Dan Whiting continues his nationwide tour of the grounds that have staged first-class cricket
Northamptonshire were proud winners of the T20 NatWest Blast last weekend but it was a beacon of light in recent gloomy times for the county. If you believed certain parts of the cricket media, Northamptonshire have come close to going bust, making their success last week even more remarkable because in the four-day game they have struggled for years.
Crowd figures for 2013 showed that just over 4,000 people wandered through the gates of Wantage Road to watch county cricket. That’s right, for the whole season. Therefore, it is incredulous that the county haven’t taken a festival to one of their outgrounds in recent years.
In a chicken and egg scenario, does the cost of providing a festival outweigh the good it does in promoting the game to future supporters? That is the conundrum that Northants face.
The County Ground in Northampton used to be one of the strangest venues on the circuit – whether it was home to cricket or football. Three-sided, it shared with the football team until 1994.
A covered end by the hotel housed the home football supporters whilst a strange humped end that finished half way along the goal-line was where the away fans were housed. A small-seated stand was on the Abington Avenue side of the ground opposite a small rope which lay between the football and cricket grounds. In the summer, the football pitch was the car park.
Much work and money has been invested into the ground in recent years and maybe this is a reason why Northants don’t use their outgrounds as much as other counties. However, this hasn’t always been the case.
Wellingborough School is a charming cricket arena in the grounds of the public school which was formed in 1595. With ex-players such as Andy Moles, Mal Loye and David Sales being involved in coaching there in recent years, the school is laying foundations for the future to rival its impressive past.
A gorgeous pavilion sits in the corner of the ground. With a thatched roof and a weathercock proudly perched on top, it really is a shame that this hasn’t been used for first-class cricket since Franklyn Stephenson rampaged through the hosts’ batting in 1991.
Like the County Ground, it had a reputation for turn and, in 1977, all 19 Middlesex wickets (their keeper Ian Gould was absent hurt in the second innings) were taken by the slow left-armer Bishen Bedi and off spinner, Peter Willey, while John Emburey and Phil Edmonds shared 18 Northants wickets.
The pavilion has a step rescued from the former house in Bristol of WG Grace. A cricket mad master in the 30s had heard about the demolition of the doctor’s abode and brought it to Wellingborough. The school wasn’t the only venue used in the town, as the Ideal Clothier’s Ground hosted a first-class game here in 1923.
Northants have visited other grounds in their long history. The Town Ground at Kettering was where many thought the county was originally formed. Some 65 first class games were played on it from 1923 until 1971. Bill Bowes, the famous Yorkshire bowler, took 16-35 in 1935, whilst two years previously saw the hosts bowled out for just 27 against the same opposition. It wasn’t always bowler friendly, though, as George Cox Jnr scored 232 just before the outbreak of World War II.
Northants have taken the game outside the county, too. Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire have all staged ‘home’ games. Another Town Ground, this time in Peterborough, hosted first-class cricket between 1906 and 1961. According to Wisden guru and Northants supporter Matthew Engel, it had a rather unfortunate ending when the players were only offered bread and tea during the interval and the coach was refused entry, meaning players would have to carry their kit from the main entrance.
Even then they had to leave their kit outside the dressing room as there was nowhere to put it. It is now the home of Peterborough Town CC. During the 50s, Frank Tyson was rumoured to have bowled an absolutely terrifying spell during a game here at a time when Northants were one of the strongest sides in the country. Keeper Keith Andrew and Tyson were the main protagonists during this era.
Tring is a pleasant venue on the edge of Hertfordshire. A good wicket and a fast outfield are my own memories of playing on the ground in the 90s at club level and it saw 16 List A games for Northants. Buckinghamshire have been known to use it in Minor Counties cricket and Tring Park are a competitive Home Counties Premier League side.
Wardown Park at Luton is another club with excellent facilities. Luton Town and Indians, where Monty Panesar used to ply his trade as a youth, are the host club here and first-class cricket was played here between 1986 and 2004.
Mark Ilott famously picked up 9-19 here as Northants hosted Essex, yet he still remained on the losing side.
A gabled pavilion is where the players get changed but the scorebox deserves a special mention. With a row of bushes at the front, the scorebox is an imposing structure with a clock mounted on a small tower. Small details such as these really add character and makes it a memorable outground for many, not just Ilott.
Bedfordshire still use the venue for Minor Counties cricket.
Brackley, although used by the county, is nearer Oxford than Northampton. The ground was also used in the early 70s and locals remember being perched on straw bales as a young Viv Richards showed his batting power. The town may be more famous for its Formula One credentials than cricket but those memories still linger for those of a certain vintage.
Bedford School, whose alumni include the current England Test captain Alastair Cook, has also seen Northants visit, as has Stowe School.
Horton House CC and Rushden have seen action, as has Manor Fields in Bletchley, close to where the Enigma Code was cracked during World War II. Close by in Milton Keynes, Campbell Park has also had its go.
So the shoe-making folk of Northamptonshire haven’t always stayed so close to home.
In a part of the world where the wickets have proven to encourage spinners, surely it’s time to get the game out there to a wider public.
Bishen Bedi, Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar and many others have twirled their magic in this part of the world. They have had some wonderful overseas players such as Bedi, Curtly Ambrose and Mushtaq Mohammad as well as English qualified players with overseas parentage such as Raman Subba Row and Allan Lamb.
Recent years have been hard for this proud county. Financial struggles have meant losing their best players as the likes of Jack Brooks and David Willey have gone up the M1 to Leeds. Let’s hope that the young guns who tasted success hang around and the county recovers from its slump of the last few years.
As history shows, Northants have taken the game to a huge catchment area involving numerous neighbouring counties from a geographical span from the Fens to the Home Counties.
They represent the whole of Northants and not just the town of Northampton. Hopefully, the recent T20 success rubs off on a new generation of fans in the towns of the locality.
Now that would be leaving a legacy.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday August 26 2016
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