In the Shadows Part One

For the organisers and aficionados of the Open Championship, the Premier League, the Gold Cup and the National Football League the sporting life can be a testing business. Not the organisers of the famed and esteemed championship or event but those involved with the other one. Convention dictates that the first mention of these four competitions provokes thoughts of Golf’s oldest and most revered major championship, the pinnacle of domestic Football in England, one of Horse Racing’s most prestigious races and the organisation tasked with running the most American of American sports. Reality highlights that such assumptions are commonplace for those supporters and organisers who, instead, are referring to the other one. Not golf’s Open Championship but the Croquet equivalent. Not the Football Premier League but the Darts version. Not the Cheltenham Gold Cup but Polo’s prestigious namesake. And not American Football’s famous league but Gaelic Football’s counterpart. For some sporting events there is the famous competition that will resonate with many and the other one that will only be known amongst the few.

Fortunately, the few number a little more than that for the Cheltenham Festival. Not the famed Horse Racing week that takes place in the northern suburbs of the town and attracts thousands of the sport’s cognoscenti from the far corners of Britain and Ireland but the cricketing equivalent four months later is played in the heart of the locale at the famed eponymous college. Played in any other town such a festival, with its 140 year heritage, would possess top billing but the Horse Racing equivalent understandably commands more attention. Nevertheless, the cricketing equivalent is one of county cricket’s success stories in a modern game where outground cricket, and by extension festival cricket, is very much an endangered species. Logistics, finance and pitch qualities are the chief arbiters, the latter particularly paramount as first-class cricketers are loathed to play on sub-standard wickets.

Finance proves more of a grey area than pitch quality. Or more red and black. As county cricket faces up to the ever growing importance of the bottom line, so the financial viability, an abhorrent but unfortunately relevant modern day maxim, of outground usage has become ever more paramount. For most counties that continue with outground cricket the issue of the bottom line is covered by a varied concoction of sponsorship and corporate hospitality with the occasional dose of local authority infusion.

Thus, county cricket’s oldest surviving festival, at Cheltenham, is a prime example of four elements (county, venue, sponsors and the corporate element) working in harmony to produce a mutually beneficial end result. In existence since 1872 the Cheltenham festival has been, and still is, fortunate to continually attract considerable sponsorship and corporate input, a boon not necessarily experienced by other counties. Nevertheless, hosts Gloucestershire have maintained their whole hearted support of the festival, taking at least two championship matches and two limited overs contests to the north Gloucestershire town for almost a decade, maximising their input through an outground equivalent of bulk-buying. It would appear that the club has recognised that successful use of outgrounds requires more than one match being hosted at a particular venue, potentially reducing outlay on facilities such as toilets and temporary stands.

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Another outground advocate, Sussex, are the first visitors for the 2018 festival for a County Championship contest. Post winning the toss the visitors bat first and begin confidently, Phil Salt playing a selection of exquisite cover drives as the visitors pass 50 in the 15th over. The right handed opener reaches his own half century, from just 45 deliveries, with a streaky edge through the slip. In contrast, Salt’s partner Luke Wells appears a little circumspect, playing and missing a little too frequently and edging the occasional delivery in a scratchy innings. Indeed, Wells’ tenure at the crease is soon ended and his dismissal provokes a collapse as the Martlet county stumble to 125-4 at lunch, the height and bounce of Craig Miles contributing to a trio of wickets.

 

The lunch interval provides time to enjoy the surroundings and ponder the longevity of the festival. Cheltenham’s success as a host demonstrates the tripartite requirement of sponsorship, ergo financial viability, commitment from the host county and venue, the 2018 festival will host three T20 matches alongside two county championship equivalents, alongside input from the corporate world. Approximately a third of the College ground’s perimeter is flanked by marquees that will play host to a litany of dignitaries during the festival’s two week residence.

Indeed, there is a healthy mix of the old and the new at Cheltenham. Three temporary stands satiate the average punter behind hundreds of those maroon fold-out chairs that are almost ubiquitous with every festival venue. Another festival favourite, the book stall, resides under a gazebo, tempting many a passer-by to peruse the contents. Sadly, home favourite Jack Russell, and his marvellous artwork, are not present on this particular afternoon.

