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Like many of Glamorgan's grounds' The Gnoll is the home to both Neath Rugby and Cricket Club. The name of the ground is likely to have been a derivation from the word 'knoll', meaning a small round hill, as the first building in the area was situated on the circular mound at the western end of the hill known as Cefn Morfydd to the north of the twon.
By the 17th century a castle and country house had been built on the hillside, and from 1710 onwards it became the home of the Mackworth family, who were wealthy industrialists and owned the town's copper works. In 1811 the Gnoll Estate was bought by Henry Grant, who later became the first mayor of the town. Grant sold off some of the land for building purposes, and allowed ball games to be played on the fields below Gnoll House.
The first record of cricket being played in Neath dates back to the mid 1840's, and in 1848 a cricket club was formed, with The Gnoll being its base. During the middle of the 19th century, more housebuilding took place on Grant's land, but he refused to sell the cricket field, and the club went from strength to strength. A number of quite prestigious fixtures were held over the next few years as Alex Cuthbertson, a local soloicitor, helped to arrange three-day fixtures in 1855 and 1856 between an Eleven of All-England and a XXII of Neath and District.
However, the Neath club encountered money problems, and in the early 1860's looked like going out of existence. They were thrown a lifeline in 1863 as J.T.D.Llewelyn, the cricket-loving industrialist and landowner of Penllegaer House, paid off their debts, agreed to personally pay for the use of the Gnoll and reformed the club under the name of Cadoxton Cricket Club. The 'new' side took its name from a small hamlet to the north of the town, yet there was nothing small about Llewelyn's ambitions, as Cadoxton C.C. became the M.C.C. of South Wales.
Indeed, in September 1864 he was instrumnetal in arranging a cricket week which had as its highlight a challenge match between a Glamorganshire XI and a side representing Carmarthenshire. However, perhaps the most famous of these early games took place in May 1868 when a XXII of Cadoxton challenged the United South of England. W.G. Grace was in the English side, yet for once in his career, he bagged a pair, dismissed in both innings by George Howitt, Cadoxton's guest professional.
In 1871 Neath RFC was formed and the south-western part of the sports field was devoted to rugby, with cricket being played in the north-eastern half. A rugby grandstand was built and seating was also provided alongside the cricket pavilion as the Cadoxton club continued to be the premier gentleman's side in South Wales, and played with success in the newly-formed South Wales Challenge Cup.
In 1897 the Neath Football Club and Athletic Association took over the affairs of CadoxtonC.C., but this proved to be a short-lived organisation, as in 1904 the cricket club re-formed under the name of Gnoll Park C.C. However, there were several financial problems, caused by internal friction within the now defunct Association. Fortunately, these problems were overcome by the staging of a series of exhibition games on The Gnoll by a side called The Gentlemen of Glamorgan. The instigator behind these games was a young solicitor called T.A.L.Whittington, who himself was a fine batsman and had represented Glamorgan in the Minor County Championship.
As a result of his efforts, the financial problems disappeared, and the club reverted back to being known as Neath C.C in 1906. The success of these games also led to Whittington becoming one of Glamorgan's administrators and it was the young solicitor who was instrumental in the decision by the county club to stage some of their minor county matches at Neath. The first took place in June 1908 as Carmarthenshire visited The Gnoll, and either side of the Great War, the Neath ground staged an annual Minor County fixture.
In 1923 the Neath Corporation became the new owners of the Gnoll Estate and despite the temptation to sell the land for building, they decided that the ruins of the Gnoll House should be the town's War Memorial , and that the rugby and cricket ground should be preserved for sporting activities. The Corporation were also responsible for attracting first-class cricket to The Gnoll, as in the 1930's they offered various financial incentives if Glamorgan agreed to play a Championship fixture at the ground.
The inaugural game took place in 1934 as Essex visited The Gnoll and following the success of the game Neath was added to the club's fixture list. The annual fixtures proved very popular, with 12,000 people watching the match with Warwickshire in 1948, and in the early 1950's the club also decided to build an Indoor School at Neath. The idea was that a purpose-built complex would act as their winter coaching base in the West of the county and on October 28th, 1954 the Indoor School was opened by R.E.S.Wyatt. Over the past 40 years, a host of young Glamorgan cricketers have been groomed in the nets during the winter months and the facilities have also been used by the club in their pre-season activities.
However, there were a few problems at the ground, especially when it rained, as the area around The Gnoll has a high water table. Indeed, some people believe that the area was once the former course of the River Neath, and there are several small springs on the hillside below the remains of mackworth's old mansion. The rsult as far as cricket was concerned was that the ground took a long time to dry out after rain, and in the late 1960's the ground became used just for one day matches rather than three day Championship games. Indeed, in 1969 The Gnoll staged the county's first-ever home game in the Sunday League, but even these one day games were often rain affected, and after the Benson and Hedges Cup fixture with Gloucestershire had taken three days to complete in 1974, The Gnoll was dropped from the county's 1st XI fixture list.
During the early 1980's various industrial regeneration schemes began in the area, and the Neath Development Partnership began to promote tourism and recreation in the area. They viewed county cricket as the perfect vehicle for promoting their activities and the area as well, so in 1984 Neath Borough Council offered Glamorgan a substantial sponsorship package if the Australian match in 1985 was staged at Neath. The offer of around =A320,000 resulted in the tourist match being staged at The Gnoll, and the success of the game, and the off-field arrangements led to Glamorgan playing further first class and limited overs cricket at the ground. Indeed, the 1993 match with the Australians as well as the 1995 fixture with their 'A' side have taken place at Neath.
The Neath Cricket Club, quite rightly, have a proud tradition and their splendid pavilion houses many items celebrating the deeds of their players, including two English Test captains - Tony Lewis and Cyril Walters, as well as Barry Lloyd, the current captain of the Wales Minor County side, and the late John Bevan, the former Welsh rugby international and coach. Many other Glamorgan have turned out for the Neath club, including Stan Trick and Geoff Holmes, whilst their overseas stars have included two from the 1996 World Cup - Richie Richardson of the West Indies and Kenyan Maurice Odumbe.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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