Death of the parks pitch

The cricket squares and the old pavilion, Western Park, Leicester (photo by Mat Fascione).

Cricket has been played on York's Knavesmire for well over two hundred years.  Records of matches on this huge, flat, low-lying expanse of turf go back as far as 1790.  The Mire, as it is affectionately (and appropriately) known, forms part of one of the four Strays of York, common land to be used “for the benefit and enjoyment of the citizens of York for all time.”

From the late 14th to early 19th centuries, public enjoyments on the Mire included the executions of notorious criminals.  Indeed, had he hung on 50 years, Dick Turpin would have been able to enjoy a prime view of the first cricket match.  However, the actions of some rather different highway men are now threatening a cricketing death knell for this historic sports venue, and as York has no other public grounds, this could just be the end of parks cricket in the city.

My team – Ovington Cricket Club – are the Knavesmire's last survivors.  I'm told there were once half-a-dozen clubs or more based here, playing cheek by jowl.  Now it's only us.

Ovington CC in action.

Our pitch is on the Little Knavesmire, as the main stretch is occupied by York Racecourse.  Consequently, if the fixtures clash, we end up with huge audiences of over- (and under-) dressed horse-lovers, streaming and stumbling their merry way to and from the grandstands.  At times, retreating from the field is the only option: lack-of-reins stopped play.

A Race on the Knavesmire at York, by Thomas Rowlandson.

Inebriated spectators aren't the major problem, though.  That honour falls to the outfield, courtesy of our council landlords.

The Mire has always been boggy, but in recent years, drainage has become a major issue.  In 2010, our president and groundsman, Maurice Bell, called on the authorities to sort out the problem.  Finally, more than a year later, the council agreed to send in some contractors with diggers, but only after the football season had finished.  They promised, however, that the work 'will not reach into your outfield areas'.

In mid-May 2011, the contractors duly turned up and dug huge trenches right across the outfield. In an instant, a month into the season, the ground was rendered unfit for cricket.

Drainage trenches dug in the Little Knavesmire, May 2011.

After a few weeks, we tried to return to play at the Mire, but the outfield was still in a very poor state.  Our opponents complained, and the ground was banned from the league. We spent the remainder of the season as nomads.

Come 2012, and the council had done nothing to remedy the situation.  Maurice, with assistance from club secretary Alan Fletcher, had kept the square in good nick, and a team of us had tried to repair the butchered outfield, but it was still lumpier than low-quality custard, and not draining.  The staggeringlywet June turned the Mire into a marsh.

So now another new season approaches, and whilst the football changing rooms are to be revamped, the only chance of our ground being usable is if we repair the council's handiwork ourselves.  We've been trying – and this weekend's annual ECB/Natwest Cricket Force event gave us a final pre-season push – but there are limits to our funds and ingenuity.

The lads put their backs into it for Cricket Force 2013.

The Knavesmire outfield we're trying to repair.

This is not just a Yorkist sob story, though.  I have always played my cricket on public pitches, and all the cities I have played in have similar tales to tell.  In Leicester, where I began on the park across the road (pictured at the top of this post), the number of public pitches has slowly declined, whilst my old stomping ground is getting too dangerous.  Another pitch I used to play on might be turned into a campsite.

In Aberdeen – a town far more cricketing than most people anticipate – I joined a city team that played on The Links, a windswept, haar-smothered bowl in the shadow of Pittodrie.  It wasn't well-loved but it was certainly well-drained, and my team coped with its vagaries well enough to become the best small club in Scotland. Now there are concerns about the quality of the council-owned wicket, and those of other public pitches in the city.

Cricket on the Links, Aberdeen, 2006 (photo by Richard Slessor).

Some of the venues have a cricketing history almost as long as the Mire's but are in danger of succumbing to neglect or mismanagement.   In other parts of the UK, meanwhile, the future of public pitches is threatened by issues ranging from the price of renting wickets to damage caused by Radio 1 pop concerts.

Non-cricketers reading this might be wondering why parks pitches matter.  Surely, you might ask, as long as there are cricket grounds in existence, it doesn't matter if they're publicly owned?  Indeed, by getting rid of them, wouldn't councils be able to save money to spend on higher priority activities?

Perhaps there's some truth in that, but to me - and thousands of other urban and suburban cricketers - public pitches matter because they provide a place to play club cricket locally, where we can get involved with sport and with our community.  At Ovington, we have over a hundred juniors, mostly from within spitting distance of the club, playing for seven junior teams.  If the Mire goes under, so does their means of becoming cricketers, at whatever level that might be.

The Ovington clubhouse and wickets: Juniors' square to the left, Seniors' to the right.

Cricket on parks pitches is also historically and culturally important, not just on the Knavesmire.  At numerous public grounds I've played on, other park users have commented on how much the enjoy seeing the games, whether they play cricket themselves or not.   It is an integral summer feature of our towns' and cities' green spaces.

In straightened economic times, with council purse-strings being ever-tightened, the neglect of cricket pitches by the authorities seems inevitable.  Proper upkeep of public wickets is time-consuming and fairly expensive, and bigger concerns will take precedence.  It is not unreasonable to expect the tenants to put in some legwork themselves, and most clubs - including ours - recognize this.

For Britain's health and sporting future, however especially in the post-Olympic comedown, the loss of local sports facilities bodes extremely ill.  Football always dominates, but councils have to be made to recognize the value and the need of supporting the upkeep of public cricket pitches.  Because once they've gone, it's not just cricket that will suffer.