17th Jan, 2020

Pitch-perfect! Coventry author tours seven English cricket out-grounds for new book

Catherine Vonledebur 27th Nov, 2019 Updated: 27th Nov, 2019

A COVENTRY-based former national freelance journalist is to talk about his latest book, The Festive Soul of English Cricket, at Earlsdon library on Saturday, December 7.

But this is not simply a book about cricket.

Earlsdon resident Chris Arnot, author of Britain’s Lost Cricket Grounds and Britain’s Lost Cricket Festivals, took to the road (“Well, rail as it happens!” he enthuses) earlier this summer to visit several of the smaller county cricket outgrounds making a comeback. “I’ve had such fun!” he says.

The book is also about the journeys between matches Chris embarked on, the characters he met and overheard on his travels, a celebration of pitch-perfect outgrounds and the pubs nearby.

He will be talking about his experiences researching the book in a City of Culture Behind the Book event at Earlsdon Carnegie Community Library at 2pm. Entrance is £5, including tea and cakes.

2019 has been a momentous year for English cricket, best captured in the book’s summary: “Not only did England win the World Cup on home soil; they then squared the Ashes at Headingley thanks to an innings by Ben Stokes that surpassed even Sir Ian Botham’s miraculous feat on the same ground in 1981.

“The major stadiums were full of chanting and cheering crowds. Meanwhile, much smaller county outgrounds made a comeback. There were first-class matches everywhere from Newport on the Isle of Wight to Newport, South Wales. Yorkshire came back to York for the first time in 130 years and Hampshire went to the Isle of Wight for the first time since 1962.”

Between June and August Chris travelled to seven cricket outgrounds up-and-down the country from the Surrey commuter belt to the Yorkshire coast, via Tunbridge Wells and Arundel, Chesterfield and Cheltenham.

Not forgetting a foray into the fells of Cumbria where Lancashire chose to host Durham on the field of a 500-year-old public school a long way from Old Trafford.

He said:”There were more than 60 festival grounds in the early 1960s – and by 2014 there were only 14 left. This may be because county championships are now split into two so there are not as many games. There are 18 counties and many want to attract the crowds to their main county headquarters for championships.”

Among the colourful characters Chris met on his travels and cricket celebrities were former Australian cricketer Jason Gillespie, who was appointed head coach at Sussex last year, and retired English international cricket umpire “Dickie” Bird, OBE.

Chris said: “I was at Scarborough when I met well-known umpire Dickie Bird. He was sitting outside the hospitality tent and reminisced about the time he was hit in the side of the head by a ball bowled by England international cricketer Frank Tyson – regarded by many commentators as one of the fastest bowlers. He was taken to hospital.”

On a trip to Arundel cricket ground in Sussex, Chris met author, scriptwriter and cricket fan Andy Merriman, who has written biographies of many well-known figures including the Carry On actor Hattie Jacques.

Chris said: “He had me in stitches. His dad wrote the radio programme, Beyond Our Ken, which kept me sane as a teenager. We had a really good chat sitting in The White Hart by the river. It really was quite a convivial afternoon in the rain.”

So, where are the most picturesque spots to watch cricket? Discussing his personal favourite outgrounds Chris said: “Chesterfield has always been my favourite. I love the way you can see the crooked spire over the trees. I love Cheltenham – it’s more commercial but a beautiful setting especially when Cheltenham College is lit up by the sun.

“They all appeal to me. Tunbridge Wells has a really interesting history – the original pavilion was burned down by suffragettes in 1913.

“Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle reacted angrily to the fire calling the suffragettes “female hooligans”. The pavilion was rebuilt within nine weeks helped by fund-raising concerts at Royal Tunbridge Wells’ Opera House.”

Chris was 14 when he first became hooked on cricket. He vividly recalls watching a famous England vs West Indies match at Lords on his dad’s black and-white telly in 1963. “I loved that West Indies team!” he enthuses.

It is the conviviality of the smaller cricket festivals that Chris really enjoys.

He explained: “Big grounds such as Edgbaston are great for Test matches but they seem empty and devoid of atmosphere during county matches. You sometimes need a megaphone to talk to the nearest fellow spectator.

“At comparatively small outgrounds the temporary seats are close together. You can chat happily to people around you about what’s going on the field or show them what you’ve just bought from the second-hand book stall.

“Players on the boundary are close by as well. They often chat to spectators between balls, as it were.

“Apart from book stalls, there are beer tents and food places selling everything from pizzas to hot pork batches. At Scarborough there’s even a mini-museum of Yorkshire cricket.”

You can book tickets for Chris’s book talk on Saturday, December 7 at 2pm here: coventry2021

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