OUT WITH THE OUTGROUNDS
We call them ‘outgrounds’. The places where each county plays at home but not at home, taking cricket to the public, at local club and school grounds. There used to be dozens, but in the last 25 years the number has more than halved. All of the counties have made changes to their use of secondary home grounds since 1993, but while there has been growth in a handful of places, the general trend is one of contraction and decline.
Durham’s situation is unsurprisingly the most unrecognisable compared with 25 years ago. One of the conditions they had to meet in exchange for first-class status in 1992 was the construction of a ground of test match standard (an agreement which came back to bite them very hard), but the Riverside ground at Chester-le-Street was only in the planning stage in 1993, and so they played their games at Durham Racecourse, Hartlepool, Gateshead, Darlington and Stockton. They moved into the Riverside in 1995 and gradually withdrew from the others, but in 2016 a plan was hatched with Marcus North, a former Durham player and now chief executive of South Northumberland CC, to play a one-day match north of the Tyne at Gosforth. The aim was not so much making money as an attempt to broaden Durham’s hinterland into its neighbour to the north. This summer, the spring bank holiday weekend begins there with a Cup fixture as the home team bucks the recent trend by introducing professional cricket to new towns.
Middlesex, too, have reduced the number of games played at Lord’s and brought in some new venues. This has partly been out of necessity, to reduce the pressure on the Lord’s pitches which are always in demand for prestige matches. The first class games are all at headquarters, meaning that Uxbridge no longer sees Championship cricket, but it will have the Sunday afternoon atmosphere of a Blast match in July, as will Richmond, whose highly accessible location in south west London guarantees a lively capacity crowd (despite being in Surrey). As far as the Cup is concerned, Lord’s will only be used for the London derby, with the home games against Essex, Kent and Hampshire being farmed out to the characterful grounds at Radlett and – during half term – Merchant Taylors’ School. Another school ground – at Oakham – hosts a one-off Cup game at half term for Leicestershire, who have been visiting their Rutland outpost since 1935 (when Rutland still existed).
It’s considered much easier to create a flat pitch for a white ball game than a lasting, enduring four-day Championship track, and scheduling one day matches in places which families can get to at times when families can get to them is considered a wise move by some counties. Kent’s ground at Beckenham is ideally located, and it is hosting four games this summer – two in the Cup and two in the Blast – during the school holidays. Kent’s south-eastern corner of London represents a considerable growth opportunity and bringing the game to the metropolis is rightly considered a smart marketing move.
Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Sussex have also scheduled ‘one-off’ games in the Cup at Welbeck, Blackpool and Eastbourne respectively, either on a spring Sunday or (at Blackpool) on the Friday of the spring bank holiday.
That brings the total of ‘white-ball only’ out-grounds to ten, shared among seven counties: one each for Durham, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Sussex, and four for Middlesex. Their outlook is progressive. They recognise that the Cup and Blast matches represent their best chance of expanding the reach of their organisations and thus maximising the potential active cricketing population of their catchment area.
Six counties have adopted the opposite approach: their strategy has been to centralise their activities by retreating to a cricketing nucleus at their main ground. Essex, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire have all discontinued the use of out-grounds and have instead tried to focus their resources, marketing and accessibility on their main grounds. It is no coincidence that in almost all of these cases, considerable attention has been given to planning and development of the ground facilities: new pavilions at Chelmsford and Taunton, new corporate space at Worcester, extensive new stands at Edgbaston and a whole new ground at Southampton. Only at Northampton has little investment been possible in recent years. It’s a simple argument, on the whole: spend less money elsewhere and you have more to spend on home improvements.
With this centralisation came the demise of a large number of outgrounds. Twenty-five years ago, county cricket was played at 42 venues; today there are just 19. Some treasured places no longer host the professional game, their final matches proving bittersweet occasions, the individual cricketing successes being written into posterity as a long list of ‘last evers’ as we bade goodbye: White carrying his bat for 80 out of 136 at Portsmouth in 2000; Irani’s unbeaten double century at Ilford in 2002; Pietersen’s immaculate, chanceless 167 at Southend in 2004; nobody scoring more than 39 at Maidstone in 2005; Surrey’s spirited chase of 356 at Bath in 2006; the four-day washout that sunk Abergavenny’s first class status in 2007; Nannes bowling six overs and taking six wickets at Kidderminster in 2008; Carberry and Lumb’s partnership of 341 at Basingstoke in 2010; James Taylor’s career-best 291 at Horsham in 2015; Napier’s swashbuckling 124 at number eight at Colchester in 2016.
