Almost inevitably, last week’s major match announcement from the ECB provided a sense of predictability. The major matches from 2020 onward will be hosted by the most major venues, including the matches that will form the new T20 competition. In truth such a decision makes sense if the ECB wishes to sell as many tickets as possible whilst chasing the pot of gold.
Nevertheless, the announcement of the eight venues provides an opportunity for some. Back last year this author penned a piece regarding the perilous future of outground cricket in the first-class structure in the wake of a supermarket appeal ; the shrinking days at such venues very much a result of belt tightening amid a seemingly continued economic squeeze. Twelve months down the line and the niche may have found a saviour, albeit not quite from where one would necessarily expect to discover a solution. The almost unanimous agreement of the counties for the ECB to forge ahead with the new T20 competition, to begin, rather aptly, in 2020, dictates that the counties in charge of the eight host venues will be, like any number of home owners in the suburbs of the city of Augusta during the week of the Masters golf tournament, temporarily looking for a pied-de-terre. All of a sudden, the outgrounds, shunned and eschewed with alacrity, are potentially on the cusp of a mini renaissance. According to some quarters the new T20 tournament will cover a thirty-eight day period; quite how many days each county will be required to play elsewhere is a matter of conjecture but play elsewhere some, or all of them, shall.
Thus a handful of humble outgrounds could potentially be indirect beneficiaries of the brave new world and, from this perspective, the county game will surely be better for venturing out into its collective hinterlands. Whom and where are likely to enjoy some cricket cupboard love then? For some of the eight likely displaced counties moving out to a home from home will prove a mere bagatelle. Middlesex regularly decamp to Richmond, Uxbridge and Merchant Taylor’s School whilst the London county also pay the odd visit to the home of their second XI team at Radlett. Similarly, their neighbours across the Thames perennially undertake a journey across the M25 to Woodbridge Road in Guildford.
Indeed, the majority of the test match ground counties undertake an outground visit at least once a summer; Glamorgan head to Swansea and Colwyn Bay, Nottinghamshire to Wellbeck Colliery, Yorkshire enjoy a summer holiday at Scarborough whilst Lancashire head in the opposite direction to the tranquillity of Aigburth along with the sea air at Southport and the donkeys and candyfloss in Blackpool. For these counties another sojourn or three away from headquarters is likely to be a mere inconvenience.
Such a journey appears less simple for the two remaining test match counties though. Warwickshire have made only a handful of appearances outside of Birmingham in the last half a dozen seasons (to Rugby School) whilst Hampshire have not played a single day away from the Ageas Bowl since hosting Durham at May’s Bounty in Basingstoke during the 2010 summer. A full decade will have passed before the city based T20 bonanza potentially forces this author’s home county to head out into their hinterlands.
Arguably the most pressing problem of remaining so parochial is that other options tend to dwindle or disappear. Warwickshire would still likely have Rugby School up their sleeve but Hampshire may find their task a little more complicated. The demanding requirements of the modern game dictate that more is required than a county simply turning up at an outground for an upcountry change of scene. Facilities need to be maintained whilst squares need to be kept to a high standard. For host grounds largely maintained by modest league clubs, keeping said grounds at a standard that will satisfy the first class game requires more from the county than a near once a generation visit. In some respects it is almost a quid pro quo, symbiotic relationship. Some counties offer a de facto helping hand by playing a selection of Second XI matches at potential outground venues but Hampshire have seemingly proved reticent on this aspect too; largely, and somewhat understandably, preferring the excellent Nursery Ground adjacent to the main arena at the Rose Bowl facility.
Thus, the Rose and Crown county face an interesting conundrum if they are required to vacate their headquarters. Basingstoke, the last outground to host the county, is arguably too bijoux to accommodate the more expansive hitting involved in the modern limited overs game although the host club announced that the pavilion would be redeveloped with the aim of attracting first class cricket back to the venue. Other options appear limited. Facilities and playing surface wise the modern Newclose venue just south of Newport on the Isle of Wight could prove ideal but reaching the ground after venturing across one of the most expensive stretches of water in the world adds another level of expense to the normal list of outground costs. Maybe Hampshire will not travel far at all and choose to decamp to the aforementioned Nursery Ground, provided the normal outground facilities could be wedged in around the perimeter, although one could also conclude that the playing area is likely too small for the big-hitting limited overs game.
Locating a suitable outground is arguably not the only issue at large though. As always with venturing away from headquarters, the spectre of finance looms large. Quite whether the costs of taking matches to the outgrounds will diminish the £1.3 million annual sweetener offered to the counties isn’t necessarily known to the cricketing public. The thought does prove an intriguing one though, particularly in a climate where counties have dropped a litany of venues and festivals under the auspices of rising costs for things like bogs, beer tents and temporary stands.
In truth, the domestic fifty over competition has become the tournament of choice for counties to venture away from the main county grounds. Under the new proposed structure though the concept and the competition could witness a paradox or two. Critics of the new T20 competition have highlighted that the clash with the 50 over equivalent will effectively downgrade the latter to a second XI competition. Ironically, the second XI 50 over tournament, and second XI cricket in general, is well versed with playing at county cricket’s outgrounds. However, the second XI experience is certainly more spartan than that enjoyed at the first XI brethren with no concerns over providing temporary toilets, beer tents and plastic seating. The fifty over concept may end up possessing a second XI ambience but it is unlikely counties will be able to not provide the usual collection of outground facilities. The paradox, of course, is that if supporters start to stay away because of the talent drain toward the new T20 competition then counties could end up providing facilities that are unlikely to be used. Although one ponders whether the lure and charm of the outgrounds will attract county cricket supporters who have been deemed surplus to requirements for the new T20 competition, supporters happy to look beyond the level of cricketer on show and focus on the emerging talent and the beautiful surrounds.
Modern day outground cricket has proved something of a money pit and the handful of festivals that have remained in the calendar require a sponsor to survive. Curiously, one of the successful aspects of the Cheltenham festival has been Gloucestershire’s decision to host a block of matches over a two week period as opposed to scattering the outground appearances amongst returns to Bristol. Thus, one would guess that the cost of staging five matches consecutively is likely to be less than the cost for five stand-alone fixtures. The festival also enjoys impressive attendances alongside likely saving on overheads and the threat of the former being diminished by a perceived lack of quality rather provokes a question or two regarding the finances. Outground cricket may discover a niche back in the summer calendar but there may well be a price to endure for the counties involved.