Today Billy Crawford talks about his favourite county cricket outground. What’s yours?
There are few pleasures in life quite like a day spent at a county outground. I am sure you all have a favourite one. Perhaps it is the picturesque surroundings of the Cheltenham Festival or historic Scarborough where the history of Yorkshire cricket drips from every blade of grass.
Mine has always been the Guildford Cricket Club, where Surrey have played most seasons since 1938.
From the outside the ground seems unremarkable. It is situated next to a busy main round on the outskirts of town and has boards covering the mesh fencing to prevent those without tickets from getting a free day’s play. It would be possible to drive past without even noticing its existence.
However, once inside, the ground itself is a delight. Picnic chairs surround an immaculately kept playing area. There is a small members’ stand on one side and a village fete style catering tent offering homemade cakes and local tipples from the Guildford Brewery. At lunch and tea queues snake around the ground for a 99 from the ice cream van parked near the gate.
I first visited the Guildford Festival in the summer of 2001 to watch Surrey play Yorkshire. As a junior Surrey member I was keen to see my county play as much as possible and to watch my heroes from closer quarters than the vast expanse of The Oval would allow.
I was also blessed to be growing up in the era of one of the finest teams the county has ever seen. A young Surrey fan at the turn of the century could look forward to seeing the guile and craft of Pakistani spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, the doggedness of veteran seamer Martin Bicknell and, England commitments permitting, the batting talents of Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe. I could also see my favourite cricketer, Alec Stewart.
I collected many autographs at Guildford over the years but Stewart’s moniker always eluded me. He was, without fail, the first player to rush off the field at the end of each session before the children clutching autograph books had the chance to rush on. I always wondered if this was a deliberate ploy or whether he just really liked the Guildford lunches. I even managed to miss out at his final Test match in 2003 as he was carried around The Oval on the shoulders of his teammates. Only current England team director Ashley Giles stopped to sign the open books and he quickly wished he hadn’t when one young fan asked for the shirt off his back.
Guildford did give me the opportunity to meet many other greats of the game, however, and those encounters have lived long in my memory.
For instance, I felt more sympathy for Darren Lehmann in his trials as Australian coach after recalling my encounter with him in 2001. The then Yorkshire captain sought me out in the crowd at a lunch interval to give me the autograph he had not had time to sign before play started. Many of the Surrey lads were also very genial. Alex Tudor, in particular, always went out of his way to make time for young fans.
Guildford also afforded me the privilege of seeing some of the greats of English batting in the years before they became famous. In 2003 I was able to watch Andrew Strauss strike a graceful 87 for Middlesex in a game where the crowd atmosphere at times resembled a football match. I eagerly told anyone who would listen that he would soon be making runs for England.
One year later I was privileged to be at Lord’s on a sunny May afternoon as he proved that prediction to be true.
As teens turned into twenties, work and social life slowly replaced sunny afternoons at Guildford.
In 2018, however, I decided to go back. I was truly glad that I did. Many things have changed in this world in the last 15 years but the beauty of county cricket is that, to all intents and purposes, it is one of the few things that remains the same. Apart from a striking new wooden pavilion, so has the Guildford Cricket Club itself. Even Alec Stewart is still in residence, not as a player any longer but as Surrey’s Director of Cricket.
Much has been made of the imminent demise of the county game but, as I surveyed the packed crowd inside this small, picturesque ground, it struck me that there is life in the old dog yet. Myself and my uncle, who was making his first visit to Guildford, had to circle the ground twice just to find a seat.
With this year’s visit to the festival postponed due to the lockdown, I am left to remember last year’s visit when even the drizzle and an uncharacteristically suspect pitch could not spoil the joy of watching South African great Morne Morkel bound in to bowl at my favourite ground.
I also spotted two flags tied to the fences at the side of the ground. One of them proclaimed the death of county cricket – “killed by the ECB with 100 balls”. The flags had been placed there by a group calling themselves The Peter May Boys, which sounded slightly like cricket’s version of football’s famous “ultras” groups. I admire their spirit and I fear for the future of the game myself but I hope they are wrong.
I now have a nine month old son and I hope that in years to come he may eagerly run across this same Guildford outfield collecting autographs. Who knows, he might even manage to get Alec Stewart’s.
Very nice piece Billy.
Well I’m a Surrey supporter so have been to Guildford a number of times over the years. Some of us have a picnic in the grass at lunch. It’s ok, but it’s a poor seeing ground like a number of county grounds and it’s noisy on the road side with endless traffic all day. Surrey never won their annual Championship fixture there between 2003-2918. But yes it’s pleasant enough, but not a patch on New Road Worcester which has the best backdrop of any ground I’ve been to anywhere. I’d also put Scarborough (wonderfully 1950s), Arundel and Hove in front of Guildford. Ok I like grounds by the sea. Favourite? New Road, notwithstanding that Surrey won the Championship there in 2018! But yes the small out grounds all have there own charming characteristics, much more pleasant than the big Test stadiums. I think most will agree on that.
