20111026

Stumps drawn for good but new book ensures that lost cricket grounds will not be forgotten

For a journalist with a taste for nostalgia and a lifelong love of cricket, the chance to delve into the then and now of some of Britain’s vanishing cricket grounds was an offer Chris Arnot couldn’t resist.

It came from Aurum Press, who were looking for a likely author to write a book entitled Britain’s Lost Cricket Grounds after the writer originally commissioned had to withdraw from the project.

Given that his only other venture into books had been a celebration of 60 years of The Archers, the Coventry-based freelance journalist might not have seemed an obvious choice but the opportunity showed that if you have an ambition to do something different, don’t keep it to yourself.

“I wanted to write a cricket book and I’d been in touch with Graham Coster at Aurum with another idea that was not taken up,” Chris told The Sports Bookshelf. “He had remembered that.  It helped too that he is a Guardian reader and had seen some of the pieces I had written for them.

“When he asked me to do Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds he told me it would be a labour of love and he was right.  From October last year to April this I travelled around the country to do the research and it was a hugely enjoyable experience.”

Picking 40 lost grounds -- all swept away, in the name of progress, never to see another ball bowled -- Arnot unearthed some memorable stories and some wonderful characters and brings them together in a beautifully written, amply illustrated volume that is rich in history and anecdote.

As a Birmingham boy brought up watching MJK Smith, Dennis Amiss, Tom Cartwright and Jim Stewart in the Warwickshire teams of the 60s and 70s, some of the venues are close to Chris’s heart, not least the Courtaulds Ground in Coventry.

“We had a big Test ground at Edgbaston but it would be empty for county matches and players enjoyed going to the smaller grounds around the county because the crowds seemed bigger,” he said.

“Courtaulds was one of a number of factory grounds which took great pride in hosting county matches.  I’ve covered some others in the book, such as the Hoffman ground in Chelmsford and Imperial Tobacco in Bristol.

“It was a matter of enormous prestige among factory owners to stage county cricket and they would employ full-time professional grounds men to ensure the pitches were of the highest standard.”

Courtaulds employed 5,000 people at one time but the recession of the 80s took its toll and by the early 90s the numbers had dwindled to 450.  Warwickshire played there twice a season between 1946 and 1967, witnessing great deeds from the likes of Rohan Kanhai and Barry Richards, and continued to use the venue on a less frequent but still regular basis until 1983.

The factory closed in 2007.  The old ground remains an open, green space but there are few reminders of the great deeds of old and the only crowds likely to gather there now are for car boot sales.

Other sites offer even fewer clues as to their former existence.  The Central Ground in Hastings, once a handsome Sussex venue flanked by colourful Victorian boarding houses and overlooked by the ruins of the 11th century castle, is now submerged beneath the Priory Meadow shopping centre.

“I went there on Monday, January 17, a day that the BBC declared to be the most miserable of the year, largely on account of it being the day that the post-Christmas credit card bills drop through the letterbox,” Chris said.

“Appropriately enough, it was chucking it down with rain.  The idea that such a beautiful and historic ground is now just another soulless modern shopping centre is profoundly depressing.

“In a gesture towards local sensibilities, the developers paid a sculptor to do a sculpture of a cricketer in bronze, as if that would somehow make it okay.  I met the old club groundsman there and he told me that where they had sited it was actually nowhere near the wicket.”

They determine eventually that the pitch on which Tony Greig was once out attempting a fifth consecutive six lies in what is now a covered mall, between Boots and River Island.

It is a scene Chris re-enacts elsewhere on his journey, notably in an Asda store in Lancashire, where the Rochdale Cricket Club secretary, Alistair Bolingbroke, pinpoints the spot where generations of the town’s batsmen would have taken guard against West Indian professionals from Learie Constantine through Roy Gilchrist and Sonny Ramadhin to Joel Garner and Colin Croft, at what was once the club‘s Dane Street ground.

“Alistair showed me his off drive next to the meat counter as I tried to imagine what it would have been like for those club cricketers facing West Indian pros in the Lancashire League.”

Some magnificent photographs will invoke poignant memories, although the hankering after times past has to be set against the knowledge that in some cases there would be no club at all now but for lucrative deals to sell off prime sites.

“You can understand in those cases why the clubs move out,” Chris says. “They get a good pay-off from a developer which safeguards the future of the club but more often than not they will move to a modern sports centre or some other soulless ground that just doesn’t have the character of their old home.

“It is a shame because cricket is part of our national identity and the old grounds have so many stories.”

His personal favourites come from the stately surroundings of Stanford Hall, a Georgian mansion set in a vast estate on the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border which became famed in the inter-war years of the last century as the most prestigious country house cricket venue in the country.

“It was owned by Sir Julien Cahn, who had made his fortune selling furniture on hire purchase and bankrolled Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club between the wars.

“What I really liked about this story is that Sir Julien would pay for the world’s top cricketers to come and play for him and be entertained at lavish parties.  In many cases these players were just ordinary blokes and they really would go away with stories of wine, women and song laid on at Sir Julien’s expense.

“But he did not want only to watch the world’s finest cricketers in action, he wanted to be on the field with them.

“Yet he was no player.  He went to the crease wearing inflatable pads, blown up to such a pressure that if the ball hit them it would bounce off like a tennis ball against a wall.

“He was described as the slowest bowler ever seen in first-class cricket, so slow that JM Barrie, who worked in Nottingham as a journalist before going on to write Peter Pan, once said that if he didn’t like a particular delivery he could run after it and fetch it back.”

Chris also tells the story of how Cahn once tried to persuade Harold Larwood, the Nottinghamshire bowled who became unwittingly infamous because of the Bodyline series, to apologise for his part in the furore caused by his bowling, even though he had only followed his captain‘s instructions.

“It was not clear why Sir Julien did this but the theory was that as a Jewish man who had made his money from trade he felt the need to ingratiate himself with the MCC at a time when snobbery and anti-Semitism were rife among the English upper classes.

“Larwood, to his credit, declined the invitation.”

Cahn died in 1944, after which Stanford Hall was bought by the Co-operative Union and the cricket field continued to host village cricket. The Co-op sold the site in 2001, since when the old pavilion has survived plans to convert the hall to an hotel and to build apartments.  The estate recently changed hands again, passing into the ownership of Britain’s wealthiest landlord, the Duke of Westminster, who wants to create a rehabilitation centre for wounded servicemen.

Chris is thinking now about a follow-up project along similar lines with lost football grounds as its subject.  If it is as engaging and thoroughly readable as Britain’s Lost Cricket Grounds, it will be one to look forward to.

Buy Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds: Forty Hallowed Homes of Cricket That Will Never See Another Ball Bowled direct from Amazon

Browse more cricket books at The Sports Bookshelf Shop

Chris Arnot is also the co-author, with script writer Simon Frith, of The Archers Archives.

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