Cricket: Festival time is cut short

The out-grounds remain popular but their future is threatened by commercialism. By Adam Szreter
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the sadder ways for a cricket fanatic to pass five minutes of an unusually dull encounter is to tot up the number of first-class venues currently in operation. A couple of years ago, if memory serves, it was around an even half-century.

A few have disappeared since then, most notably Queen's Park, Chesterfield, but despite the onslaught of commercialism that threatens their existence one of the most romantic, and many would say essential, aspects of the county game, namely out-ground or festival cricket, is still with us and in many respects thriving.

Over the past fortnight many of the out-grounds, from Blackpool to Southend, have been making the most of meagre annual allotment of five days cricket. At the Cheltenham Festival, where they are fortunate enough to have a whole fortnight at their disposal, the patrons in the marquees that ring the picturesque college ground, whether they be Old Parthesians or members of the Charlton Kings Working Men's Club, create an ambience that is sadly lacking at most of the bigger stadiums. It makes you wish that all county cricket was played in these tight, little arenas where a crowd of even a couple of thousand can lend a sense of importance to the occasion.

Sadly, though that is not going to happen. The reality is that it costs money for a county to put on a game away from the permanent facilities of their headquarters. Erecting stands, catering and the upkeep of pitches, not to mention the general lack of interest from corporate sponsors, means that the best that can be hoped for is to preserve the status quo, while the gradual scaling down of out-ground cricket will always be an option.

In Lancashire from next season for example, Liverpool, Southport and Blackpool, where Mike Atherton recently made his 268 not out, will be on a rota which will mean one game every three years. Yorkshire have already done away with all but Scarborough, although there is talk of Sheffield being restored to the fixture list next season. Warwickshire have long forgotten about the likes of Coventry and Nuneaton while the same can be said of several others.

Happily though, counties such as Essex are refusing to cut their furthest flung outposts adrift although as their general manager, Peter Edwards, explained, the futures of the parks venues of Southend, Ilford and Colchester will be constantly monitored.

"We consider ourselves first and foremost a county cricket club, and not a Chelmsford Cricket Club," Edwards said. "Essex is a big county and we want to spread the gospel as far as we can. We run a very large cricket development programme all around the county and we feel it is right to support that by taking first-class cricket to the places where youngsters can watch it.

"Also our three best one-day gates of the season will always be at the three festival grounds, and the same is true of our championship crowds. The week before last at Southend over 10,000 people watched a Championship match against Middlesex, and that was just over three days."

One advantage at Southend and Colchester is that the local business communities are actively involved in sponsorship of the games there. Unfortunately the same could not be said of Chesterfield, where a lack of enthusiasm on all sides, from the local council to the Derbyshire club themselves, has allowed the most scenic of all grounds to succumb to vandalism and deterioration.

But even Essex, one fears, cannot ignore the accountants forever. "The overheads are the same whether you play at these grounds on one day, three days or 20 days," Edwards said. "You are talking about setting up stands and marquees, taking all the advertising hoardings, all the offices and toilets and the scoreboard. And because we only play one championship game and one one-day game the costs are looking a bit high."

Just as there are voices within the game who advocate a greater percentage of county matches being played at the smaller venues, there are others that feel that every move that the England and Wales Cricket Board makes at the moment is designed to undermine the traditional first-class game in order to benefit only the national side. Four-day cricket means fewer matches, fewer venues and eventually perhaps fewer teams and fewer players to choose from which would certainly help the process of England selection.

Edwards' own view appears to be a pragmatic one: "One of the reasons why a lot of the counties have moved to a more central location, and why we keep looking at it, is because you have a big investment at your headquarters. In my 20 years here we've spent over pounds 4 million developing the County Ground, there are executive suite members and there has to be enough cricket to satisfy their requirements.

"I wouldn't say it is a battle to keep the out-grounds going, but we're keeping it under review."