Under the weather: Rain stops play at Worcestershire's New Road ground

They have seen plenty of floods at Worcestershire's New Road ground over the years but the disruption caused this summer is totally unprecedented, writes Paul Newman. Now the cricket club are desperately trying to clean up the ground and rescue their season
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When Paul Foley, a local benefactor, moved his beloved Worcestershire County Cricket Club to a new home in 1895 he was probably dreaming of sunny days like yesterday. Foley's ambition was to earn first-class status for the county and he felt the only way to achieve it was by relocating to a city-centre venue which would draw bigger crowds. The first-class goal was reached just four years later, Worcestershire having strengthened their case with three successive titles in the Minor Counties Championship, which Foley himself had formed in order to give his team a chance to show their prowess.

New Road was indeed a hive of activity yesterday morning, but there was not a bat or ball in sight and on the sign announcing forthcoming fixtures there was a large gap alongside the words "Next match". Rather than mowing the grass or setting up nets, the workmen were repairing damaged buildings and hosing down the muddy brown silt left by the massive flood that engulfed the ground last weekend for the second time in the space of a month.

The pitch itself was still under more than two feet of water - the covers, bizarrely, still stand over the square - and the brown tidemark around the ground shows how high the waters were. Seats in the Cathedral Stand were completely submerged, while two silt-covered vehicles in the players' car park were evidence of how quickly the levels rose.

Coping with floods has been a way of life at Worcester ever since Foley's men set up camp on the water meadows alongside the Severn 112 years ago. There have been 136 subsequent floods - a four-year spell from October 1903 was the longest period when the land has not been submerged - and every September the club empty all lower-level premises in readiness for the winter.

Summer inundations are not unheard of - there had been seven before this year - but last month's was the first for 38 years. Two in one summer, moreover, is unprecedented. There were also four floods over the winter and the cumulative effect has been devastating. Worcestershire last played on their home ground on 13 June and have had 13 days of cricket completely washed out in this rain-drenched summer. Last weekend's flood was the second biggest for 121 years, beaten only by a huge surge in March 1947.

When Worcestershire began their current match against Surrey at Guildford on Wednesday, it was their first County Championship action for more than a month. In the previous three weeks they had played just 180 overs of cricket. The cost of the floods is already estimated at £450,000 and the hopes of staging the final two County Championship matches at New Road in September - the visit of Shane Warne and Hampshire is a particular incentive - may well be unrealistic.

Worcestershire say they can cope if this is a once-in-a-lifetime summer, but who can guarantee that? The first flood last month completely wiped out a four-day match at home to Kent. Three subsequent Twenty20 Cup matches were switched to alternative venues, but just as the ground staff had finished putting New Road back in order, the Environment Agency warned at the end of last week that a second flood was imminent, putting paid to another home Championship match, against Lancashire. The Severn had been expected to burst its banks last Sunday, but such was the volume of rainwater that the flood arrived more than 24 hours early. The water level rose 1.7 metres in just two hours.

"Kidderminster Cricket Club were holding a fund-raising dinner in a marquee here last Friday," said Melinda Cooksey, Worcestershire's PR and Communications Executive. "The waters started to rise during their function and we literally had to move people table by table as the level crept up. Eventually we had to abandon the marquee completely and move everyone into a suite above the flood line."

Arrangements had been made to move stock from the club shop, playing and practice kit and physiotherapy and office equipment the following morning. However Steve Rhodes, the head coach, arrived to discover the flood waters had already inundated the dressing rooms, the lock-ups containing all the practice gear and his own office. Favourite bats, boots, gloves and other precious items of equipment were lost.

"There were bats, boots, brand new cricket balls and helmets, a full training kit, sweaters and bags all floating around in the water," Rhodes said. "We'd been told the flood was coming and that we had until the Saturday to retrieve stuff. Some chose to come in on the Friday and they were the lucky ones. The worst thing was the damage to the practice equipment. There were big practice bags and balls floating around in our office. I spent the whole weekend trying to dry out the balls at home and washing the training bibs.

"There was also some damage to my coaching equipment - electrical gear, cameras and the like - as well as printers, telephones and a lot of paperwork. There was some electrical stuff in my office which I'd put up high because of the flood danger. When I saw the water was so high I tried to retrieve it. I swam about 10 yards to open the office door.

"It was daylight but pitch-black inside. As I opened the door I saw a desk floating along, with an internal phone sitting on it, dry as a bone. Some of the stuff had gone under the water and I didn't try recovering that. The water was pretty murky and I didn't fancy diving under."

Mark Newton, the chief executive, estimates the cost of clearing up and replacing lost equipment at £150,000, with additional losses of £300,000 in terms of hospitality, ticket revenue, merchandising and catering.

"It's a huge amount, but we've made about £50,000 profit in each of the last four years and we're lucky in that we have a strong balance sheet and some very good people on the board," Newton said. "For want of a better phrase there's absolutely no danger of us going under because of this. If this is a one-off that happens once every 70 years, we can live with that. But if it happened again in the next five or six years then we would start having to worry seriously about the future.

