July 2006

Inside outgrounds - Whitgift School

Paul Coupar takes a look at Surrey's outing to Croydon

Packing them in at Whitgift School © Getty Images
More counties play less cricket on outgrounds - the decline looks as inevitable as April drizzle. But it ain't necessarily so, as the case of Whitgift School shows.

Surrey first played at Whitgift, an independent Croydon boys' school, in 2000. That was a one-dayer - and supposedly a one-off, celebrating the school's 400th anniversary. Instead it grew into a five-day festival, recently guaranteed for at least four more summers.

Above all, the deal was built on imagination and co-operation. Surrey needed training facilities; Whitgift offered preferential rates for their swimming pool and superb indoor nets (where even Martin Bicknell could bowl off his long run). Surrey were impressed enough to make Whitgift the base for their academy.

High-quality outdoor nets are now required: club and school will share the cost. Though well-attended, the festival was not an immediate success. The costs of infrastructure - marquees and health-and-safety precautions - could not be recouped from a single day's cricket. So in 2003 Surrey agreed to add a Championship match. A sustainable festival was born.

Despite the odd gripe from members about access and the £10 parking fee, the Sunday match has remained "very well attended" according to a member of the supporters' committee. And about 2,000 attend each day of the Championship game - around twice the number who dot The Oval.

Everyone seems to be winning. Surrey service the fifth of their membership based in Croydon and get superb practice facilities. The school gets its name in the public eye - and the remaining profit after paying Surrey a staging fee, waived if fewer than 20 overs are bowled.

The school could lose money but headmaster Christopher Barnett feels the rewards outweigh the risks: "We've had good returns," he says. And fans get a spirit-lifting experience. "People like to go and watch it," says Paul Sheldon, Surrey's chief executive. "They prefer that than going up to London and sitting in an empty stadium."

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer and will be covering the first two Tests for Cricinfo