County Focus: Forget Glastonbury and Beyoncé... festivals are in fine voice around the counties

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The Independent Online

Beyoncé? Not a patch on Monty Panesar. The American pop star apparently attracted a decent-ish crowd down to Somerset at the weekend but England's erstwhile slow left-armer is equally capable of starring at a much-loved festival. Today Sussex take on Warwickshire in the County Championship at Arundel and the event will, in its own way, be just as uplifting as Glastonbury. More uplifting, actually, given the likely absence of enormous muddy puddles masquerading as pathways.

Arundel, like Scarborough, Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells, is a staple of county festival cricket and today should, weather permitting, show that the concept of taking the game away from county HQs is in relatively rude health. Sussex's chief executive, Dave Brooks, says that the benefits for a club of a successful festival – Sussex also play at Horsham – are numerous.

"The festivals are hugely important for us," he says. "We'll take more hospitality at Arundel over the next three days than we will in six Championship games at Hove, because it's special. We also get better attendances: we'll probably have 2,500 to 3,000 a day at Arundel for the Championship game, which is double what we'd have at Hove.

"By taking cricket out and about around the county, you encourage membership around the county. We are Sussex County Cricket Club, not Brighton and Hove Cricket Club."

Nonetheless, festival cricket could be facing a tough few years. The investment that has gone into upgrading county HQs over the recent seasons – on drainage, for example, or floodlights – means there is a greater gulf than ever between the quality of the facilities at the 18 county grounds and at the outgrounds.

Brooks acknowledges the issue but says that his club has been involved in discussions with the England and Wales Cricket Board with the aim of ensuring funds to help clubs rectify the problem."I think it's an area that the domestic game needs to be aware of," he adds.

"It's something that we've discussed on a couple of occasions with the ECB: is there scope, now that most people have got their drainage and floodlights, to put a capital fund together that enables clubs to upgrade their outground facilities? If the facilities aren't as good – and the outgrounds are club cricket grounds – you are exposed to losing play."

Sussex suffered themselves in 2005, when the Horsham Festival had to be cancelled because the square was not up to standard. Similarly, Kent no longer play at Maidstone – Brooks' home town – because they were docked eight points for a poor pitch in the same season.

Counties that do play regularly at outgrounds, though, soon discover the benefits. Take Lancashire this season: it may not be entirely a coincidence that their fine form has coincided with their temporary move from Old Trafford to the more intimate setting of Aigburth. "The atmosphere is really good at Aigburth with the crowd so close to the pitch," Glen Chapple, the Lancashire captain, said earlier this season.

As enjoyable as that inevitably is for the players, festival cricket is far from safe. Borough councils are less willing than they once were to help subsidise festival weeks, while any reduction of the county programme could be disastrous. Brooks, however, says that the likes of Arundel and Horsham are as secure as they could be.

"We'll do whatever we can to protect our festivals," he says. "In fact we'd like to take county cricket back to the east of the county, to Hastings. We're committed to it. We're probably in the minority [in county cricket] in that respect, but that's because we've got a very successful festival."

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