Book review: Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds


Tim Ellis hails a beautiful coffee table piece, complete with stunning photographs of a cricket panorama that now lies 100 leagues under the sea of redevelopment.

There are many things in modern life that are soulless. The continued eruption of shopping malls is one such blot on the landscape, especially when yet another supermarket submerges any memory of a great sporting heritage. Where did Denis Compton score his record 17th century during a season? Somewhere under Tesco and Marks and Spencer probably. Open spaces in town centres are few and far between. No ball games here, son.

Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds is a beautiful coffee table piece. It contains stunning photographs of a cricket panorama that now lies 100 leagues under the sea of redevelopment. Author Chris Arnot's journey has taken in once familiar sights and sounds like the Central Ground at Hastings, a scene of Channel winds and screaming gulls that swooped on the outfield; to Bramall Lane in Sheffield, when cricket was played to the tune of passing tramcars, factory hooters and the scream of a saw mill; and the appropriately named Fartown in Huddersfield where Geoffrey Boycott once hit a six onto the road. The ball came to rest against a church door. Boycott lost a contact lens soon after, causing a mass search on the field of play.

What also elevates the book above the picturesque and pretty variety is that the limited text manages to animate the characters who once bestrode these fields. Prince Ranjitsinhji of Sussex and England made great play on his title. He took up residence at the Shillinglee Estate with such extravagance that WG Grace was moved to pose in a turban on his arrival. In 1855, the Estate's gardener, David Heather was prominent in bowling out the Surrey Militia for zero.

It is sad to plot the decline of cricket on these feted grounds as well as the more parochial pitches which were often part of the lifeblood of the community. Once upon a time, teams were made up from all pillars of society such as professional gentlemen, estate workers, miners and farmers. As part of his English education, a young 18-year-old by the name of Shane Warne played at the Imperial Athletic Club in Bristol, a premises owned by a tobacco company that 80 years earlier had insisted on the "ethos of keeping a big workforce healthy in mind and body." The pavilion burnt down in 1999 but Warne's fags were nowhere to be seen.

Back in 1958, the legendary John Arlott described Hampshire's Northlands Road as having "an air of improvisation, of gradual growth, additions and afterthoughts merging into a unity like the photos, nick-nacks and pieces of china which accumulated on our grandparents' mantlepieces." Perhaps this line was inspired by Arlott's famous bottles of claret packed in a briefcase over a lunch hour. Whatever the truth, there are magical memories of Barry Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall buried under today's town houses.

At least Hampshire has a fully-fledged Test arena to be proud of in its place. If you want an example of barmy thinking, how about Lymington Cricket Club's plight that is not featured in this fabulous book. Their 175-year-old heritage hangs by a thread because the Council believes the community is in danger from "cricket balls landing at great speed a matter of inches from unsuspecting people." I give you health and safety and supermarkets – the twin terrors that threaten cricket's green and pleasant land.

<B>Tim Ellis</B>

<i>Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds by Chris Arnot (Aurum £25)</i>