Welcome to a new regular series at The Bouncer called A Day at the Cricket. Football groundhopping has become very popular in recent years, with many blogs and magazines devoted to travelling to and reviewing different grounds. However, cricket has been slow to catch up and, with county cricket needing all the publicity it can get, here at the Bouncer we thought it would be a good time to institute the first cricket groundhopping feature and what better place to start than Wantage Road, the home of Northamptonshire CC.
Wantage Road is tucked away at the top of a street of 1970’s style terraced houses and it is certainly not an imposing ground. If you weren’t looking for it you certainly wouldn’t find it but then that is part of its charm. Grounds tend to mirror the clubs that play there and Northamptonshire are certainly one of the more unassuming clubs in county cricket, always underappreciated, always written off as the first to go if the reformers get their way in reducing the amount of first class clubs. However, to me at least, it is clubs like these that are part of the fabric of our county game, far more so than the glamourous counties at shining Test grounds. To lose a Northamptonshire or a Leicestershire would be as heartbreaking as the sad demise of Bury and Macclesfield football clubs.
Upon entry to the ground, you will see a small wooden shed, this is the ticket booth. County Championship tickets are priced at £15 in advance for adults but if, like me, you prefer to do things more spontaneously, they are £18 on the gate. Sadly, Wantage Road is, like so many sports grounds post Covid, completely cashless.
The beauty of county cricket is that you can sit wherever you want. I chose my usual spot, in the West Stand, where the roof of the upper tier provides shelter in bad weather and welcome shade on a hot day. I have always preferred the side on view when attending cricket as it gives a better panorama of the whole ground.
Wantage Road has a calming feel to it. It is a cosy cricket ground, a quality that many of the more overdeveloped grounds have lost. I have always found that the great joy of county cricket is it’s unchangingness in an ever changing world. Much of modern life reminds me of the lyric from the old hymn Abide with Me “change and decay in all around I see”. Four day county cricket may occasionally seem to be decaying in the face of the endless challenges from shiny new tournaments but it never changes. Upon arriving at Wantage Road, Chelmsford or Grace Road to name a few, there is a quiet joy in sitting back, taking in the view of the eleven men on the field and realising that this scene could be being played out in Victorian Britain, the 1940’s, 70’s or 90’s and, apart from the numbers on the back of the shirts and larger sponsors logos, you would not be able to tell it apart from the present day. The county game is an oasis of continuity and tradition in a world in flux and that is something that those who deride it compared to The Hundred or T20 tournaments will never understand.
Arriving on day two, I found the match to be already heavily weighted in favour of the visitors Kent. Northants are rock bottom of the County Championship division 1, having defied the odds to get promoted in 2019 and then remain there last season when the two division structure was restored. However, it seems as if their stay in the top flight will not be extended any further. Kent were one place above them at the start of the game but the gap between the teams seemed vast. As I took my seat, about half an hour before the lunch interval, Daniel Bell-Drummond was on 87 not out and the precociously talented young Zimbabwean Tawenda Muyeye had already reached his first First Class hundred. Kent were 200-1 in reply to their opponents meagre 232 all out. Muyeye proceeded to unleash a sparkling array of shots on his way to 173. He is a wonderful prospect and it was a joy to watch him bat. I would very surprised if he is not playing international cricket within the next couple of years.
Talking of players who should be playing international cricket, Daniel Bell-Drummond was about to make the rest of the day his own. By the time I left at the end of the day’s play he was 271 not out and would complete his first triple century the following morning. I have always felt that Bell-Drummond deserved an England chance. Lesser players than him have been given the opportunity to see what they can do on the international stage.
Northants bowlers struggled to appear threatening on a benign surface but young leg spinner Alex Russel showed promise and ended up with six wickets by the following day.
During the lunch interval I took a wander round the ground. There is a small club shop located in a portacabin containing a limited stock of club clothing, including replica T20 and One day shirts. Disappointingly the bar that had been open on my previous visit was now closed. I was told by a steward that they only open it for T20’s these days which is a shame, although understandable given the limited sales it would probably make during a four day game. There was an ice cream stand to the side of where I was seated that seemed to be doing a good trade. Almost everyone in our stand visited it at some point. Inside the main Lynn Wilson stand behind the bowler’s arm there was a bar serving beer, cider and snacks but it didn’t seem feasible to take your drinks outside and so I chose to return to my seat with my packed lunch. Like most county grounds you are allowed to bring your own alcohol in for non T20 games so there is always that option.
The greatest gem at Wantage Road is easily missed however and I did indeed miss it on my last trip. To the side of the West Stand is a small wooden structure housing the Northamptonshire Supporters Association bookshop, an absolute goldmine of second hand cricket books. I was blown away by the choice available which included many hard to find, out of print publications. I intended to go out for a drink during the tea interval but instead found myself lost in this treasure trove until after the players had already returned to the field. In the end I managed to limit myself to Graham Thorpe’s autobiography and a copy of Scyld Berry’s seminal tour diary of England’s 1987-88 winter, A Cricket Odyssey, which included both the 1987 World Cup and the infamous Mike Gatting – Shakoor Rana set to. I could have come home with far more though and look forward to further perusing on my next trip to the ground.
All in all, Wantage Road is a delight to visit. If, like me, you yearn for a quieter pace of life and enjoy the understated joys county cricket has to offer then you will find it a welcome sanctuary. I will certainly be back soon.
Getting to Wantage Road
The number 1 bus goes from platform 13 of the central bus station in Northampton to Wantage Road in 15 minutes. The train station is a 10 minute walk out of town and is easily accessible from London.
There is a pleasant looking pub called The Abington at the bottom of the street with big screens to watch the sport, a beer garden outside and plenty of food options. Northampton itself also has plenty of places to eat and drink.