England’s county cricket grounds tend to fall into two distinct categories. First are the international grounds with their vast acreage of plastic seats residing in towering stands topped by various carbuncles that ooze corporate influence. They are full of bombast and confidence, particularly those at the summit of the pecking order, ready to welcome the demands and whims of the sport’s highest echelon. Grounds desirous of becoming stadia with all that such a promotion entails.
In contrast are the humble, modest county equivalents. All are, of course, county grounds but some fit the description a little more succinctly. They are the grounds of bijoux intimacy containing quirky, hotchpotch edifices constructed at varying junctures during the last century presenting a full array of architectural delights and eyesores. Nonetheless, they are grounds in the most literal sense of the word, full of charm and homeliness with corners and crannies and a closeness to the action so that one can almost hear the players’ hearts beat. One or two grounds, Bristol and Taunton for instance, straddle the two categories courtesy of some additions and the odd nip-tuck for the occasional international visit but by and large it is a case of the haves and have-nots.
One ground most certainly on the have-nots side of the divide is the headquarters of Sussex County Cricket Club in the chi chi seaside town of Hove. Surrounded by the grid line streets of the rather grandly named Denmark Villas suburb there is barely any room for the ground to expand or be extended. Thus, it has retained much of its character and charm. In truth, the County Ground is an eclectic hot-potch of stands that prove charming and intriguing. They also provide differing angles and elevations from which to enjoy the play. The Cromwell Road end of the ground features deckchairs and benches from which to spectate, a particularly pleasant nuance from the concrete jungles into which the international grounds are largely morphing.
Of great intrigue is the apparent nookery of the Spen Cama Pavilion, (named after a former club president) particularly as the structure is the preserve of the club’s members although one can gain entry upon parting with a five pound note.
In contrast to the homeliness of the Spen Cama pavilion is the relative vastness of the open Sharks stand, row after row of white seats that likely provides much of the ground’s 7,000 capacity. The Sharks stand is a nod to the modern era of cricket, the influence of T20 and the need to pack em in and stack em high. Turn one hundred and eight degrees, or take a stroll around the circumference of the playing area, and the eclectic nature of the ground proffers a nod to the past as the northern end features the sublime, ethereal, elemental experience enjoyed from the aforementioned deck chairs. Each section all but demands one to take a pew and enjoy a different spectating experience.
On this particular day the host county are playing Middlesex and the visitors win the toss and bat first on the opening morning but lose a couple of early wickets to the movement generated by Ollie Robinson. Stevie Eskinazi and Dawid Malan slowly repair the damage but the occasional inside edge and dropped catch highlights that batting is difficult. The visitors appear set to reach the sanctuary of lunch without further loss until Robinson returns with a three wicket salvo, completing a devastating five wicket haul prior to the first interval, as Middlesex’s middle-order is decimated.
Lunch affords an opportunity for a wander away from the ground into Hove itself. Cricket’s relaxed, comfortable atmosphere for spectators largely dictates that eating and drinking morphs into a general graze throughout the day, thus liberating the actual lunch interval for a modicum of exploration.
Hemmed in by the town’s pleasant suburbs, one soon reaches Church Road, a thoroughfare that runs parallel with the coast heading toward Brighton. Once across said road one encounters the achingly beautiful Palmeira Square, a glorious, open, verdant space flanked by majestic white Georgian residences, stretching five storeys into the ether, providing a real life vista of the mental image that one conjures when thinking about Brighton. Pathways and shrubbery dominate the scene and one is inclined to linger and enjoy such a wonderful spot. Palmeira Square opens out into Adelaide Crescent, tumbling down to the main coast road, the grandiosely named Hove Lawns and the beach itself, steep and stony as it descends into the English Channel. Little more than a ten minute walk from the ground itself it is this sort of wander that makes one appreciate the beauty and magnificence of the old English county ground as opposed to the faddish concrete stadium.
Somewhat pleasingly, there is a healthy crowd enjoying the beautiful sunshine on this opening day with a convivial atmosphere amongst visiting Middlesex supporters. Hove proves a rather charming venue with its suburban locale surrounded by flats, balconies and vantage points for the immediate neighbours. Occasionally the resident seagulls chirp, highlighting how close the ground is to the English Channel.
Perhaps the best spot to enjoy the play is from one of the park benches or deck chairs at the cromwell road end where the chat amongst spectators is mellifluous and intriguing, the pink blossom on the handful of trees glorious and magnificent. Or the chance to glimpse Jason Gillespie on the balcony watching his charges intently.
The relaxed ambience of the deckchairs mirrors the ambling nature of the play post the resumption as Max Holden and John Simpson ameliorate their team’s travails with a half-century partnership. The hosts appear less potent than prior to lunch until spinner Danny Briggs tempts Simpson into a dance down the wicket and a catch on the boundary. Holden carries on regardless to a well measured half-century, three lofted leg-side boundaries from one Briggs over hastening his achievement, but support proves ephemeral as Robinson returns to claim a sixth wicket. Holden finally locates support in the form of an entertaining cameo from Tim Murtagh as the champions of two years previous reach 205-8 at tea.
Middlesex’s plight could have been deepened further and the hosts would have been batting during the afternoon session had their fielding matched the bowling. Half a dozen catches are grassed, the latest soon after the resumption in play offering Murtagh another life. In contrast Max Holden bats with a growing assurance, nudging and nurdling singles with aplomb. Nevertheless, George Garton ends Murtagh’s innings and Ollie Robinson castles Tom Barber as Holden is left stranded 16 runs shy of a century as the visitors are bowled out for 230.
Unsurprisingly, Sussex’s batsmen also find the going tough as the day heads toward its denouement. The visitors’ opening bowlers, Tim Murtagh and James Harris, both claim a brace of wickets as the hosts limp to the close, finishing on an inauspicious total of 60 for the loss of 4 wickets.
These are uncertain times for county cricket. The format seems forever in a state of transience, a state of flux as the money men seek to shoehorn its square pegged members into ever more round holes whilst simultaneously milking every drop from every cash cow that possibly exists. Solutions are proffered but one cannot help ponder how long before said solutions are deemed old hat and further solutions sought.
One theory suggests that a future solution is to reduce the County Championship to just eight participants, super counties if you will, those teams based at the larger international grounds. This seems to be the prevailing thought from some quarters, eliminate the charm and quirkiness of the county game to leave a rather homogenous remainder. This author took a day off from work to visit Hove. This author could have taken a day off and undertaken the twenty minute walk from the comfort of one’s sofa to the Ageas Bowl on another day but this author instead elected to undertake a near ninety minute train journey along the south coast to the home of Sussex. Quite simply, the lure and charm of sitting at the back of the main stand during the morning and then residing in a deckchair for the afternoon equivalent, all the while sitting within earshot of the play so that almost every comment was audible was a much more palatable experience than the anodyne experience in the homogenised Hampshire equivalent. Hove seems to represent the essence of county cricket, a pleasant venue where the cognoscenti sit almost cheek by jowl rather than lost in voluminous stands where each spectator almost resides in a different post code. A selection of said cognoscenti took the opportunity to wander onto the outfield during the tea break to chew the fat, enjoy the lush grass and peruse the wicket. Try that at some venues and one faces an unceremonious ejection back into the outside world.
In essence, these are the small joys of county cricket. Somewhat pejoratively, the county game is often said to be watched by one man and his dog. Curiously, one didn’t catch sight of any dogs but there were plenty of men and women enjoying the experience.