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There are pretty grounds, historic grounds, grounds that ooze atmosphere, and those that make you feel like you're in the Colosseum. Five writers choose their favourites
December 17, 2012
There's a photograph in my digital album titled "Sri Lanka" that always fills me with the warmest memories. In it I am with my wife and close friends. We are on a patch of grass, sitting, sprawling, and leaning on each other. We look relaxed, cosy and happy. Looking at that photo, taken in August 2008, it would be hard to guess we are watching a game of Test cricket - and in the subcontinent at that.
We were right behind the sightscreen - years of covering cricket have spoilt me to the point that the view of play from anywhere else in the ground seems a compromise. To our left was the gentle expanse of the Indian Ocean stretching into infinity, and behind us, a quaint little world inviting exploration. And we were not even inside the stadium.
We had tickets, and I had a seat in the press box, with a view of the waters, but on an overcast day there is no better place to watch cricket from than the ramparts of the Galle Fort. I have seen prettier Test grounds but Galle gets my nod for the whole package.
The stadium is informal and charming: it's perhaps the only Test ground in the world where you can watch the match while driving or walking past, and though the civil war hadn't ended when I watched the Test in 2008, the security wasn't overwhelming. But travelling to watch sport is also a cultural experience, and Galle is enchanting all the way.
The other three
The drive from Colombo, winding and along the coast, is pretty. A new expressway will now take you to Galle in 90 minutes, but if you want memories and a couple of stops along the way for photographs, take the scenic route (at least one way). Stay in one of the boutique hotels inside the fort that, in a maze of lanes and bylanes, houses quaint shops, little houses and rooftop restaurants serving authentic Sri Lankan food. The nights offer the option of driving down to one of the nearby towns for dinner to the sounds of the sea.
If you go to watch a Test in Galle - a Test it has to be, because shorter matches are unlikely to provide the space to experience the peripherals - you will not only find that the best seats are free, but that you are likely to come back with a longing to return. As for me, it was perhaps the only place I could have got my wife to accompany me to a Test.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo
So what makes for a good cricket ground? A comfortable chair, a good internet connection, a dry toilet and good coffee? Oh dear, we'll have to start again, for you could get at best three of those at any ground. A great setting, a large enough car park, easy public transport and a spectator-friendly attitude? We're getting somewhere, even if the shortlist is very small. Grounds that evoke awe? Grounds that are friendly? Grounds that you can take your kids to?
There were three grounds I was most excited about and each disappointed me on my first experience. The MCG was vast, colossal; I felt like an ant, intimidated. I wanted to get away. Lord's was shocking. Everybody on the staff seemed intent on being rude, almost as if they would be sacked otherwise. And Queen's Park Oval... well, it seemed like just another ground. I have had better experiences at those grounds since. I quite enjoy the MCG, and quite grudgingly admitted to even liking Lord's a bit the last time I was there (it was the smiles at the gate and the girls serving coffee in the media centre that did it).
Increasingly, I find I am drawn towards grounds in proximity with nature. Queenstown is dramatic; Newlands is very nice too, though Table Mountain can get a touch monotonous; St Lucia is pretty; and while I haven't been to the Bellerive Oval in Hobart for a while, it must be very difficult to make that less scenic.
Indoors is the best place to be in Wellington, though, I find the idea of a large traffic island being used for Test cricket quite unique. The Kotla in Delhi is a lot better now but till very recently the best spot from which to watch a game there was at home. The Wankhede can only get better, and the Chidambaram Stadium (I still prefer to call it Chepauk) has.
The next best
But I am not going to be a consultant, merely offering options. For long my favourite grounds were the back field at the Hyderabad Public School (sadly, I visited it again), the "A" ground of Osmania University (sadly, I revisited that too), and the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium (I said goodbye to the old commentary box, now a hostel, with underwear put out to dry).
And then a couple of years ago I flew in a small plane through the mountains to land at a quaint airfield (it wasn't an airport, if you know what I mean), drove on roads that went up and down according to the terrain, and encountered hill people who smiled and offered local food at prices that were a pleasant shock. The ground itself had me stunned. I saw the pavilion first, a blazing red pagoda, and then I turned around and saw the mountains; not hills, mountains.
