Chris Waters - Why the Scarborough Cricket Festival pulls on the heartstrings

SCARBOROUGH cricket ground gets into the soul. Once experienced, it takes hold of the heart and never lets go.

View from the boundary: Cricket fans enjoying the first day of the Scarborough festival during the match between Yorkshire and Essex at Scarborough in 2017. Picture: James Hardisty

I know someone – a fellow cricket writer – who does not like Scarborough. This chap cannot understand what all the fuss is about.

He is probably, however, in a minority of one. Scarborough is the favourite ground of many who watch, write about and play the summer game.

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For a century and more, people have been flocking to North Marine Road to watch cricket like pilgrims to a shrine.

Cricketing fans enjoying the first day of the Scarborough festival (Picture: James Hardisty)

All the game’s greats have played there: Bradman, Grace, Hutton, Hammond, too many to mention. Little has changed at the venue in all those years, as though North Marine Road was a cricketing conservation area.

The pavilion, the tea room, the old wooden benches – they would surely be as recognisable to Bradman as they are now to Ballance and company.

I got in the mood for the first of Yorkshire’s two visits to the ground this year, for the County Championship match against Surrey that started yesterday, by reading a new book that focuses on the August festival and which draws on the tales and memories of players and supporters.

Why, I was even sought out for a few memories of my own by John Fuller, author of Last of the Summer Wickets: Tales from the Scarborough Cricket Festival, published by Great Northern.

Cricket by the sea: Part of the joy of watching professional cricket in Scarborough is that you wouldnt know it was there, writes John Fuller in his book Last of the Summer Wickets: Tales from the Scarborough Cricket Festival. (Pictures: James Hardisty)

Fuller’s tome is a cracking read, adopting the form of a pacy narrative, and it took me back to when I first visited Scarborough on a family holiday from Lincoln in 1988. While my parents took my brother off to the Sea Life Centre just down the road, I went off on my own to watch Yorkshire play Lancashire in a Sunday League game, sitting at the Trafalgar Square end in my first experience of a county match.

Even then, as nobbut a whippersnapper, I knew instinctively that the place had a special, almost spiritual quality, that I was in a magical amphitheatre hidden away between terraced houses and the sprawling sea beyond.

Indeed, as Fuller writes: “Part of the joy of watching professional cricket in Scarborough is that you wouldn’t know it was there. Encased in tenement housing, the ground is as far removed from the neon lights and jazz hands presence of a modern, sporting hub as you can get. It’s not exactly a closely-guarded secret, but there’s this abiding sense of community like an epic, underground house party.”

Fuller writes that since his own first visit, Scarborough “has pulled on the heartstrings”, adding: “County cricket at Scarborough is to step back in time or at the very least freeze it. Its popularity is nothing short of spectacular.”

My next visit to Scarborough came as a young journalist in 2001 following Nottinghamshire around for the Nottingham Evening Post. It produced memories that I shall take to the grave – although not for a little while yet, all being well.

It was the famous match when Darren Lehmann scored 191 for Yorkshire against Nottinghamshire, still the highest innings in Yorkshire’s one-day history, compiled from just 103 balls with 20 fours and 11 sixes. At the time, such a huge one-day innings/strike-rate was rarer than coming across someone who does not like Scarborough cricket ground. It felt as if you were witnessing something truly extraordinary – and you were.

I am pleased that Fuller has spoken to Lehmann for his book, and that Lehmann has remembered an innings which came in the alcoholic aftermath of Yorkshire’s first Championship title since 1968.

“It was a big couple of days,” he tells Fuller. “We didn’t train or anything before that game. It was just walk-out-and-play.”

There were still remnants of Champagne in Lehmann’s batting helmet as he strode out to the middle.

“I just drank that, walked out and batted,” he recalls. “I can remember being not too stressed. After the stress of not winning a Championship for so long, there was relief on everyone’s faces, so there was no pressure. I remember saying, ‘Sit back and enjoy, lads,’ as I walked out.”

In typically modest style, Lehmann continues: “I just got lucky. I had one of those lucky days. It was one of the all-time great wickets and a small grandstand side (Popular Bank) so it wasn’t a big hit either… It was one of those games where everything came off.”

As so very nearly did the head of yours truly when one of Lehmann’s sixes almost decapitated me as I queued for a brew. Come to think of it, it wouldn’t have been a bad way to go, and at least I’d have been mentioned in Wisden’s annual ‘Index of Unusual Occurrences’.

Whenever I think of Scarborough, I invariably think of Lehmann’s 191, but we all have such different and varied memories of the place. Sir Michael Parkinson, who writes the book’s foreword, recalls his introduction to the festival as a 14-year-old who, at the time, was peeling potatoes at the town’s Grand Hotel during a holiday stint.

Parky peeling spuds?

Them were t’days.

Fuller speaks to Geoffrey Boycott, who, reflecting on what Fuller describes as Scarborough’s “wow factor”, and why the Yorkshire public adore it, strikes a sentimental chord.

“It’s reminiscent of when we were kids,” says Boycott. “You went to Scarborough for your holidays. It was the magic of going to the seaside, going on the beach, paddling in the sea, making sandcastles and riding the donkeys.”

But it’s the tales of “ordinary folk,” so to speak, that underpin the book, the thoughts and memories of the cricket-watching public and what the ground means to them. As Fuller says, “many plan their entire lives around cricket at Scarborough. It matters that much.”

Part of why Scarborough matters is because of the people. Bill Mustoe, for example, the former chairman and one of the nicest men you could possibly meet. “Each year, it feels as if the whole of Yorkshire comes together for a couple of weeks beside what I consider to be some of the most beautiful coastline in the country. JM Kilburn famously described Scarborough as first-class cricket on holiday. There has been no more evocative description.”

My own memories, dominated by Lehmann, are also laced with oodles of quirk and colour.

There was the time when sea fret made it practically impossible to see one end of the ground from the other, as though the cricket was being played on a ghostly shipwreck.

There was the occasion when the ground’s PA system – don’t ask me how – picked up an oration from a nearby funeral service, stopping the cricketers dead in their tracks.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today… ” You really couldn’t make it up.

That same PA also picked up commentary one year from a bowls match taking place down the road.

Scarborough sometimes makes for the most remarkable copy.

Inevitably, as the game’s administrators worship at the altar of 100-ball cricket, and as the Championship increasingly withers on the vine, you wonder for how long cricket at Scarborough can possibly survive.

My view is that it will endure for as long as county cricket is played, for Yorkshire folk would surely not allow it any other way.

The thought of no county cricket at Scarborough is beyond depressing, the equivalent of Saturn losing its rings or Jupiter its Great Red Spot. Luckily, there is no more passionate advocate of Scarborough than Mark Arthur, the Yorkshire chief executive, a true cricket lover to his heart.

One final memory of Scarborough, for now at least, is of the former Pakistan batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq freezing in the slips, buried beneath about five sweaters and a woolly hat, on an unseasonably cold day during a brief and largely unmemorable stint as Yorkshire’s overseas player.

It was so cold that day that a certain Yorkshire Post cricket correspondent had to resort to forking out in the club shop for a Yorkshire CCC fleece.

However, no amount of money could possibly repay the enjoyment that Scarborough has given to me and to countless others.

Last of the Summer Wickets: Tales from the Scarborough Cricket Festival by John Fuller (Great Northern Books, priced £9.99).