Grounds for concern: Battling cricket clubs are being priced out of their homes

John Fuller looks at the economic struggles cricket clubs are facing in order to keep their homes and their livelihoods

In any debate on the undulating prospects for a cricket club, it’s usually the people themselves driving the outcomes but the status of their cricket ground can also be the catalyst.

Sure, finding a wicketkeeper the night before a match because Huddersfield Town have made it to Wembley (and half your club are going) trumps sourcing a future place to call home for immediate panic, but the latter can still be a headache.

In Yorkshire, it’s not only the number but the variety of cricket club grounds and their curious circumstances that has the propensity to raise eyebrows. For a multitude of reasons, disappearing cricket grounds are a worrying trend that show no sign of being reversed with land owners selling acres, councils having little time and money to roll wickets or cut outfields and companies who boast their own grounds being vulnerable to shifting economics.

Council-owned cricket pitches are not as common as they once were but that’s a relationship upon which many cricket clubs rely to get the game on. One such club is Ovington, who is the last tenant still batting and bowling out on the Knavesmire in York, a stone’s throw or pugnacious six from York racecourse.

Cricket has been played on this slab of common land in the city for hundreds of years and there was once a sea of dots in whites as multiple, simultaneous fixtures unfurled back-to-back. Ovington is both cautionary tale and an example of a cricket club thriving despite the multiple adversities that have beset it in recent years.

A few years ago, Ovington was like a soggy phoenix rising from the grim aftermath of wretched flooding on the marshy land that led to a brief nomadic existence with the ground deemed unfit for cricket due to an unfortunate incident when contractors dug trenches across the outfield. Whether council cuts or a focus elsewhere, the maintenance of their outfield and cricket square, itself a specialist skillset, has also receded.

Now you might argue in this era of austerity, councils and cricket clubs have to cut their cloth accordingly, but a poor cricket pitch helps nobody.

Clubs in crisis: The scorebox at Ovington

Through necessity, upkeep of the ground is now under the watchful eye of Ovington’s groundstaff and they could reasonably ponder what the club are actually getting for their tenancy other than the right to use the land to play cricket. Except that’s not actually their most pressing concern as Liam Herringshaw, Ovington Cricket Club’s Secretary, revealed: “Our lease has actually run out and we’re waiting for the council to come back to us and tell us what exactly is going to happen.”

He went on to say: “We’re currently in a strange position; we’re playing on a council pitch, we are council tenants but we don’t have a lease and we don’t currently have a clear sense of what the council themselves actually will provide.”

This uncertainty must be troubling, but equally Ovington are being allowed to get on and run their affairs and the fact they now have three senior teams and seven junior sides is evidence that this York Vale League outfit are not letting the trifling matter of the ground beneath their feet hold back their ambitions.

Having played cricket on council pitches myself all over the country, they don’t tend to be consistent decks (making even a military plodder appear like Michael Holding at times) but there is an undisputed charm to their setting, particularly with parks cricket.

At Ovington, that character has included attempting to shepherd a wall of hundreds of punters in top hats and finest attire walking across their outfield en route to the York races on certain Saturdays. The balance between allowing other sporting groups access to their bit of the Knavesmire and controlling the space they are renting to maintain the outfield is an ongoing debate.

For Ovington, the question mark over their future remains as long as another agreement with City of York Council has yet to be inked, though the club wishes to remain.  In fact, its expanded number of teams means they are exploring the option of a second cricket square on the Knavesmire, but if push came to shove and they had to vacate, there are few obvious alternatives.

The imposing chimneys of Eggborough Power Station near Knottingley in North Yorkshire dominate the skyline from the vantage point of the M62.

Yorkshire has a trio of coal-fired power stations in Ferrybridge, Drax and Eggborough nestled in a triangle between Pontefract, Selby and Goole and each with a strong cricketing connection. While the Drax Cup is a long-standing under-nine competition, Ferrybridge and Eggborough both have cricket clubs based at the power stations that compete in local leagues.

It is a pleasant, sunny evening at the tailend of a sapping week of hot weather for this Division One encounter between Eggborough Power Station and Carlton Towers in the Snaith & District Evening Cricket League. Eggborough is a cricket club facing an uncertain future off the field with a squad of about 20 competing in this midweek eleven and on Saturdays in Division 5 East of the Pontefract & District Cricket League.

Liam Longfield is their midweek captain who’s been involved with the club since he was nine years old watching his dad play; it’s somewhere that has seen a succession of fathers and sons become part of their 51-year history since 1966 – though only their secretary Drew Pearson, a Mechanical Maintenance Manager, now works at the power station.

Eggborough Power Ltd cuts the outfield and contractor Peter Duffy Ltd agreed a shirt sponsorship deal but, by and large, the sense from visiting is that Eggborough Power Station CC are cheerily soldiering on themselves. Though they are still grateful, as Liam put it: “This is their land. They allow us to play on it. They could have built on it. They’ve tried their best to keep us there but the minute that power station is shut down or sold, we never know.”

As for sourcing cricket grounds if need ever arose, there is plenty of cricket on the doorstep from Knottingley to Hensall but they want to stay where they are and priority remains with keeping Eggborough Power Station CC around for another fifty years.

“We probably could (move) but that’s not what this club is about,” says Longfield. “It’s how we’ve run it for families by families for a long time; we’re struggling for players but we want to keep it going.”

As the UK grapples with its future energy needs and what that constitutes, communities and cricket are wrapped up in the fallout from those decisions.

No power stations inevitably means the prospect of those cricket clubs being told to find a home elsewhere; down the list of woes admittedly when jobs and livelihoods are on the line but still very unfortunate. Neither Ovington nor Eggborough are cricket clubs in any imminent danger but their unease over being unable to dictate their own fate was understandable. It’s not just players that cricket committees need to get their heads round retaining but a place to call home.

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