I agree with Doug M about Guildford – when I went a couple of times in the 1990s the viewing for non-members was awful (ground-level and side-on, the worst combination) and the traffic noise annoying. It wasn’t as bad as Uxbridge but wasn’t far off.
Two grounds I liked very much for their picturesque qualities were Hastings (now a white elephant shopping centre) and Finedon (where Northants used to play a Sunday League game even though it isn’t in the county). Two grounds that I didn’t find as attractive as I expected were Cheltenham and Bath – although I saw a cracking day’s cricket at the latter with a Tres century and Andre Van Troost bowled at the speed of light.
My favourite will always be USG Portsmouth. The surrounding architecture was 1960s municipal-brutalism and it had a raised railway line running by it so this may be surprising. But what does one want from a cricket ground? USG had one of the best wickets in the country (a result of the famous heavy roller), excellent viewing, good road and rail links, sea air and Hampshire invariably won with a Gordon Greenidge century. The first game I saw there Robin Jackman was sitting down between deliveries at fine leg and when given a tough time by someone in the crowd let them know “it’s because I’m 35 with fucked-up knees”!
Colchester was another ground I have fond memories of. I remember the tannoy announcing there that the coup against Gorbachev had failed and that news getting a big cheer. Horsham and Tunbridge Wells are also two I look back on with affection – unlike Ilford and Eastbourne.
I live in Tunbridge Wells these days and I’m a ten min walk to The Nevill. It’s great. I keep telling my boy about Kapil Dev’s massive hundred there in the World Cup but his eyes just glaze over. He’s played a junior tournament there but I don’t think he realises how lucky he is.
Hosham is also very nice. I saw an amazing 40 over game there a few years back between Worcs and Sussex. We saw about 700 runs in 80 overs from memory. Moeen Ali scored about 160! Lovely place.
Best of all though is New Road. I was born in Worcester and lived in Worcs until I was 17. I was fortunate enough to be a junior member during the late 1980s glory years. A Sunday League top order of Curtis, Moody, Hick, Botham was a tad useful! And the championship bowling unit of Dilley, Radford, Newport, Botham, Illingworth was occasionally stronger than the attacks England were putting out at the time.
New Road is a special, special place. I’m not actually a great fan of the work they’ve had done in recent times but it’s still nice. The view of the Cathedral is wonderful. And it’s particularly special for me because my Mum occasionally did the flower arranging there on special occasions.
I read an interview with an ex-England player–I think Thorpe–who said that that van Troost spell was the fastest bowling he’s ever seen. That was a cracking day’s cricket…although I’m more of a fan of Bath than you are!
I liked Sacrborough too…saw a ODI there, which dates me!
There has only been one county championship match played at this ground; however it is in a unique and beautiful setting. Sedbergh School in Cumbria staged its first four day match last season between Lancashire and Durham. Interestingly, Sedbergh is actually in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The back drop of hills, parish church and proximity of a delightful market town made for an immensely pleasant fixture that was very well supported. Let’s hope that there will be sufficient championship cricket in the future to allow such games and venues to survive.
Apart from my home ground at Edgbaston my only visits to other county grounds have been neighbouring Worcester, Lords for a few cup finals, Trent Bridge when I lived in Nottingham and Headingly when my girlfriend of the time was living in Leeds. Ironically she later moved to Guildford and we paid a few visits to the cricket ground there, but it was too small to do justice to a proper county game, huge scores seem to be made quickly.
I would love to take a year out when I retire after this year and visit every county ground for a county match, whenever possible following Warwickshire, for my ‘Diary of a cricket season’.
Any takers out there?
Thanks Billy – a very evocative piece. I’ve never been to Guildford but of the smaller venues I do like Tunbridge Wells, and Worcester is rather special too (even if the cricket hasn’t always been so recently!). I haven’t been for a while, but I used to enjoy watching the tourists play at the Parks in Oxford in the days when they put out near full strength sides against the Universities. There was something a bit surreal about watching almost the full Australian side I had seen at Lord’s a week or so beforehand, playing in front of a few hundred at best, against the background noise from the beer tent. I remember being impressed by Tim May. To complete it all, there was no admission charge but a guy came round and charged you some nominal sum for the use of the deck chair !
A stat: there were 110 outgrounds used to host Sunday League games, the good old days. The boundary at Guildford was a bit short square not that it bothered Ali Brown in the SL as I remember it. Having been weened on Dean Park (Bournemouth) a favourite, felt a bit like watching in a back garden, alas now gone as a cricket ground but fond memories of Burnaby Road as mentioned by Simon as well, character and a central location. On the to do list Chesterfield, one day.
Forgot Chesterfield. Went their once for a Sunday League game. It’s very attractive, but like several out grounds not much fun if it rains, and gets waterlogged quickly.