Postcards from Canada July 18, 2010

The Feild of dreams

Can the St John's club manage to reclaim a century-old cricket ground lost to football? Fingers crossed

I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. Strolling up Rennie's River from Quidi Vidi lake, home of North America's longest-running sporting event, the St John's Regatta, I reached the Riverdale Tennis Club. There, to my right, was a large, flat, mown field, a gravelled boundary curving round its periphery, and a small pavilion painted duck-egg blue. It could be only one thing.

The gates were locked, the signs warning "Feildian Grounds - Private Property", but I snuck in through a hole in the fence and had a poke around. White lines were daubed onto the grass, and goalposts erected at either end, but this wasn't really a football pitch. It was too square, with yards of spare field either side of the playing area. At the same time, it wasn't square enough: each corner of the field was rounded, indicating equidistance from a central point, rather than the rectangular junctions of goal- and touchline. The layout was unmistakable, the conclusion remarkable. The footballers were interlopers. This was a cricket ground.

As someone who makes a living digging up ancient pre-history, such discoveries are right up my street. Having assumed, though, that all St John's' cricket pitches would have vanished long ago, I was amazed, and also rather excited. When was it last used? How had it survived? And might we be able to return it to its original function?

We could certainly do with a proper wicket. Playing tape-ball cricket on a basketball court in Kelly's Brook Park is great fun but no more than a short-term solution. The large metal posts with baskets on them rather get in the way, and the abrasive surface means we are consuming extraordinary quantities of electrical tape. A decent square could be developed if the council ripped up the asphalt and replaced it with turf, but I suspect the basketballers might object. The Feildian Grounds are far more tempting.

What Edward Feild would make of it is unclear. Not just an Englishman with an oddly spelled surname, Feild rose to became Bishop of Newfoundland in 1844. Over the next 32 years, this formidable High churchman set about making his mark on the colony. This can't have been easy, as he was also responsible for the bishopric of Bermuda, 1200 aquatic miles away, but Feild thrived. His most visible legacy in St John's is the dramatic (though strangely spire-less) Anglican Cathedral, but his education work had a more lasting impact. He established many schools, including one that still bears his name, and in 1899, alumni of this college formed the Feildian Athletic Association.

It was a success: the archives show that the Feildians were 1910 St John's cricket champions, playing on a pitch next to Quidi Vidi. In 1922, meanwhile, they began the season with a 24-run win over Shamrocks, but thanks to the majesty of the local climate, this opener didn't take place till July 8. The Feildian Grounds were inaugurated three years later, providing the players with their own facility, one they shared with athletics, baseball and football. However, despite its early glories, cricket was fading from view, and the final Feildian record is from the St John's Daily News for September 14, 1938, when the Nondescripts beat the Guards. Soccer has reigned supreme since then.

So I stand with my back against the pavilion wall and stare out across the grass, feeling impossibly nostalgic for something that finished four decades before I was born, and half a world away. As Francis Thompson would have it:

For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost

Prising the Feildian Grounds from footballing fingers will take time and money, but nothing is insurmountable. Indeed, we might even be able to use football in our favour. Back down Rennie's River is the King George V stadium, scene of Canada's sole qualification for a football World Cup, when they beat Honduras 2-1 to reach Mexico 1986. This historic venue is available to hire, and with its artificial turf, floodlights and banks of seating, KGV is a fantastic place to hold a night-time exhibition cricket match. I don't expect we'll attract the 13,000 crowd that came along for the Honduras game, but you never know.

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling

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