World Cup year means county cricket gives outgrounds chance to shine

Matthew Engel

Glamorgan took the field against Gloucestershire on Tuesday morning on a well-tended ground in the suburbs of Newport with the rather unfortunate name of Spytty Park. They thus added a small footnote to their 98-year Championship history, making Spytty their 14th first-class ground.

In recent years such events have been rarities in county cricket. For decades the counties (and, with more regret, their followers) have been saying goodbye to the outgrounds and festival venues that once added hugely to the charm and variety of the cricket circuit.

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But suddenly, in an era when charm and cricket have become estranged from each other, there is a reversal. Spytty is not a one-off; it is a harbinger. Another county match is due to be played at Newport next week – only that is a different Newport, the one on the Isle of Wight, where a local magnate has created a miniature Wormsley – now adopted by Hampshire. Coming soon, perhaps: Newport, Essex; Newport, Caithness; Newport, Rhode Island; Nieuwpoort, Belgium; and Newport Pagnell, with tea in the M1 service station.

Within the next few weeks, however, there will definitely also be maiden first-class fixtures at Welbeck Colliery (Nottinghamshire), Radlett (for this purpose, Middlesex), Clifton Park in York and Sedbergh school, of which more in a moment. I trust that at least one member of the real-cricket fraternity will successfully tick off all six.

This is all a bit startling. For more than 50 years county cricket has been steadily deserting such outposts and hunkering down in their HQs. Multiple reasons: iffy pitches; primitive facilities; the reduction of fixtures; the switch to four-day cricket, rendering the old week-long sojourns impossible; the decline of the seaside resorts that provided the most popular venues; and the hollowing-out of council budgets, which stopped towns subsidising what were once seen as boons to tourism.

Plus the tedium of said four-day games and the starless anonymity of the players. And the longstanding opposition of the county secretaries who, having been upped to chief executives, felt far too grand to leave their comfy offices and spend a week in a tent trying to make the loudspeakers work.

Middlesex’s Max Holden bats during the Royal London One Day Cup match against Somerset at Radlett cricket club.

Middlesex’s Max Holden bats during the One Day Cup match against Somerset at Radlett cricket club. Photograph: James Chance/Getty Images

Personally, I was quite happy to piss in a bucket in exchange for a teatime outing in a rowing boat (Ilford), several slices of battenberg cake (Eastbourne) or a wild night on the Golden Mile (Blackpool). Call me old-fashioned.

This year’s development is due to the World Cup, which has forced the richest counties with the biggest grounds out of their luxurious homes in the knowledge that the embuggerance factor will be balanced by further enrichment.

Boringly, Warwickshire have chosen to play Essex at Worcester rather than somewhere exotic. Most controversially, it is Lancashire who are due to plonk the Red Rose at Sedbergh, even though it was in the historical county of Yorkshire. They have rejected their authentically Lancastrian homes-from-home at Southport and Blackpool, saying the pitches are no longer up to it. Even though the Sedbergh ground looks very pretty indeed, this has infuriated some loyal followers, there being minimal public transport.

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It has not even pleased my only old Sedberghian friend, who has no wish to go near the place, being still scarred by his memories of the 70s, when it was run like a marine boot camp without the loving kindness. Anyway, he says: “I promise you it will rain there. It always rains.” And there is no Golden Mile.

It nearly always rains in the Welsh Newport, too – it hosted the 2010 Ryder Cup, which may have been the wettest sporting event ever staged in Britain other than the Boat Race. But Spytty’s opening day was spared. And, from the right angle, it looked quite attractive too – the trick was to sit with your back to the pylons, the wind turbines, the football floodlights and what one local thought was a fabrication plant.

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Glamorgan chose Newport for good reasons. It is, after all, the third largest city in Wales. They used to play on the old ground at Rodney Parade until 1965. Then, in 1990 the rugger buggers booted out the cricketers, forcing them to play away for two years until they landed at Spytty. Since then Newport have become a major force in club cricket and the county were hugely impressed by the ground, the parking and – what’s vital on these occasions – the enthusiasm of their hosts. They really wanted this game, the fine weather and a decent turnout. Shame Glamorgan lost the toss and spent the day labouring in the field.

Still, I pine for a return to Pen‑y‑Pound at Abergavenny, beloved by cricket writers for its mountain views, eventful games (including Andrew Symonds’s world record for sixes) and ox roasts. Or almost-as-handsome Pontypridd. They appear not even to have considered Cowbridge, where in 1931 Glamorgan were deemed, under the laws applicable at the time, to have made an illegal declaration. The umpire Bill Reeves was hauled up by Lord’s and informed them solemnly: “The law does not apply. It was in a foreign country.”

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Next year there will be more such outgrounds, though maybe not for first-class games. The counties’ 50-over competition will coincide with the ECB’s dreaded new piece of garbage cricket, the Hundred, and there will be more such wandering. Maybe half a cheer for that, though, as the man almost said, Spytty cricket’s a whore.

• This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

• This article was amended on 15 May 2019. Sedbergh was in the historical county of Yorkshire, but is now in Cumbria.