Interview: Traditionalists adapt to modern-day needs

THE County Championship has, it seems, been in a state of flux for much of its 125 years with everything from the duration of matches through to how points are awarded and even whether sides must enforce the follow-on having been subject to change.

North Marine Road Ground, Scarborough

Further unwelcome tinkering appears to be on the way, too, amid suggestions that the ECB, as part of an ongoing consultation process into the domestic game, is considering reducing the length of competition by a quarter to just 12 games.

One facet, however, that remains reassuringly familiar is the appeal of watching a day’s cricket in Scarborough.

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As quintessential to a Yorkshire cricketing summer as strawberries and cream are to the Wimbledon fortnight, a visit to North Marine Road is enough to thrill the soul in a way that Headingley, for all its improvements in recent years, never will.

Not for nothing did JM Kilburn, the esteemed former cricket correspondent of this newspaper, once opine: “Scarborough at festival time is first-class cricket on holiday”.

Tomorrow will see Yorkshire’s annual pilgrimage to the seaside get under way with a four-day game against Worcestershire.

Two more 50-over contests follow against Gloucestershire and Somerset before the highlight of this year’s festival – and, perhaps, the entire 2015 season considering where the two protagonists sit in the First Division table – sees Durham take on the reigning county champions. It promises to be a hugely enjoyable few weeks for cricket fans in the county, as long-serving Scarborough Cricket Club chairman Bill Mustoe admits.

“The ground is looking magnificent,” he said to The Yorkshire Post when taking time out from the intense preparations that go into staging first-class cricket by the coast.

“Everyone is looking forward to the cricket getting under way, especially with Yorkshire doing so well this season. With the team top of the league and the school holidays having just begun, from our perspective, things could not be better and we are hoping for some decent crowds.

“Scarborough is an arena people enjoy watching cricket in, while the town also seems to have something of a therapeutic effect.

“I have seen people queuing at the gates with walking sticks and frames. But then, the moment the gates open, there is this almighty sprint to secure the same seat they have sat in for the last 25 years. Usain Bolt might struggle to beat a couple of them, judging by how quickly they set off towards their favourite part of the ground.”

With club officials hoping for a crowd of 3-4,000 at tomorrow’s first day, favoured vantage points are likely to fill up early amid a sense of anticipation that Yorkshire could be closing in on consecutive title successes for the first time since the Sixties.

The game, of course, has changed dramatically since those halcyon days for the White Rose county.

So, too, has Scarborough’s world famous festival with 1968 seeing Yorkshire, fresh from claiming the last of those three straight Championships in a row, rounding off their season by taking on an MCC XI in the same week as an England XI featuring Geoff Boycott had thrashed a Rest of the World XI by 133 runs over three days.

An international schedule that gets busier with each passing year precludes a return to those days with 2014 being the first time Scarborough had managed to stage the festival over two weeks as opposed to one for the first time since 1998, thanks in the main to the staging of prestigious fixtures from the women’s game.

However, while the traditionalists may bemoan the more slimmed-down format and the loss of the days when greats such as Don Bradman and Jack Hobbs could be lured to the Yorkshire coast, Mustoe is much more pragmatic.

“Obviously, the game has changed dramatically,” he said. “And if we had fought those changes as a club, then we would have died. So, instead, we adapted.

“The festival used to be an end-of-season celebration when being selected for any of the XIs was a big thing. But now, with the amount of international cricket played, the chances of getting a tourist side here are virtually nil.

“So, we have evolved and built the festival around Championship and one-day cricket. We are pleased with how things are, while we enjoyed having England women’s side here last year.

“We may have to adapt further in the future, considering the proposed changes (to the County Championship) that have been suggested.

“If they go ahead, the number of Championship home games for Yorkshire would be reduced. The only solution for us would be to adapt to the changing circumstances. We have done that before and we would do that again.

“We are very fortunate in that (Yorkshire chief executive) Mark Arthur is very understanding of the role Scarborough plays in Yorkshire cricket. He is very supportive of what we do and made that very clear from the start.”

North Marine Road benefited from a £3m upgrade thanks to Tesco in 2011 but it is not just spectators who relish a visit to what is comfortably English cricket’s largest outground.

Players, too, enjoy a trip to the seaside, as Paul Collingwood made clear in an interview with this correspondent that was conducted a few months after Durham’s crucial Championship win in Scarborough a little under two years ago.

“That game was one I likened to how Test cricket can be,” said the former England Test batsman. “The intensity and the pressure was the same, while there was an excellent crowd every day and the surface was good.

“We were well supported but it was pretty hard to hear our fans. And we came in for some choice words from the boundary edge. But, after winning in such testing conditions, I felt we could go on and win the title.”

Collingwood and Durham, of course, are due back in Scarborough on August 7. Before then, though, Worcestershire will be hoping to shatter the only remaining unbeaten record in this year’s Championship in front of what is likely to be a partisan crowd.

“Yorkshire being here during the school holidays is a big thing and we have to thank Mark and everyone at Headingley for that,” said Mustoe. “At this time of year, the population of Scarborough swells from 60,000 to 250,000 and that is a big pool to try and attract to the cricket.

“This is a special place. I remember walking through the gates for the first time many years ago and thinking, ‘This is magnificent’. I still get butterflies in the stomach ahead of a game here, and Sunday will be no different.

“More importantly, the value of cricket to the economy in Scarborough every year stretches into several millions. We are very fortunate to have a theatre with an international reputation in the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the cricket ground has a similar name way beyond the town or even Yorkshire.”