Monday, January 16, 2012

Cricket grounds in winter: St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury

Unlike my visits to Bath and Bristol, this was not a return after a long absence. I have had a wander around the St Lawrence Ground on almost every occasion on which I have been back to the UK, and have watched cricket there several times, most recently in April 2010:


This time, I was looking forward, not back. My purpose was to inspect the redevelopment, which, after some delay, has got under way in the 18 months since I was last here. We are promised that it is Kent's financial salvation, but at what other cost? On a glorious November afternoon, quite nice enough for there to be play, I went to find out.
Continuity is what I was looking for. That it would remain recognisably the same ground as that on which I first watched cricket on in the sixties, or that on which Les Ames and Frank Woolley batted and Tich Freeman bowled, come to that. It is pleasing to report that, so far at least, impressions are favourable.

The old practice area, an attractive part of the ground backed by a converted oast house, has disappeared under housing. Alec Stewart will be pleased. In a recent edition of The Cricketer, he blamed the St Lawrence practice pitches for England's early exit from the 1999 World Cup. It was not clear where they have been relocated. Nor did I work out how the new owners get to and from their homes. Will they have to pay admission on matchdays?
There is more building going on off the main driveway, consisting of a new administration block and other facilities including, it was announced this week, a small Sainsbury's. This is very good, though they had better lay in extra supplies of Scotch eggs next time I'm there. Every ground should have a supermarket close by. Folkestone had one right outside, one of the reasons why it was such a great place to watch cricket. Here in New Zealand, Seddon Park in Hamilton has a shopping centre just across the road. I once had a haircut and a sit-down lunch and was still back in my seat by the time the first ball of the afternoon session was bowled. More building, including a hotel on the Old Dover Road side of the ground, is to follow.
Five floodlight towers have been installed (all telescopic so as not offend to the sensibilities of the residents in this well-heeled part of town): next to the Leslie Ames Stand, beside the indoor school, next to the Frank Woolley Stand, behind where the white scoreboard used to be and near the site of the old lime tree. I disapprove of course, but not on aesthetic grounds. Floodlights, lit or not, add a certain grandeur to sports grounds. It is simply that conditions in England are not suited to floodlit cricket. I have long thought that English cricket should make more use of long summer evenings with matches in June and July starting later and finishing at 8 or 8.30 pm. It would be perfectly possible to begin T20 games at 6 pm, or even 6.30 pm in the north. Outside the height of summer, conditions are rarely conducive to after-dark viewing, spectacular though it can be.

The good news is this: far from being ruined as some of us feared, the stands that define the playing arena have been entrenched and enhanced. I worried that they might do away with the wooden stand, or pavilion annexe as it was officially known. But it has been given a proper name at last, and what a good one: the Underwood and Knott Stand. The very place from which I used to watch the two great heroes of my youth now named after them. Splendid.

Best of all, the regretable late-sixties brick dressing rooms have been extended and transformed so as to fit in perfectly with the wooden, red-tiled buildings on either side. They look as though they might have been there since 1906, when the Underwood and Knott Stand was built.
The shop was open and I was sufficiently relieved and impressed by what I had seen to buy a club polo shirt, so the white horse will be seen at the Basin this summer. The redevelopment seems to be having the desired financial benefits too; the club has just announced a six-figure profit for the past year. Too late to keep Joe Denly on the premises, but a sign that things will soon be on the up, we hope.

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