The rays of the sun glistened off the snow on the peaks, and the sunset was a cinematographer's delight. Often I found myself looking at the mountains rather than at the cricket, and more than one evening was spent in an open-air restaurant with simple tables and chairs and eager waiters.
For the grandeur of its setting and the simplicity of its people, I will go with Dharamasala. Now if only they can keep away the rude, loud 4x4 gang that comes from Delhi and honks all along its lovely curving paths…
Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer
Next week: Sambit Bal's favourite ground
The biggest single chunk of St George's Park is also the ugliest.
So much so that the Duck Pond Pavilion, which lazes in a slovenly curve on the northern boundary like some obese, rust-coloured slug slowly stinking to death in the sun and salty air, is a cautionary tale against what can result when bricks and steel are stacked symmetrically with not a smidgen of creativity.
Had the vast, soulless plastic bowl that is the Gabba existed in the early 1990s, when the Duck Pond Pavilion was "built", the offending architect, one Terry Baker, should have been sent to Brisbane and told: This Is Not What We Want.
But how do we know what is beautiful if we do not have an ugliness to compare it to? The rest of St George's Park, a hodgepodge of creaking old stands and diabolically pokey corners that seems to exist only to ensure visitors unfamiliar with the ground (let no one who calls the place a stadium make it out of there alive), is its charm.
The grandstand along the western boundary is a magnificence of wood and paint and the sense of community that comes with bumping knees and shoulders with your neighbours instead of pretending there is no one in the bucket seat next to you.
This is where the St George's Park brass band is in residence, parping out a well-worn repertoire of standards and occasionally shocking all and sundry with a freshly learned number that might last have been heard on radio ten years ago.
The next best
Under the grandstand, the good women of the Westering Methodist Church feed the multitude - not with loaves and fishes but with the best hamburgers and pancakes that surprisingly little money can buy. They have been doing so for decades in the name of charity, and they will do so for many more.
The eastern boundary is home to a haphazard collection of stands, a grass bank, and the main scoreboard. Other than keeping spectators statistically informed, the board is an important indicator of what the captains should do at the toss. If the wind is coming off the nearby Indian Ocean and blowing over the scoreboard and across the field, insert the opposition. If it's blowing from inland and towards the scoreboard, bat.
Players, umpires, scorers and media are housed at the southern end of the ground. Stand on a particular landing between buildings and the view into the players' enclosure is clear and frequently instructive - players are far more likely to reveal their emotions when they can't see themselves on a television screen. So close are reporters to the action that it seems entirely possible to reach out and tap the captain on the shoulder to tell him to put in another slip.
The pitch? It is often a desert, sometimes a jungle, and occasionally both - one end dry, the other green.
That's because players come to St George's Park to be tested, not to be pandered to or protected from the real world. Cricket could do with more places like that.
Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa
There's nothing beautiful about the Rec, unless you like your cricket grounds buffeted by prison walls and rough around the edges. It was a place to bat, and bat, and bat - the Rec hosted both of Brian Lara's world-record innings, 375 and 400. And yet there was something special about this tiny ground in an unpretentious part of St John's that hasn't existed since it stopped hosting international cricket.
Australians flocked to the Rec for the carnival as much as the cricket. I shouted myself a trip to the Caribbean to celebrate graduating from cadet reporter to graded journalist in 1999. Happily, the journey coincided with Australia's tour of the West Indies, and Antigua appealed because it was the island home of my cricketing hero, Viv Richards. I have only vague memories of the rambling interview I conducted with a very generous Viv as he sweated profusely in the press box, but he embodied the national and regional pride riding on everything that happened on that sweet batting pitch. The Rec is within walking distance of the street where Viv was raised. With its white concrete walls and ramshackle stands, it blends in with a town that's edgier than Antigua's reputation as an idyllic beach paradise suggests. The rum joints inside the gates did business even when there was no cricket, and the smells of jerk chicken and flying fish burgers pervaded the air.
