20140727

From the author of Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds, a celebration of the golden era of cricket festivals

Cricket festivals were once as much a part of the English sporting summer as Test matches, Wimbledon and the Epsom Derby.
  
They were the chance for the cricket counties to venture from their metropolitan headquarters into the shires, where club grounds would dress themselves up to welcome the stars of the county and international circuits.

Chris Arnot, author of the wonderfully nostalgic Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds, has now written an equally engaging tour of the country's rich cricket heritage that puts the spotlight on that cherished era.

In his introduction to Britain's Lost Cricket Festivals, the Warwickshire-based journalist notes that as recently as 1961 there were 64 cricket festivals in the county fixture schedule, an average of three per county.

By 2001 this had dwindled to 16; today there are fewer still.  Cheltenham and Scarborough continue, and there has been a revival of county cricket in Chesterfield, which Derbyshire deserted between 1998 and 2006.  Other outgrounds survive, and there are other mini-festivals, but with a different structure to the Championship and more exacting standards for facilities, most of the genuine cricket weeks of old have gone.

Unlike Arnot's disappearing grounds, some bulldozed in name of progress and turned into shopping centres, others left to the tumbleweed, the homes of the lost, lamented festivals for the most part still exist, as public parks or local cricket clubs, and he spent a memorable summer in 2013 exploring as many as he could pull in.

"I started in March at Stourbridge in Worcestershire and ended in Scarborough in August, visiting grounds all over the country.  I was lucky in that it was a glorious weather.  It's probably the best summer I've ever had," he said.

Arnot unearths some new tales and revisits some much-loved old ones.  No cricketing yarns about Buxton, for example, could fail to include the famous snow storm of Monday, June 2, 1975, which halted play between Derbyshire and Lancashire and produced one of the most extraordinary matches of the century.

Cheltenham College hosts the annual Cheltenham
Festival in Gloucestershire
When play resumed on the Tuesday, Derbyshire had to bat on an uncovered pitch into which the snow had melted. Replying to the 477 for five declared posted by Lancashire in the heat of the Saturday, Derbyshire were bowled out for 87 and 42. Such was the hazardous nature of the pitch, the Derbyshire batsman Ashley Harvey-Walker, Arnot relates, took guard after handing umpire Dickie Bird his false teeth.

"It was at Buxton, too, that John Arlott confounded the locals, having turned up to commentate on a Sunday League game without his fabled briefcase full of claret, by asking if the pavilion bar possessed a bottle of good red," he said. "The First XI captain, Peter Cockram, had to tell him they only drank beer but took pity on him and spent the opening overs of the ground's first-ever John Player League game scouring the local branch of Victoria Wines for a decent claret."

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Arnot tells another wonderful tale passed on to him by Mike Turner, the former Leicestershire player and later secretary-manager, of the county side's visits to the Bath Grounds at Ashby de la Zouch.

"The ground adjoined the gardens of the nearby Royal Hotel, which was owned by a posh chap called Richard Derrington-Fenning," he said. "He wore a pin-striped suit and drove a yellow Rolls-Royce and provided hospitality for the players in the form of a four-course lunch so lavish they had to had extend the 40-minute break to an hour.  He always advised people to choose the monkey gland steak, whatever that was."

Arnot's tour opened his eyes to the pleasures of Cheltenham and Chesterfield and what he had missed as a cricket fan of urban roots.

"I grew up watching cricket at Edgbaston -- I was born in Birmingham and never knew any better -- but on an average county day now it is a huge ground with vast areas of empty seats and the players hidden away in their changing rooms," Arnot said.

"There is so much more of an intimate feel to the outgrounds, the spectators are closer to the players, it feels more of an occasion.

"You can understand why counties want to maximise their headquarters grounds, having in many cases spent a lot of money on providing their players with reliable pitches and state-of-the-art facilities.

"But festivals can be such pleasurable occasions and I hope I've conveyed a sense of that in the book."

Britain's Lost Cricket Festivals: The Idyllic Club Grounds that Will Never Again Host the World's Best Players, by Chris Arnot (Aurum Press) is available from Amazon, WaterstonesWHSmith and other retailers.

Also by Chris Arnot: Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds. Read more.

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