By Brian Halford
One of the most historic cricket venues in the Midlands has a bright future to go with its famous past after being bought and rescued from dereliction by Warwickshire County Cricket Club.
The Edgbaston Foundation Ground, formerly the Mitchells & Butlers ground, on Portland Road in Birmingham, has a rich history, not least as the site at which Jack Bannister recorded the best first-class bowling figures for Warwickshire -23.3-11-41-10 – against Combined Services in 1959.
Opened on August 2, 1930, it hosted County Championship and other first-class matches for 30 years and was one of the great homes of Birmingham League cricket for over three decades after that.
But its days as a cricket venue appeared over when, in 1993, the M&B Brewery team resigned from the Birmingham League. The cricket square was removed and became part of a football pitch and, while the land remained an open space, cricket no longer featured.
In 2006, Persimmon Homes purchased the Cape Hill Brewery site. The sports facilities, however, were protected by a Section 106 agreement which meant that the land had to remain in sporting use for adjacent development to be permitted – and that led to a remarkable opportunity for Warwickshire CCC.
In November 2014, they bought the land from Persimmon, spotting an opportunity to rebuild it as a cricket ground for the local community and also relieve some of the pressure on Edgbaston in preparation for the upcoming ICC Champions Trophy in 2017 and ICC Cricket World Cup in 2019. A second base, just five minutes from HQ, was there for the taking if they could meet the asking price.
They could. That asking price from Persimmon? £1.
If that was a snip, Warwickshire have followed it up with significant investment to restore the site as both a cricket and community hub.
“This season 24 matches will be played here,” said site manager Jonathan Blakeman. “They include five men’s 2nd XI games, four senior women’s games and a women’s Twenty20.
“Some games took place here last season and now we are ready for the first full season and it is brilliant to see the old ground back vibrant as a cricket venue.
“Rob Franklin from the groundstaff has done an amazing job. The old square was completely removed in 1994 so it was a case of starting from scratch but the pitches have played well with a good, consistent carry. The only thing we are not sure of is just how much pace they have because we have had no senior men’s game yet. We will find that out on April 18 when the Bears 2nds play Nottinghamshire.”
Aside from matches, the ground will be heavily used this season. Warwickshire’s Emerging Players Programme and Academy squads will train there regularly, as will the University Of Birmingham Men’s team. Two specialist fielding sessions, led by Bears fielding coach Jim Troughton, will be held for the county age-group squads while elite performance manager Paul Greetham has two spin-bowling projects booked, targeted at 18-24 year olds.
Kwik Cricket schools festivals are booked for Years Five and Six pupils while the Chance To Shine schools finals were held at Portland Road last year.
Cricket is emphatically back at Portland Road but plenty more is going on there too among the community of which the ground has been a part for almost a century. The M&B bowls team still play there, as do Broomfield Bowling Club who relocated there in 2010. There is an Under 10s grass football pitch while the clubhouse facilities are used by community groups including the local residents’ association and neighbourhood forum and members of the nature reserve to which the land is attached.
For many, however, the cricket remains central to the site and the redeveloped Edgbaston Foundation Ground contains plenty of nods to history. Spectators can watch the cricket from the old, concrete steps from which their predecessors cheered Jack Bannister to his all-ten 57 years ago.
In the clubhouse, Jack’s feat is celebrated by a montage of photographs which underline the venue’s significance.
And significant, it is. While thousands of wickets have been delivered by Warwickshire bowlers a short hop away at Edgbaston, the best analysis ever recorded for the county was here.
Portland Road is up and running again. And how. That could just have been the best pound any cricket club ever spent!