The festival begins... with seating for 5,000 spectators
- Credit: Submitted
In answer to its critics, Torquay Cricket Club had promised to stage the most spectacular cricket festival ever seen in Devon. Eighteen months later, it was about to begin!
Don’t ask me how, but, by July 31, 1994, The Recreation Ground, on Torquay’s seafront, was ready to seat 5,000 spectators in comfort.
Today, The NatWest Old England Eleven was due to open the month-long festival by playing an afternoon match against Torquay.
By lunchtime, spectators were arriving.
Earlier, the visitors had made a wonderful gesture, and Test cricketers like John Lever and Tom Cartwright, had turned up at 11am to coach Torquay’s colts, free of charge, for two hours, in the club nets!
Politeness required that the visitors would bat first, and, at 2pm, Alan Oakman and Mike Harris walked out to open up for the Eleven.
Former England Test all-rounder Oakman, easily the oldest member of the Eleven, was now 64 years old.
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Recognising this, Ian Coulton, Torquay’s captain, threw the ball to Torquay’s chairman, Vaughan Hosking, who, himself, was now in his mid-50s. Perhaps he should have known that age hadn’t dulled his chairman’s competitive instincts!
Vaughan’s second ball spun right through Oakman’s defence and England had lost its opener for a duck!
The innings never really recovered, and, although Brian Luckhurst reached 66, he found little support, and England’s innings closed at 144-8.
The crowd, who had come to admire, Jim Parks, John Jameson, and Roger Tolchard, ended up being best entertained by Torquay’s Phil Bradford who hit four sixes in his 48.
Although it enjoyed its six wicket win, the club was proudest of the £600 it had raised for RNIB and The Sports Foundation.
It had been a good start, but now for the real test!
We had ten days to prepare for, probably, the highest-profile match ever held in Devon.
The South African national team had never played a match in the county before, and would be coming to Torquay immediately after playing the Second Test against England in Leeds. They were already 1-0 up in that series!
Success depended on attracting crowds of 5,000 on each of the three days, because, already, the club’s costs had exceeded £50,000.
The town clerk, David Hudson, and the parks officer, Bob Sweet, had supported us all the way, and we had just sold the catering contract to Gardner Merchants for £10,000.
Would it all turn out to be a disaster, or a spectacular success?
Most of all, we needed some fine weather and a bit of luck!
The day before the match was sunny, and, as we left it that evening, the ground looked an absolute picture.
News that the South Africans had arrived safely at the Imperial Hotel ticked the last box... or so we thought!
At 10pm that night, I heard the first patter of rain on my kitchen window.
My phone started ringing, and, by the time I had driven down to the ground to join the others, it was raining heavily.
We checked the covers, the pavilion windows, and the scorebox before cursing our luck, and driving home to say our prayers.
As the night wore on, the rain got heavier, and heavier!
Waves crashed over the nearby sea wall, and the council closed the road.
By 6.30am the next day, our team of volunteers was waiting to mop up.
At last, around mid-morning, the rain stopped, and some spiking could begin. The forecast was good, and the covers had done their work. Surface water was now the problem.
A few spectators had been optimistic enough to turn up when the gates opened, and Apollo, our match sponsors, had brought some celebrities to cheer up our corporate hospitality tables.
Ted Rogers, who was appearing at the Princess Theatre, arrived with John Inman, and both brought their smiles with them.
Jimmy Tarbuck and Jethro were promised for later in the day!
Obviously, no morning play was possible, but the umpires promised an inspection at 2pm.
Just before lunch, the South African’s team coach drove into the ground, and suddenly the world seemed a brighter place!
Soon afterwards, it was decided that play would begin at 2.30pm.
When the captains came out to toss up, they did so in front of about 200 people! But the hospitality tents were full.
Was there a chance that the takings at the bar might make up for those at the gate? Was our dream turning into a nightmare?
We would soon know the answers!