Meanwhile, gaggles of school children adorn the main stand and play cricket behind the structure, further putting into question the recent assertion from some quarters that the young are not interested in the game. Indeed, the attendance as a whole is encouraging for a Monday morning as Cheltenham once again receives excellent spectator support. Last year over 25,000 attended the festival and one estimates that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 are likely in situ on this particular afternoon. Some quarters will regularly declare that county cricket is poorly attended, an overall assertion that cannot be denied. However, perhaps part of the problem is not the cricket on show but the venue in which it is played. The Cheltenham festival is likely to achieve impressive attendances once again whilst similar events at Arundel, Guildford and Tunbridge Wells the previous month were also well attended. And of course there is Yorkshire’s annual trip to the coast at Scarborough which achieves better attendances than some counties may achieve in a whole season for the Championship. The various county headquarters may prove convenient, both logistically and financially, for most teams but the lure of a charming outground certainly does pull in an impressive number of spectators.

The College ground itself is similar to Guildford and Uxbridge in possessing a town centre locale but the large grounds and the festival paraphernalia help block out most of the noise from the surrounding roads. Chief attraction of the venue is the beautiful college building on the southern flank of the ground; the grand, imposing architecture adding a hint of Oxford or Cambridge to the venue. Understandably, the members stand resides in front of the college building which doubles up as a grandiose pavilion. The building’s beauty is no better highlighted than the almost perpetual motion of a mobile phone / camera rising up from the seating during the play akin to a periscope to snap a photograph or three of such a marvellous setting. Tall, far reaching trees sway gently around the perimeter of the grounds, the breeze welcome in the mid summer heatwave.

The playing surface itself is delightfully and mischievously undulating, a pronounced slope away from one side of the square and a couple of depressions in front of the scoreboards providing interesting influences on the ball as it scoots toward the boundary. Understandably, the playing area is a little on the bijoux side, creating a handful of comical moments as supporters not paying attention feel the swish of the ball passing their ears after it has flicked off the boundary rope and leapt over the advertising boards.

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Post the resumption in play, Sussex rebuild courtesy of a burgeoning partnership between skipper Ben Brown and Harry Finch that edges the visitors past 150. Nevertheless, run scoring proves trickier in the middle session as Gloucestershire’s bowlers continue to bowl well and ask questions of the pairing. Both Finch and Brown play and miss along with nicking the odd delivery but survive adequately as the milestones soon pass; personal half centuries in the 53rd and 54th overs with the century partnership and Sussex’s 200 an over later.
With tea looming spin is introduced for the first time in the form of George Drissell. Indeed, the introduction proves crucial as Ben Brown miss-cues an attempted shot over the top to the hand the young off-spinner his first County Championship wicket. After a session of near fruitless toil the breakthrough proves the perfect fillip for the home players and supporters as Sussex reach tea at 219-6, Kieran Noema-Barnett trapping David Wiese leg before wicket in the last over before the interval.

Drissell’s day improves almost immediately after the start of the final session as he dismisses Chris Jordan. Save for a 45 run partnership between Jofra Archer and Ollie Robinson the visitors offer little resistance after the tea interval, losing their final wicket with 286 on the board. Harry Finch is the eighth wicket to fall for a well crafted innings of 76. In response Gloucestershire enjoy the same rapid start that was a feature of Sussex’s innings earlier in the day, reaching 42 without loss from the remaining 11 overs left of the total allocation.

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The remarkable success of the Cheltenham festival aptly demonstrates the almost chicken and egg scenario that now presents itself to counties when the subject of festival cricket arises. As previously mentioned, the success of Cheltenham can be attributed to a number of factors: the wholehearted desire and drive of Gloucestershire CCC, the support and upkeep of sufficient playing conditions at Cheltenham College, the financial input of a number of sponsors, the financial input of those associated with the not inconsiderable tented village and the impressive numbers of supporters venturing through the gates each day. In many respects though, success in one area is as a result of success in another. Significant crowds and media attention attract sponsors and the corporate element whilst the commitment of a host county often leads to a settled festival and something of a legacy which similarly can lead to improving support, both that of the paying public and that of sponsors. The old business maxim of speculate to accumulate sits well with such a scenario. Gloucestershire commit four or five matches each summer to the festival, decamping from their Bristol headquarters for a two week period. The reciprocal nature of commitment, good support and sponsors input has led to the festival enjoying a place in the summer social calendar, similar, albeit not quite as significant, as its Horse Racing equivalent earlier in the year. The Cheltenham festival enjoys the position and ambience of being an event rather than a tentative, token trip upstream under the auspices of ticking a box. Such an existence is likely due to years of commitment and gradual improvement. Appetite for a festival is required if it is to succeed. Gloucestershire continue to jump in with both feet and, consequently, enjoy the warmth of the water rather those who suspiciously dip their toe in, half-expecting to receive a scalding burn.

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