My next three
The ground barely holds 10,000 people, and in '99 it was bursting at the seams. Everyone was desperate to catch a glimpse of the genius of Lara, who had peeled off a match-winning century in the previous Test in Barbados. He saved his most devastating innings for Antigua, where every exquisite stroke made the Rec vibrate even more violently than the reggae music blasting from the Double Decker Stand.
What captivated me most was the intense and sometimes delirious way the Antiguans watched the cricket. Lara's 82-ball century wasn't enough to stop Australia winning the Test, and when the Frank Worrell Trophy was retained, I remember an Australian flag fluttering above a haze of ganja.
It's possible the Rec has been romanticised in my memory, simply because there is nothing like it in the age of standardised modern venues. I returned almost a decade later to find the outfield overgrown and the buildings in a state of sad disrepair as a game of intra-island soccer unfolded. Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, the soulless stadium built for the 2007 World Cup, is an abomination, shunned by locals because it's so far out of town and disliked by the man it's named after. I'll never understand why the Rec could not, instead, have been lovingly restored to its former glory.
Chloe Saltau is the chief cricket writer at the Age, Melbourne
Maybe it's because I grew up in landlocked Oxfordshire, but I've always had a weakness for watching cricket near water. Bear with me.
Rivers have their moments, and I refer you to Chelmsford, where over the years the Can has punched far above its weight in Essex match reports (you can keep the Fremantle and its fancy breeze). Lakes are better, none more so than Wakatipu, which lurks beyond the Queenstown Events Centre in New Zealand, should you manage to avert your gaze from the Remarkables mountains.
But - with apologies to Iris Murdoch - it's got to be the sea, the sea. And it's why, on a grey day at home in south-west London, I can usually feel the pull of Hove.
Hop on a train at Clapham Junction and you're at Brighton station within the hour. Brighton is Hove's left-wing neighbour, a pimply student digs of a town to Hove's genteel retirement home. Yet a five-minute taxi ride is all it takes to cross the cultural chasm. And when you emerge at the home of Sussex CCC, you can sense it instantly: the haziness of the English seaside town, the whiff of salt, the chatter of seagulls.
Better still, you are driven on by the promise at stumps of a beer on the beach, with its rounded pebbles and horizon views. When the sun is out - as it always seems to be when I visit Sussex - it exudes calm, especially before lunch, when deadlines still feel an age away.
There are Hove clichés, it's true. The stripey deckchairs are de rigueur in any depiction; so too the ice-cream van, the sea fret, the slope (wicket to wicket, rather than crossways, as at Lord's). Then there's "Sussex by the Sea", a throaty anthem sung on special occasions by the most extrovert of the spectators, or possibly the drunkest.
But county cricket is full of clichés, and their familiarity is comforting. I'd no sooner deprive Worcestershire acolytes of their cathedral and Yorkshire folk of their harrumphing than I would take the Flake 99 out of Hove. (For non-English readers, a Flake 99 is a creamy goo vaguely approximating to ice-cream, garnished with a chocolate finger and served in a cone. It's a taste of every Briton's childhood - and often their adulthood too.)
My next three
Until recently, the Hove press box resembled a small greenhouse - seagulls would take their morning constitutional on the roof - and was positioned square of the wicket. This meant journalists had no idea which way the ball was moving, but became adept at spotting no-balls. I still bristle at the number of times Australia's Ben Hilfenhaus overstepped in a tour game in 2009 without being called.
It feels sacrilegious to suggest it after all I have written, but Hove's crowning glory may just be the buildings that surround it. On three sides of the ground, local residents can recline on their balconies, or peer out of the kitchen window for ten minutes with a cuppa - and instantly feel part of their community.
If that has long been an underestimated part of the English domestic game, then in Hove it is inescapable. My 37-year-old sensibility may be more suited to Brighton, but I can think of worse places to grow old than in an apartment overlooking Hove.
Heck, I don't even support Sussex. That fate has befallen Northamptonshire, but Wantage Road - though better than it once was - remains a ground only its mother could love. For me, Hove has the lot, including the glorious liberation of not actually caring who wins.
Lawrence Booth is the editor of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack and a cricket writer for the Daily Mail
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