"You just can't get insurance. There is an argument that says you could possibly get flood insurance just for the summer, but it's not realistic. We certainly can't get any flood insurance for the winter." Remarkably, the club has managed not to lose any social functions, which are an important source of revenue. They have either been moved into alternative venues or rescheduled for later in the year.

"On Saturday we had a wedding reception which was due to be held in the marquee," Newton said. "You couldn't even get into the ground that day because New Road itself was flooded, so we moved the reception to the rugby club. We moved all the food and staff and ran a very successful event. At least the bride and groom had their day, even if they were expecting a marquee with the cricket as a backdrop.

"The bigger problem for us financially is the hospitality we've lost and the lack of value we've been able to give to our advertisers, sponsors and members. We'll have effectively lost two-thirds of our season, including our prime matches. If you've paid out money, then you expect value. We'll feel the hit next year when we consider what our prices should be to reflect what has happened this year. We couldn't contemplate putting prices up.

"For the hospitality we're saying we'll either make a refund or give them the hospitality next year. And these are just the tangible things. What's hard to quantify is how much people might say next year: 'I'm not going to risk it again, bearing in mind what happened last summer'."

Eyebrows might be raised at the fact that Worcestershire were recently given planning permission for a £10m redevelopment programme at New Road, but Newton pointed out that all the new structures would be built above the flood plain. "Rather than put the project in doubt I think what's happened this summer makes the need for it even more pressing," he said.

The ECB has granted up to £75,000 to help Worcestershire and the county is also likely to receive money from a £250,000 fund to help clubs affected by the floods. Other counties have also helped as Worcestershire attempt to reschedule their remaining matches, although abandoned games will not be replayed.

Tomorrow's Pro40 match against Sussex has been moved to Edgbaston, a County Championship match against Yorkshire will be played at Kidderminster and a televised Pro40 game with Lancashire will be staged at Taunton. But moving the matches means a loss of revenue and it remains to be seen whether supporters will travel.

Not surprisingly, the constant interruptions have taken their toll on the team's performances. Worcestershire are the only side without a win in the First Division of the County Championship.

"The players feel as though the pre-season's only just finished," Rhodes said. "We've never got going. We've switched our practice sessions to Kidderminster and Ombersley, which have been extremely helpful. They've both got good wickets, so we've been making the best of a bad job.

"Everything seems to have been stacked against us, but I keep telling the players that bouncing back from adversity is a true test of character."

Newton emphasised the need to put the club's problems into perspective. "When you see how much people in the area have suffered I wouldn't want to overstate our difficulties," he said. "We are 'only' a county cricket club. It's just that we are quite high-profile. But in our own terms it has been a pretty desperate situation."

Rain check How counties chasing the title have suffered with the elements

* YORKSHIRE

Yorkshire have drawn six of their 10 games so far, including their last five in a row. Their last four outings have been particularly badly hit by rain - each falling well below the expected 392 overs. In total, these drawn games have had only 770 of a possible 1,568 overs bowled.

* SUSSEX

Second-placed Sussex have perhaps suffered the least disruption of the main contenders. Of their nine matches, only the draws with Yorkshire and Lancashire have been affected.

* WARWICKSHIRE

Draw specialists Warwickshire's 10 Championship games have produced results on just three occasions. They have drawn six of their last seven matches - the exception being their defeat to Hampshire in a game which had early declarations from both teams.

* DURHAM

Durham have drawn just three games this season. Only two of these have been markedly affected by rain delays, with just 446 of 784 overs being bowled in the matches against Warwickshire and Hampshire.

* HAMPSHIRE

Hampshire have drawn five of nine matches thus far, three of which have been badly affected. In these games, only 612 of 1,176 overs were bowled. Their game with Sussex looks certain to yield a sixth draw.

* WORCESTERSHIRE

Worcestershire have suffered more than most this summer. Their last two games - at home to Kent and Lancashire - have ended in total washouts, with their previous fixture against Warwickshire also ending in a draw. Worcestershire's last three games have lost an astounding 960.4 overs to rain.

Unseasonal years When freak conditions affected cricket in the past

1912

This was the wettest, dullest and coldest season of the 20th century. The final Test of the summer saw England take on Australia: only 90 minutes' play were possible on the second and third days on a pitch described as being "more suited to water polo than cricket".

1965

The second day of the first Test between England and New Zealand at Edgbaston on 28 May was the coldest day in the history of Test cricket until this season (when it was usurped by the Test between England and West Indies at Headingley), with temperatures as low as8C.

1967

The wretched May of 1967 saw 13 of the 51 scheduled Championship games end in stalemate due to heavy and persistent rainfall. Five were abandoned without a single ball being bowled.

1975

The year of the first Cricket World Cup will also be remembered for its freakish weather. On 2 June, the County Championship match between Derbyshire and Lancashire at Buxton was abandoned - not due to rain, but because of the inch of snow which lay on the ground.

John Coulson

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