In the early 80s, the Liverpool Competition, like Liverpool itself, featured some beautiful but fading architecture. Its pavilions at clubs like Sefton Park, Bootle and Northern were rooted in Victorian confidence, but were adjusting to Thatcherite astringency with varying degrees of success. As a teenager, I did what all teenagers do and took them for granted, barely glancing at the photos on the walls, surveying the Honours Boards only for funny names, oblivious to the history seeping from the bricks into the very air I breathed – after all, where could I get a pint? I do recall a frisson of excitement reading a notice about Don Bradman’s match at Liverpool (particularly as little appeared to have been done to upgrade the players’ facilities between 1930 and 1981), and feeling privileged to be behind the shatterproof glass at Southport, a ground where I had sat on the grass to watch Clive Lloyd and Ken McEwan amongst many others.
But the first building that really turned my head and sparked a lifelong love affair with cricket’s vast variety of pavilions was Old Trafford’s hulking red brick monster, humanised only a little by the famous hanging baskets that celebrate Lancashire’s floral emblem. Though I had first seen it bathed in Mancunian sunshine for Bob Ratcliffe’s match in 1975, in my mind’s eye, it will always be slightly glowing, its interior lights soft and dilute under scowling, rain-filled clouds – an Atkinson Grimshaw painting conjured into life. So it was when I sat on the Warwick Road End’s wooden benches to witness Ian Botham walk down the steps, through the members’ seats to make his way to the crease in 1981 and thence on into history.
Another pavilion enhanced by light that would have Dickie Bird twitching and ticking is Lord’s grand old pile. In day-nighters (more rare at Lord’s than elsewhere due to planning restrictions), I like to spend half an hour in the Compton Stand as dusk falls, to watch the blush pink brickwork deepen to bloody scarlet as it retreats a little, the artificial floodlights creating a new palette for our eyes to appreciate. Seen through the mists of September at 8.00am with the stewards and the concessionnaires getting ready for a one-day final, the pavilion seems ethereal, a impressionistic watercolour, so different from its HD high summer pin-sharp resolution.
The Oval’s pavilion is an altogether different affair. For so long the scene of champagne spraying as series are wrapped up in the Fifth Test, it has the ambience of large pub, with lots of different rooms attracting different groups of friends who chat, drink and enjoy the cricket. It’s a building that impresses more on the inside than the outside – rather like much of its surrounding South London locales. It has lost some of its power now the crowds cannot congregate in front of it to hail their heroes but it remains a Falstaff to its North London Cleopatra.
Since cricket’s 2006 solus agreement with Sky for live cricket rights brought in significant funding, many pavilions have been re-developed to improve facilities for spectators (and, lest we forget, the media) which now offer the kind of matchday experience corporate clients and spectators paying towards £100 for a ticket have come to expect. One such is Edgbaston, a delight to visit – but hardly a delight to look at. It will be a shame if too many grounds follow Warwickshire’s template, although it’s gratifying to see the Rose Bowl create something from the last days of The Raj in Southampton, feeling like a mirage on its industrial estate location.
But cricket pavilions vary as much as cricket does, each a monument to the players and spectators who made the matches they hosted, from the humblest, friendliest of clubs up to the venues that provide the canvases for the heroes of the game. One of cricket’s joys – well, one of red ball cricket’s joys – is that it affords plenty of time to look around and consider one’s surroundings. The pavilion is the centrepiece of man’s intervention in that environment, so the best of them respect that responsibility and reward contemplation with much to consider.
A quarter-century or more on, the man who was that teenager does not take pavilions for granted.