October 4, 2001

Ilford super la Zouch in the Marsh - whither Festival Cricket?

English county cricket has always been characterised by its festival weeks. Evocative names like Ashby de la Zouch, Weston-super-Mare and Moreton in Marsh have, over the years, given the fixture list an appeal that could not be matched by an everlasting rotation of county headquarters.

Some of these festivals still flourish, and how appropriate that the most famous of them all, Scarborough, was the venue when Yorkshire secured the CricInfo Championship this year - their first title in the competition for 33 years.

Even the Scarborough festival has changed. Not so long ago it was an end-of-season party with serious cricketers playing cricket that fell just a little short of the highest level. Anyone who needed a couple of wickets to reach a hundred in the season, or a few runs for a thousand, would be very disappointed to turn out for, say, T.N. Pearce's XI and return home without achieving their personal landmark.

When players turned up in some of the out of the way venues, usually having made their way through high-season holiday traffic to arrive at some ungodly hour, they would all complain about the accommodation, the catering, and the size and condition of the dressing rooms. Batsmen would complain that the pitches were dreadful, as would the bowlers at some of the flatter ones.

All in all, the cricket was good or, at least, different and the presence of festival weeks certainly spiced up the daily round of cricket. Most importantly, the crowds would flock in, having fixed their holidays the previous year to coincide with the next festival of cricket.

That has changed along with the face of English cricket. Two three-day matches fitted rather neatly into a week, especially when there was a Sunday League match to be played as well. One four-day match and perhaps a limited-overs game do not make the same financial sense. That is what it comes down to. Why go to all the expense of transporting the trappings of a county match to a distant venue when there is a perfectly good headquarters ground, on which so much has been invested, standing empty?

That is what has put a question mark over the continuance of so many festivals. The latest is not by the sea or in some scenic delight. It is in metropolitan Essex. To be exact, in Valentine's Park, Ilford.

At one time, Essex did not have a permanent home. They were a team of gypsies forever plying the A12 as they travelled from Leyton in the west to Clacton in the east, stopping at Ilford, Romford, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Colchester, Southend, and Westcliff on the way. British Railways Eastern Region did much the same.

Gradually, as Chelmsford was developed as the county's home, other venues were dropped. Nowadays, only Ilford, Southend, and Colchester are visited, and Ilford is under threat.

Essex have just issued a statement which reads as follows: "Following a recent meeting of the Club's Executive Committee it has been provisionally decided to proceed with the Ilford Festival in 2002.

"The Festival has caused the Club considerable financial difficulty over several years, and the Club is at an advanced stage of negotiations with Redbridge Council for financial support for the future."

Chief Executive David East said: "The problems we have been experiencing with the Ilford Festival are common knowledge, and it is essential that we receive significant support from Redbridge Council if the Festival is to proceed next year.

"Our Committee has decided to defer a final decision at this time, but has confirmed that it will not proceed if we are unable to obtain the necessary funding from Redbridge. Early indications are very favourable, but we understand that the Council's budget will not be finalised until the early New Year.

"We very much wish to return to Ilford to continue with our great tradition of first class cricket in the region. The Festival is the pinnacle of our community development activity in the Ilford and East London area, and we remain hopeful that Redbridge Council will provide the support we need to continue with the Festival.

"Although our commitment to cricket development will remain, if Council funding is not forthcoming the matches provisionally scheduled at Ilford will have to be switched to Chelmsford."

East makes an important point. A large county in geographical terms, Essex has always felt it important to take the game to outlying areas. Not only does it boost membership by doing so, it also brings more young players into contact with the stars of the game. A couple of players to have come to Essex in recent years from the very same Ilford club whose festival is now under threat go by the names of Graham Gooch and John Lever.

It is also the part of the world where the young Nasser Hussain learned his cricket. And yet that whole corner of a cricketing county could be left without any first-class fixtures unless a council budget can be manipulated to find a way of preserving the game. Otherwise, the name of Ilford could be added to a list that includes the likes of Ashby de la Zouch, Weston-super-Mare and Moreton in Marsh - the list of former first-class venues.