Every so often Twitter provides a moment to ponder upon. Last Sunday, Dan Whiting, author of the Middle Stump blog and The Definitive Guide to Club Cricket, tweeted a picture from the Southgate branch of Asda. (Other supermarket brands are available) The picture was of one of those charity collection boxes that are often to be found in such establishments, highlighting local causes for your loose change. Asda Southgate’s version included a slot for the Walker Cricket Ground in the London suburb, a venue that has played host to Middlesex CCC for many a year.
The existence of such an appeal highlights the plight of the beleaguered outground and provoked one to ponder on what is a rapidly endangered species in English county cricket. Such a plight casts a long, sad shadow cast across the summer. Festivals and outground cricket have long been part of the fabric of a county championship season but rising costs and financial constraints have witnessed the more itinerant part of a county summer rapidly eschewed as money is required to fund other pursuits.
Ergo, this is a sort of cricketing Lord Kitchener-esque appeal to help save our outgrounds. Logistics and finance are certainly two arbiters on the success of outground use or a festival but the overall judgement can be helped by sterling support from the cricketing cognoscenti at large. Somewhat pertinently, the two most used outgrounds on the 2017 fixture list, Cheltenham and Scarborough, both possess reputations as fixtures / festivals that attract significant local support. Thus, Gloucestershire have elected to play two county championship fixtures and an astonishing three of the T20 cash cow fixtures during the two week festival whilst Yorkshire will play a pair of county championship fixtures by the seaside. Both are very much against the norm though. Established festivals / outgrounds such as Horsham and Southend have both recently fallen off of the fixture list whilst others could similarly be dropped by first XI’s.
But why the need for an appeal? Surely this is all symptomatic of how the game is changing and the financially restrictive times in which the English domestic game is forced to operate. Some aspects are obvious. Most outgrounds are aesthetically pleasing, based in semi-rural locales where the English game’s symbiotic relationship with the countryside can be best experienced. This may be a whimsical, sepia tinged view of the game but one could argue that the archetypal image of English cricket is that of the village, its green and those flannelled fools. The elemental, ethereal experience of an outground regularly proves a pleasing experience for the cricketing soul. One feels closer to the action, more involved, better able to hear the chat amongst the players and the ooh’s and aah’s generated by the rhythm of play. In some respects, outground cricket also provides a touchstone to the past when the game was seemingly less dictated by finance, health and safety and marketing men. Take a trip to the outground and the hackneyed beer tent is likely to be in situ whilst there will almost inevitably be a book seller proffering a range of weathered tomes and a vast collection of past Wisdens. It’s almost impossible to avoid taking a browse.
Few of the old guard remain in the fixture list. For a denizen of Hampshire, who will play every day of their season in the soulless, concrete dominated Ageas Bowl, this possesses a large dose of disappointment. Travelling to an outground generates a frisson of excitement that doesn’t necessarily exist when undertaking the same journey to Hampshire’s headquarters.
So what remains in the fixture list? One outground that has resided on the critical list for a few summers has thankfully survived for another year. If ever a venue could personify the term ‘outground’ then surely Tunbridge Wells’ Nevil Ground is perfect. Residing in the southern suburbs of the town at the end of a cul-de-sac, the county border venue made famous by Kapil Dev’s astonishing innings of 175 post India declining to 17-5 against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup is a most idyllic venue, akin to cricket in a palatial back garden. Rather apt in the county often referred to as the Garden of England. One previous sojourn to the venue proved particularly pleasant as the hosts chased down a respectable total set by the Netherlands during times when the Lowland country played in the domestic limited overs competition. Sadly it was too early in the season for the purple rhododendrons to be in full bloom.
Other pleasant favourites are Glamorgan’s annual trip to Colwyn Bay in the north of Wales, Kent heading to Beckenham, Surrey to Guildford and Lancashire to Aigburth. It is perhaps the seaside air of Scarborough, the arboreal beauty of Chesterfield, the academic surrounds of Cheltenham that provide a hint of Oxbridge to the venue or the beautiful sculpted semi-amphitheatre of Arundel with its gap in the trees and sumptuous view across the Arun valley that still resonate though.
These venues are part of the tapestry of a county summer but they will only remain so if well supported by the general public. Sadly, Southgate now exists only in the second XI structure but the presence of collection points in Asda raise questions as to how long that may last. Ultimately, county cricket needs its outgrounds, needs the more social, convivial, genial atmosphere of such occasions. The hackneyed one man and his dog in the chilly confines of an empty stand at the Ageas Bowl isn’t quite the same. Cricket’s outgrounds need you.