Outgrounds in county cricket - a dying breed?
Last week, I went to watch Kent play Surrey at Beckenham and it got me thinking about the plight of festival cricket at outgrounds.
I play for a small club in Southend on Sea in Essex, and have done since I was 11 years of age. We play at Southchurch Park in the town, which was formerly an outground that Essex used to play at regularly - festival cricket has been a big part of my cricketing upbringing.
The most famous game played in Southend was in May 1948, when Don Bradman’s Australian side faced Essex in a three day tour match. They racked up 728 for eight which is a world record for runs in a day’s play in first class cricket. Bradman made 187 and Australia won the game by over 400 runs.
My memories of Essex playing at the park are rather more recent but extremely vivid. I remember watching Essex in a Sunday League game against Kent where I saw the Australian Stuart Law and England’s Nasser Hussain bat. I was totally transfixed. Later on, I spent many days watching the games from our club pavilion.
Those times were a boon for our club, especially financially, but more importantly they connected myself and our members, and cricket lovers in the town, to first class cricket and the county team. It was a huge week in our year and for many, the games meant they could get to see a professional game in person rather than on TV, thus widening the cricketing audience.
Essex played at Southchurch Park until 2004, when the county decided that they would have to move away from the venue, briefly moving to a purpose built ground, Garon Park, in the town. This lasted until 2011, when Essex stopped playing any first-class cricket in Southend due to financial reasons. It was, and remains, a real shame that this has happened.
Essex are not alone and the example above is symptomatic of a trend throughout the county game.
Somerset pulled out of their annual Bath festival, where they had played for over 100 years, in 2012. Yorkshire, historically probably the county with the most outgrounds including Harrogate, Middlesbrough and Sheffield, now only plays the odd game at Scarborough in addition to their main ground of Headingley.
Why is this? The main reason is quite obviously financial. Due to declining levels of spectators attending championship cricket, counties are having to find ways of reducing costs.
Taking cricket to outgrounds is expensive, with temporary seating needed, work on the pitch to be done and other facilities to be temporarily put up. The T20 format is helping the counties financially, with record attendances expected this year, on the back of a strong showing last season but it is still not enough.
More and more counties are having to invest in their main grounds to either compete for England fixtures or to raise funds by other means. As the counties spend more money here, they are less able to justify taking games to outgrounds, with the inherent cost of doing so, and the lack of use of their main grounds that this entails.
Lancashire, for example, have posted healthy profits since redeveloping Old Trafford. These profits have been based mainly on an increase in revenue from a new hotel and improved conferencing and events facilities.
Worcestershire have increased revenues because of similar developments at their New Road ground. There is little business sense in taking cricket away from these venues.
So is this the death of festival cricket at the outground? Many people would think so, although 13 of the counties will still play at least one fixture away from their main ground this season, at 20 different venues.
The Cheltenham festival, where Gloucestershire play each season, attracted 25,000 spectators over a two week period in 2014 which proves they can be a success and Middlesex will play at four different outgrounds in addition to Lord’s this year: Uxbridge, Richmond, Merchant Taylor’s School and Radlett.
Perhaps the example of Beckenham will become more prevalent though. It is a purpose-built ground and has a pavilion, a bank of 2000 permanent seats and an indoor school. It is a quaint arena, with a nice traditional feel to it but is not a ground used by a local club or used previously by Kent. Their aim is to develop this as a second home to rival Canterbury.
Kent will play one Championship and two T20 games there this season in addition to second team fixtures. The advantages are obvious: the facilities are permanent so the costs of setting up and dismantling them are removed and the ground can be used all season, increasing the income it generates. The pitch can be maintained by the county for the full year, rather than simply for a week or so.
Some may argue that these types of ground are not the same as moving to a variety of different out grounds as is traditional. It does at least show a commitment by Kent to play and develop cricket in the north of the county, which is to be applauded.
Other counties may follow suit. Essex tried something similar at Garon Park, albeit unsuccessfully, and Nottinghamshire are trying to develop a second ground at Welbeck Colliery, where they will play this season, their first game away from Trent Bridge since 2004.
We all wish that there was more festival cricket in the calendar, and I am sure that the counties themselves would wish the same. They are not oblivious to the benefits of new members and increased exposure for cricket that games at outgrounds can bring. I’m also sure they do not want to discard the history and tradition of festival cricket. But for them, it has to be viable.
The counties need to ensure the long term financial health of their organisations and in these uncertain times for county cricket, they simply have to look at every avenue to reduce costs.
The use of outgrounds is unlikely to be a prominent feature of English cricket in the future; more are bound to disappear from the calendar in the next few years unless they continue to be viable. It is a real shame, but unfortunately something that isn’t easy to resolve.
If your county has a festival at an outground this year, go along and support it. We should all treasure festival cricket whilst we can, we do not know how much longer it will last.
© Cricket World 2015