There are nine outgrounds that still see first class cricket, five of which have a sole Championship match, no doubt relying on sympathetic scheduling from Alan Fordham, the ECB’s fixture list guru. The ECB doesn’t want Championship matches to be played at outgrounds during the first block of games in April and May, but then the counties wouldn’t want that either. It costs a lot of money to up sticks and relocate first class cricket to secondary venues, and it’s as much as a county can do just to break even.
This year, the week of 20 to 23 June could be called ‘cricket roadshow week’ with matches for Kent at Tunbridge Wells, Glamorgan at Swansea, Sussex at Arundel and Surrey at Guildford. On the face of it, it seems a fairly eccentric choice of week to take the game out to minor locations, since children will still be at school. It would surely make a lot more sense to schedule these matches in the middle of the summer holidays – that incongruous single block of fixtures from 22 to 25 July, right in the middle of the Blast, would seem ideal. The same point could be made when Lancashire play at Southport and Glamorgan play at Colwyn Bay from 29 August to 1 September: these two games start the Wednesday after the bank holiday weekend, and the children will be starting back at school again. Swansea at least gets a Cup game on Sunday 3 June, on the last day of half term, but it’s the day before school exams start. Whatever the counties and the ECB take into consideration when requesting and scheduling these matches, the school holidays aren’t often in the forefront of their minds, and they really should be. Children need to have the opportunity to watch county cricket.
Only at three outgrounds is county cricket still thriving, but three grounds are better than none. The Scarborough festival has lost a little identity in recent years. It used to stage a Championship game and an exhibition match against the international tourists towards the end of the season. Now the resort has two first class games – one in June and one in August – the latter being designated the ‘festival’ game. It’s still a big deal, taking place in the school holidays at the height of the summer, and for many domestic holidaymakers it’s a sporting highlight not only of the cricket season but of the whole year.
It’s wonderful that a county as ‘unfashionable’ as Derbyshire should make such a big effort at Chesterfield. Smart planning has given this year’s festival the best possible chance of attracting good crowds. A Championship game against rivals Northamptonshire is set in the middle of the summer vacation, starting on a Sunday to ensure a decent attendance. There are then two days off before a Blast fixture against Yorkshire on the following Saturday. Yorkshire is only eight miles away, and on a Saturday a legion of faithfuls can be expected to make the short journey south.
The lesser of the two annual sporting meetings at Cheltenham, the cricket festival is nevertheless the template and model for all other outground occasions. Cheltenham really matters to the Gloucestershire committee, and this year (as always) they are giving it every possible chance of success by scheduling it in the middle of the school holidays with two Friday evening Blast games sandwiching a Championship game (starting on a Sunday).
The organisation of matches at these 19 outgrounds speaks volumes for each county’s priorities and intentions. Essex, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire have all adopted the ‘centre of excellence approach’ for better (if you’re a player) or worse (if you’re a spectator). With a solitary day of cricket away from headquarters, Durham, Nottinghamshire and Sussex have dropped a crumb from the table whereas Kent and Middlesex have really committed to spreading the white ball game around their respective hinterlands – and in Middlesex’s case, in enemy territory too. Glamorgan, Sussex, Surrey and Lancashire have all maintained the tradition of giving a single favoured outground a single Championship match, though seemingly without giving much thought to when this ought to take place. Only three counties – Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire – can still claim to boast a ‘cricket week’ or ‘festival’ in the old style.
And the expression ‘old style’ really shouldn’t be a criticism. Clearly a balance has to be struck between insularity and spreading yourself too thinly, but at the core of venue planning there has to be a single principle: maximising attendance. The public needs to see cricket, and sometimes the best way to make that happen is to bring the cricket to them.