Monday, June 7, 2010

Soul for Sale

St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury

The county cricket blog on The Guardian website has become one of the best sources of writing on county cricket, but a contribution from David Hopps on Friday was alarming:

Mention of Kent's parlous financial state – and the revisited theory that they might eventually move their HQ closer to London in search of Twenty20 riches – has brought a few emails from those in the know. A few Kent captains have observed over the years that the great error of Lord Harris, the second captain of England and a man who played for Kent for 40 years, was to choose a ground in Canterbury, which is somewhat out on a limb.

Jim Woodhouse, a former Kent chairman of cricket, suggested a move towards London 20 years ago and there was so much huffing and puffing from EW Swanton and the like that nothing was heard of it again. It could only ever happen if Kent went bankrupt and began again with a wholly different philosophy. Kent's entire ethos is based upon cricket played on beautiful, tree-lined grounds and for that perhaps cricket should be grateful.
What makes this apocalyptic vision scary is that the possibility of bankruptcy cannot be dismissed, such is the state of the county’s finances and the epic scale of the mismanagement over several decades that has brought this about (see previous post on the foray into the world of pop promotion).

However, David Hopps’ interpretation of the history is very wide of the mark. By the time of the modern county club’s formation in 1870 (when organisations centred on Canterbury and Maidstone merged) the St Lawrence Ground had been established as the county’s leading venue for several decades, through the success of Canterbury Cricket Week (which had not always included a county team). Lord Harris may be condemned for many reasons, but the choice of Canterbury as the county’s headquarters was obvious and, for more than a century, meant nothing in terms of where Kent played cricket.

As recently as the Championship season of 1970 Kent’s home championship fixtures were played on nine grounds around the county: Blackheath, Canterbury, Dartford, Dover, Folkestone, Gillingham, Gravesend, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells (with a Sunday League game at Beckenham bringing the overall total into double figures). Canterbury had only the two games of Canterbury week, one Sunday game, and one Gillette Cup fixture (incidentally, neither Hesketh Park, Dartford, nor the Garrison Ground, Gillingham could be described as “beautiful”, nor, fond of it as I was, could Cheriton Road, Folkestone).

Quality of pitches and facilities, and the cost of transporting increasing amounts of paraphernalia from ground to ground (especially after the dreaded advertising hoardings came into fashion in the mid-seventies) meant that that Blackheath, Dover, Gillingham and Gravesend had been lost by the end of the seventies, but Folkestone and Dartford (on and off) hung on into the nineties, and Maidstone until just a few seasons ago.

The Mote, Maidstone

There is an issue here; the majority of the Kent population (and the membership) lives in the west of the county, including the south-eastern suburbs of London. It is reasonable that more cricket should be played in this area, though whether investing heavily in the Beckenham ground is the way to bring this about is questionable. I support the decision to play a home T20 game at the Oval (not a new idea, incidentally, and I have seen Kent play a home game at the Oval – any guesses?).

However, the view that the county would necessarily be better off by shifting needs to be challenged before it gains hold. Firstly, the St Lawrence Ground is not in the middle of Romney Marsh, nor on the Goodwin Sands. Neither the fording of rivers nor the transfer of bags to a team of sure-footed yaks is necessary to get to it. It is about a mile off the A2, the main route out of London to the south and east, and is easily accessible from everywhere else in the county.

People managed to get there easily enough in the seventies, when Kent had a winning, attractive team. Attendances were consistently higher than they were at the Oval or Lord’s for county games (and probably still are). And as I can testify from two decades spent watching county games in the wasteland of the County Ground, Bristol, being located in a large population centre does not guarantee crowds. Come to think of it, Gloucestershire makes a relevant case study; more money is made from the Cheltenham festival (location comparable with Canterbury) than most of the rest of the season at Bristol.

But more than that, cricket is a game with a soul. The suits who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing must never be in a majority of those in charge. County cricket, if it is to remain in existence, must respect its history and its roots as it looks ahead. If it is not prepared to do that, then we may as well adopt a franchise system, and run a combined Kent/Surrey team (the Whitbread Flat Vowlers, perhaps).

In the meantime, I hope that it won’t only be the ghost of Jim Swanton who is huffing and puffing at the possibility of for-sale notices going up along the Old Dover Road.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...