From scrubland to one of the great showgrounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online

To signal the start of the Third Test on Friday, as is tradition, the five-minute bell will sound. It will be rung by the man without whose vision and purpose the match at the Rose Bowl would certainly not be taking place and the hairs on the back of his neck will be standing on end.

"I'm sure they will," said Rod Bransgrove, "though the pride and joy will be slightly stunted by nervousness and anxiety. There's a lot riding on it. I have got a superb operations team, it's now just about us all doing what we know we can."

The Rose Bowl will become the 105th ground to stage a Test match, the 10th in Britain. Little more than a decade ago it was scrubland to the west of Southampton on which, it is said, stood a solitary horse.

It has been transformed into a singularly appealing cricket ground, a custom built amphitheatre, of a sensitive modern design, surrounded by rolling Hampshire hills. Bransgrove intends it to become one of the greatest grounds in the world.

Reaching this stage has not been free of obstacles. The common belief is that the ground was Bransgrove's baby and many within cricket would not have been wholly disappointed had it become a rich man's folly.

The truth is that Bransgrove became involved after plans had already been made for Hampshire to move from their decrepit old home at Northlands Road, Southampton. As the new chairman, he merely rescued the scheme from an early grave and far from having the wild ambition to create another international ground found that funding from the National Lottery depended on it. "So I was kind of committed," he said.

His main, charming ambition throughout has been to protect the future of Hampshire County Cricket Club. But he recognised when the project was £1.8m adrift that county cricket alone would not pay the bills.

"Domestic cricket especially at a ground like this wouldn't really wash its face," he said. "So I have had to apply myself to developing a sustainable business but if it wasn't county cricket I wouldn't have got involved."

Central to Bransgrove's plans is the 140 bedroom hotel overlooking the site, which should be complete by 2013, as will the rest of the ground. Hampshire are bidding for an Ashes Test in that summer but with the Riverside in Durham already promised one, it seems improbable that the England and Wales Cricket Board would permit two new grounds to have such iconic matches.

Bransgrove has had his moments with the ECB and others in cricket over the years. He tells like it is, or at least as he sees it, buttressed by his overwhelming success as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur.

"I think there are too many Test matches and in some years we play Test matches against countries that don't warrant it," he said. "I'm not sure the argument that we must have seven Test matches every year simply because we have so many grounds is the proper argument. What we should be arguing is how many is the right number of Test matches to play and then how do we spread them around the resources we have got."

Such opinions, while plain common sense, have not always endeared him either to the hierarchy or to those in the shires. "There have been times when I have regretted getting involved, times when I've felt almost a personal antagonism towards the game and it seems unrewarding in a way," he said.

"But there are also incredible highs in the game. It's part of my DNA. I used to go to The Oval with my dad to watch the great Surrey side of the late '50s and early '60s. The funny thing was that these guys used to be playing at The Oval every week yet they were still England players. That's how I got attached to cricket because I saw my heroes."

He does not know whether to laugh or cry about the plan that had to be aborted when he became chairman. Bransgrove and his family were having a house built in Spain. He had enrolled his children in the MarbellaInternational School. "I don't think I'll ever get to live there now," he said.

"I still love cricket. There's a lot that goes on around the game that I find quite difficult politically and that has tempered my enthusiasm for it. But no other sport breeds the camaraderie that cricket does."

Comments