Touring the world, ground by wonderful ground…

Brian Levison describes the pleasure and the pain of writing best-selling book Remarkable Cricket Grounds

It’s a truth that while cricket grounds can be a haven of peace and tranquillity, writing a book about them can be somewhat stressful.

Remarkable Cricket Grounds was Pavilion Books’ editor Frank Hopkinson’s brainchild – high quality photographs of 100 amazing cricket grounds across the world accompanied by text. “The idea came to me in a flash,” Frank said. Fair enough, but I also had to write the book in a flash, comparatively speaking – two months to write 35,000 words, almost two grounds a day, including weekends! For comparison, a novel of 50,000 words can take six months.

Unable to visit the grounds – lovely idea had time and budget permitted – I turned to Google, Wiki, and ESPNCricinfo. Judiciously used, they were extremely helpful with information about larger grounds.

TripAdvisor contained many interesting spectator’s-eye view reports. Trawling the web, I sometimes found a local journalist’s article, such as a report about the threat by political extremists to release venomous snakes during a Test at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi. The cricket authorities countered by hiring thirty snake-charmers just in case. This was gold dust for someone struggling with a deadline.

Online images often supplied unusual information, like the weather vane at The Sir Paul Getty Ground, Wormsley Park which featured the unmistakable profile of Brian Johnston.

For smaller clubs, usually in the UK, the main source was the club’s own website. Although some were highly informative, the majority seemed to use a standard template, unfortunately often blank.

I was forced to reach behind the website and speak to a real person. It turned out to be the best decision I made. As I tracked down former and current club chairmen and secretaries,

I discovered how passionate each was about his or her club and happy to share its unique history. They are the real grassroots of the game, literally so as many of them double up as groundsmen

Without speaking to Keith Richardson of Keswick CC, I would never have heard the full story of the impact of Storm Desmond on Fitz Park in December 2015. Some 700 tonnes of silt were deposited on the ground when the adjacent River Greta overflowed. In the best ‘show must go on’ tradition and helped by an ECB grant, the club were still ready for their first fixture of the 2016 season.

Mitcham CC are probably the oldest continuously used cricket ground anywhere in existence. But ground and pavilion are separated by the A239, an extremely busy main road.

Facetiously I asked the club secretary Julia Gault if any batsmen had been run over dashing through the traffic to avoid being ‘timed out’ only to learn that that rule is sensibly suspended here.

Every week I received an email with another ten grounds. Struggling against the deadline, I eyed each new list with distrust. Sometimes a batch contained totally unknown grounds – Slovenia? South Korea? Corfu? A baseball stadium? – and I would get a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach, like looking at an exam paper and finding you couldn’t answer any of the questions.

Articles were from 350 to 800 words long depending on the number of photographs.

Conscious that my style sometimes suffered under time pressure, I always sent my first draft to my American-born partner Jill Haas, who provided many helpful comments.

However important the writing, the key ingredient in a picture book is obviously the photographs. The picture editor, David Salmo, knew his photo libraries, and his taste was impeccable. He would look at perhaps 50 or so photographs of a ground, then he and Frank Hopkinson would choose a short list of between five and ten photos and pass them on to me. The final choice was made later.

A high proportion of pictures came from agencies like Getty Images,

Alamy or Corbis. But for lesser-known grounds David found independent photographers, such as Jill Mead for the wonderful Spout House ground in North Yorkshire, and Jonathan Campion for the Mezica CC ground in Slovenia.

Another independent came to our rescue in Pakistan. The ban on playing international cricket there meant a lack of recent agency pictures. David made contact with Paul Snook, a structural engineer working in Pakistan. His excellent photos of Narol Stadium, slowly recovering from the impact of

an earthquake, filled a potentially awkward gap.

Frank Hopkinson was keen to highlight architecturally interesting features of a stadium. My son, Matthew Levison, a professional designer, was very helpful here. Among other things, he pointed out that the main stand of the Sheikh Zayed cricket stadium in Abu Dhabi was modelled on the peak of a cricket cap and that its supporting three towers symbolised cricket stumps.

I submitted my manuscript with two days to spare in April last year, thanks to my editor deciding that perhaps 78 grounds were enough and some much appreciated help from my friend, the writer Andrew Ward.

Despite the pressure at the time, I now think it was well worth it. Reviews have been very positive, particularly

for the photography, and RCG has been at or near the top of the Cricket Bestsellers’ List for a good while and has just been reprinted.

I have learned a lot about cricket across the world. The beauty of some of the New Zealand grounds has made a lasting impression. I fully intend to visit some of the grounds this summer to meet the people behind the names.

But no book is ever quite set in concrete till it is printed. Even as it was going to the printers, the West Indies won the 2016 World Twenty20 under the captaincy of Darren Sammy. Overnight one of our grounds, the Beausejour Stadium in St. Lucia, became the Darren Sammy National Cricket Ground triggering some frantic last-minute changes.

Which reminds me that that competition was taking place as I was writing the book. And did I get to watch it on television? – not a ball!

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 24 2017

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