s.

Forty or so years ago a one-day match at Lord’s was rained off. Nothing exceptional about that you might think. Except in this case there was. Not least that the match was effectively rescheduled five times before it could be played, involved the movement of a Championship fixture to another date and to another ground in another county, and may even have affected the outcome of that year’s County Championship. Even Elvis put in an appearance, of sorts at least.

In 1977 I was in the third part of my exile living in what was then designated ‘the most boring town in England’. I had booked leave for the Gillette Cup Semi-Final against Middlesex at Lord’s. My brother had done the same on the South Coast for we always conducted a pincer movement to descend on the great set-piece battles of county cricket that 60-over quarter and semi-final matches always were. The straight knock-out format from the outset, and the three or four weeks build up to each match saw to that. The anticipation of the matches would grip supporters from the moment the draw for the next round was made.

My brother and I had finalised our strategy over the telephone the night before, for if you wanted instant communication with a distant someone in those days that was the only way. We spoke with deep foreboding for the forecast was cataclysmic and the, still young, Botham was out of the match with a stress fracture of the foot.

We had no ticket, for even in 1977 it was safe to leave buying one for a semi-final at Lord’s until the day. That unfathomable well of optimism about the weather which afflicts cricket supporters planning to go to a wet match overrode the forecast. And it was Somerset at Lord’s, a chance of reaching the Final and Brian Close’s final season too so there was nothing for it but to go.

I arose to the brief voice of the BBC reporting torrential rain and resultant flooding on the London Underground. I rushed off regardless with my lunch and my hopes. As the train plummeted southwards the skies, though heavy, let fall no rain. We reached Hatfield before the windows started to fleck with drizzle but no more. On to the Underground and up the escalator at St John’s Wood with that irrational optimism rising again until I was met by my brother blown in through the station entrance with an escort of mizzle.

The sign outside the ground said “Inspection at 2.00 pm” but my brother had spoken to someone leaving the ground who had told him there would be no play today, “and probably none tomorrow either.” No refunds in those days even for Noah so we found a bench in St John’s Wood Church Gardens and talked of matches and players past. The rain stopped but the air hung heavy with moisture and though in our hearts we knew the person leaving the ground was right we hoped for a miracle still.

Then along the path towards our bench, instead of a miracle, came a Dickensian figure in a dilapidated dinner suit, battered top hat bedecked with badges and an embryonic beard which spoke more of neglect than intent. “The KING is dead. The KING is dead. The king is DEAD,” he cried with a plaintiveness which more than matched our silent pleas that the weather might relent. He looked too as if he might have imbibed more than one glass in honour of his king. As so often in such circumstances it was clear that he was driven, if erratically, by a homing device which had selected my brother and I as targets.

As he reached us he dropped to his knees, not for the first time that day if the amount of mud encrusted on them was any guide, and raised his arms in supplication to the slightly brightening sky. “The KING is dead!” he cried. “The King is DEAD.” And it was a fact. The ‘King of Rock and Roll’ had died late the previous evening in Memphis, Tennessee and the heavens in London had in response wept on Lord’s.

The sun, perhaps curious at the events below, took a peek through the clouds around lunch time to an enormous cheer from the large Somerset contingent outside the gate. It was a false dawn and the match was called off for the day soon afterwards. And for the next day and the day after that too, for in those days three days were put aside for a semi-final.

Even in those days one-day cricket could push aside the Championship for Gillette semi-finals had a cachet hard to credit today. They really were major features on the landscape of the season, second only to Test matches and the two cup finals. The match was re-arranged for the following week in a slot at Lord’s when Somerset were due to be playing Middlesex again, at Lord’s, in the Championship, then played over three days. The Championship match would have to be deferred.

Again, it rained incessantly and play was still doubtful on the last of the second three days made available for the match. I had long been back at work. At work in a world without internet, mobile phones or text and no radio or television at work to provide the score. I lived in a dark, desperate world of wondering if the match had been abandoned, might still take place, or was already underway.

Then someone who knew nothing about cricket but who knew I was desperate to know everything about it came into my office. They had seen a score on a television screen in the window of a television rental shop. You could indeed rent televisions in those days and gatherings outside such shops when cricket was being broadcast was a common sight.

Somerset, she told me, keen to deliver news she thought I wanted to hear, had scored 59. The question, “For how many?” brought only a quizzical look. “Just 59,” she replied, “but I don’t really understand cricket scores.” I did, but I didn’t understand that score. “59” made no sense unless followed by the word ‘for’ and a number.

It did though make sense. In order to try and ensure a result a gap in the weather had been identified and the match restricted to 15 overs aside. Somerset had lost the toss, Middlesex had elected to bowl, Viv Richards had opened the batting and was lbw to Daniel for nine. Somerset had indeed scored 59. 59 all out. Graham Burgess top scored with 12 and three batsmen were run out. Garner took four wickets in reply, Somerset lost by six wickets and Brian Close said it was a farce, “just like the rest of my career”. Perhaps true of the cricket. Certainly not true of his career.

The rules on over limitations for bowlers in truncated matches were different then. Daniel and Selvey bowled unchanged throughout the Somerset innings. Garner and Dredge throughout the Middlesex innings.

And so ended Somerset’s 1977 Gillete Cup run. But it was not the end of the story. There was a sequel to these events which may have, literally, in part determined the destination of the County Championship that year. Middlesex’s postponed home Championship match against Somerset was played at Chelmsford beginning on 31st August. It was badly rain-affected, drawn and Middlesex came away with just seven points. Perhaps though not as rain affected as it would have been if it had been played on its original dates during which only 30 overs were deemed possible in the re-arranged semi-final.

Whilst the re-arranged semi-final waited for the rain to stop, Kent were meant to be playing Essex in the Championship at Colchester. It rained there for three days and the match was abandoned without a ball being bowled. No draw points in those days. Kent came away with nothing. Had the Semi-Final not been re-arranged Middlesex would quite possibly have come away from their Championship match against Somerset at Lord’s pointless too.

At the end of the season Middlesex, with the seven points from the Chelmsford match, tied with Kent for the Championship. That is not to say had the semi-final not displaced the Championship match Kent would have won the title outright. The dynamic for the last round of matches of the season, for that was all that was left, would have been different. So might the results have been, but perhaps fixtures should be fixtures.

Result (1977) : Somerset 59 (14.4/15 overs) (WW Daniel 4-24, MWW Selvey 3-32). Middlesex 61-4 (11.3/15 overs) (J Garner 4-27). Middlesex won by 6 wickets.

This is an extended version of the report first published on on 17 May 2017.