Cricket returned last month, the first recreational sport to start up again after lockdown. The resumption of play has given people the chance to enjoy some much needed social interaction and the opportunity to visit some of the county’s loveliest cricket grounds.
Words: Ross Bentley Photos: Angie Bentley
As we tentatively emerge from lockdown, even the smallest signs of a return to some kind of normality are helping lift our spirits.
And what could be more typical of a normal English summer than a game of cricket?
Prime minister Boris Johnson gave the go-ahead for club cricket to restart last month (July), heralding the long-awaited return of the sound of leather on willow across Suffolk, albeit with a number of hygiene precautions.
Andrew Blanchard, who is senior cricket development officer at the Suffolk County Cricket Board, certainly felt a buzz in the air as he toured a number of cricket grounds in the county on that first Saturday of play on July 11th.
“It’s as if the break has fuelled the demand for cricket,” he says.
“People have been yearning for social connections and that’s what you get when you go and watch a game – you can be sitting next to someone for a number of hours and conversations start up, often between people of different generations.”
Suffolk does not have a professional cricket team but the game is popular and played at all different levels in the county.
And what I’ve found is that many cricket grounds in East Anglia are simply delightful places to visit. They have a certain atmosphere you won’t find anywhere else – a well-kept playing field, a smattering of mature trees, and if you are lucky a quaint pavilion that serves beer. If you enjoy nature, sport and heritage, as well as the chance of a cheeky pint, then you could do worse than stroll down to a nearby ground and check it out.
And that’s exactly what I decided to do a week after cricket had resumed in Suffolk. Together with my wife, Angie, an Australian who grew up watching cricket, we embarked on a journey around some of west Suffolk’s loveliest grounds.
Bures – turning on the charm
When we arrive at Bures on Saturday lunchtime, the sun is shining and men of all ages, dressed in cricket whites, are spaced around the ground. A glimpse of a church tower through the treeline and an eye-catching thatched pavilion earn it extra points for charm.
A few families enjoy picnics on the boundary, while a large group of children splash about in the nearby River Stour. This stretch of water marks the county border, tempting big-hitting batsmen to try and strike the ball into Essex. Down the years, many have given it a go but as yet none have succeeded.
The heritage of cricket is built on quirky tales, and Bures has a great yarn relating to a one of the earliest games played in the village – an encounter versus Great Bentley in 1845.
As the story goes, the Bentley side batted all day before retiring for ‘refreshments’, without offering Bures’ batsmen the opportunity of getting to the crease. With a barrel of beer riding on the outcome, the stakes were high and Bures were offered (perhaps half in jest) an innings in one hundred years’ time to complete the match. Remarkably, play was resumed but not until June 22nd 1957 when villagers dressed in period costume met to resolve the unfinished business. Bures eventually ran out victors by two wickets in a game that saw 112 years elapse between innings.
Sudbury – a wonderful amphitheatre
Next stop – five miles down the road – is Sudbury cricket ground, a wonderful, historic amphitheatre that, unusually, is located in the centre of the town.
Back in the mists of time, the ground was once an orchard belonging to the local priory, who’s 14th century wall still forms part of the perimeter together with a row of cottages in different shades of Suffolk pink.
The most striking building overlooking the ground, however, is the large, red brick Prospect House on Friars Street. It was the owners of this Georgian pile that first leased the ground to the cricket club in 1891 on condition that no trees be planted that might spoil their view of the game – a stipulation that is honoured to this day..
When we arrive, there are around 70 spectators dotted around the ground, enjoying the fine weather and bonhomie.
“Some say this is the best beer garden in Sudbury,” says club chairman, Louis Brooks, with a smile.
“Because we are in town, people can wander in and out as they please. It’s an oasis of calm and regardless of whether there is any cricket being played, my pulse always quickens when I come round the corner and see the ground.”
Sudbury, who sport a natty burgundy and gold strip, are one of the leading teams in the region and the pace of the game here is noticeably faster and more furious than at Bures.
As I’m talking to Louis, a batsman from the opposing Hadleigh team launches a huge six in the direction of Angie who is on another side of the ground, taking photographs and oblivious to the danger heading her way. I hold my breath as the ball lands in a tree overhanging the bench where she is sitting, before it falls through the branches and drops inches from her feet.
It’s a reminder that with five ounces of compressed cork, twine and leather being thrashed around at high velocity, when attending cricket one must have half an eye on the game at all times.
Mildenhall – idyllic scene
As if to rejoice in our continuing good health, we are up early on Sunday and by mid-morning are strolling around Mildenhall cricket ground where we are glad to see a junior tournament underway.
Proud grandparents watch from deck chairs, eager dads stand with arms behind their backs.
“It’s great that cricket has returned in time for the summer holidays,” Mildenhall’s youth manager, Paul Robinson, tells me.
“It gives the youngsters something to look forward to and we are holding tournaments for all the age groups throughout the week.”
There are two pitches at Mildenhall and this morning the larger pitch is empty except for a low-flying swallow, which is swooping across the ground at a rate of knots. We walk down to the River Lark, which runs along one side of the ground, and admire the deep pinks and purples of the willowherb and loosestrife growing on the bank.
It’s an idyllic scene, made more dreamy by the rows of cricket bat willow trees growing here. I later find out that the silvery green trees were planted by the club, who offered people the chance to sponsor them – the payback being the opportunity to have a custom-built bat hewn from the wood when the trees are eventually harvested.
Exning – stunning setting
Our last pitch of call is Exning near Newmarket. The club recently merged with nearby Burwell, just over into Cambridgeshire, and matches are played at both locations.
Today, all the action is at Burwell and Exning is deserted but I pull up nonetheless and have a sneaky walk around a venue that has hosted cricket matches for over a century. In the 1950s and 60s the club put on All Star matches, which attracted legends such as Sir Len Hutton, Dennis Compton and Sir Garfield Sobers.
Without any other distractions, I have a chance to really appreciate the stunning setting. It’s a glorious place to end our short odyssey: an immaculate grass clearing surrounded by gigantic beech and horse chestnut trees, and beyond the boundary the Exning estate opening out into the distance where cattle graze among more trees.
A chap who is limbering up to play tennis at the neighbouring courts tells me that people coming here for the first time often remark on its beauty.
I walk on and listen to the breeze in the trees …at least I think it’s the breeze or could it be the distant, ghostly sound of light applause as a ball is hit through the covers for four?
This article appeared in the Suffolk Magazine in July 2020.