Chris Arnot’s book is a gentle nostalgia for county cricket past, times fondly remembered in pleasant and sometimes beautiful settings, places where supporters were close the game and its players. Quite what constitutes a cricket festival is given some leeway by the author, but there are over 50 grounds recalled and he understandably concludes with the wish that the game’s festivals do not become an extinct species.
Certainly some of the nostalgia comes from remembering when those at the very top of the game played on club and school grounds; and also on municipal grounds as well at times, such as Clarence Park in Weston photographed here in 1978, a venue where player facilities while not unusual for public parks then could now be euphemistically described as limited. In a very different world forty years ago, the game’s best players were paid salaries for the season that were not a long way north of what a new graduate could then expect.
The 1970s was a rather turbulent decade to end the relatively egalitarian post WWII era in Britain, although cricket arguably did a decent job of adapting to change with the then shorter forms of the game. The Sunday League was to a considerable extent played on outgrounds, 100 in all, as the game renewed itself by going local, sometimes very local; in the middle of the decade the competition was won by a Hants team with three ICC Hall of Fame cricketers at Darley (pop 5,000).
In the decades that followed the middle classes politically re-asserted their interests and cricket festivals saw growing numbers of corporate hospitality tents, that were later to become permanent boxes as the county game centralised, contracting the number of places where it was played. In a changing economy some company grounds were no longer used and with the advent of 4-day cricket, the historic festivals at Weston-super-Mare, Bath, Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Folkestone, Maidstone, Ilford and Southend departed from the cricketing calendar. The festivals of the middle-classes, together with those of ‘Essex Man’, what went with them was the counties doing their bit for club cricket at those grounds and returning spectators giving in some cases decades long support to the game.
As to what this might tell anyone about the prospects for outground cricket in the future, in 2018 festivals there still are at Arundel, Cheltenham, Guildford and Scarborough, and, if not necessarily named as such, 4-day games are on the calendar at Chesterfield, Colwyn Bay, Swansea, Southport and Tunbridge Wells as well. Most counties continue to play at least some cricket on outgrounds.
In the August issue of The Cricketer the magazine’s editor makes the case for a more even distribution of the Championship games across the summer, something for the hearts and minds of the game’s traditional supporters, although he does also make it clear that priorities in ECB fixture scheduling are international cricket, the Blast, then other competitions.
If, as may well be, the amount of county cricket that is played in 2020 is reduced to some degree, it being a matter of which format(s), but that the financial distributions from the ECB to the counties are increased, then the extent to which outgrounds are used looks like a fairly open question. If the view that more Championship cricket should be played in July and August does prevail, it should at least maintain, if not extend, the number of 4-day games, albeit that it might squeeze the number of limited overs fixtures.
The game of cricket is evidently caught between the centralising tendencies of the ECB and the counties, who still do something to spread the professional game around the country. This points to a fundamental problem, even if much of the public debate this summer has been over the merits or otherwise of a yet to be tried format for the game. The county game has in the past done very similar competitions at the same time, 30 balls to make a point of difference rather than 20, and in 1981, almost entirely forgotten now, 7 a side 10 over cricket was tried at football grounds. It didn’t work then, although T10 cricket, 2 hour games, might well in the future.
On the long view county outgrounds are a marker of sorts, cast now as something of a counterweight to the game’s globally minded elites, who appear determined to introduce a competition in which they will regulate the integrity levels of the teams they will create, own and manage. Chris Arnot at the end of his book points to the continuing success of cricket at Scarborough and the need for individual festivals to pay their way; to which amen, although coming at this more generally prompts the question could the game of cricket really afford to not continue with its festivals?