29 July 2014

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Cricket is Coming


As the Australian bandwagon looms on the horizon and the ICC World Twenty20 draws closer, Mark Sansom looks forward to a glorious summer for English cricket

Ashes - Fire_extinguisher_wall_-_1_(E).jpgFlashback to summer 2005… open-topped buses, drunkenness at Downing Street, 750,000 people strewn across London’s streets, empty Champagne bottles and MBEs: the last foray of a great rock band, huge-scale national celebration, or cricket team victory? You’d be forgiven for writing off the latter immediately.

The Ashes win four years ago made cricket king for a day. This summer gives the sport an opportunity to reclaim its crown. Add to this a West Indies touring party and the ICC World Twenty20, it makes an unprecedented year for English cricket.

While Twenty20 is the game that’s grabbing the world’s attention, Test matches and One Day Internationals (ODIs) always draw a full house up and down the country and make great opportunities for corporate entertainment.

Any cricket lover would give their right arm for an Ashes ticket this year. With general admission tickets selling out in record time and now harder to come by than a steady job in banking, the only way in is through the hospitality gates. ‘We’ve had so many requests from clients wanting to go to the Ashes this year, it’s easily as popular as Wimbledon or the 6 Nations,’ says Johnny Ashenhurst from accounting and consulting firm Deloitte. ‘As it only comes round every four years, you can’t buy debentures like we do at Twickenham or the tennis. You have to choose specific hospitality dates.’

While your clients – and other people’s – will be arranging their summer holidays, it’s worth thrusting the golden ticket in their hand now. This way, they can not only fix a date in their diary, but when asked about their summer plans by colleagues and competitors, they can wax lyrical about who’s taking them to the Ashes.

Wales will welcome the series and its supporters for the first time this year. Glamorgan’s new £10m SWALEC stadium will have the honour of holding the first Test, falling unusually on a Wednesday (8 July). ‘Being the first home Test ever to take place outside of England, it really puts us in the spotlight,’ says Alan Hamer, finance and commercial director for the SWALEC stadium.

A midweek start means three days’ worth of weekday corporate time and with Cardiff’s excellent transport infrastructure – brought on by the opening of the Millennium Stadium in 1999 – getting to and from the ground will be hassle free. Just over two hours on a train from London, there’s also some great hotels serving the two stadiums, putting Wales firmly on the corporate radar.

If you’re having trouble getting your hands on a ticket for the first Ashes Test, another route worth considering is the SWALEC’s Silver Club package. An annual fee of £575 guarantees a seat for every fixture at the ground for the year, including five days’ worth of prime Ashes play.

Lord's CC2 - Lord's_Cricket_Ground_2.jpgLord’s – The Home of Cricket – will be up next, from 16-21 July. ‘Demand for the Ashes has been phenomenal; it’s been bucking all trends,’ says John Robinson, head of sales and marketing at the venue. However, boxes are still available in the Tavern Stand, accommodating 18 guests. ‘We’ve got an offer this year whereby those who book a box for the fourth day’s play (£7,500) get the fifth day’s play for free.’

Other areas at Lord’s with hospitality packages still available are the Captains’ Lounge and Nursery Pavilion, which are ideally suited to smaller groups. Table shares are sold in anything between twos and tens and include all you’d expect from a day’s cricket hospitality: restaurant-quality food, complimentary bar and a celebrity speaker from the cricketing world. Seats in the Captains’ Lounge cost £699 and Nursery Pavilion packages are available for £549.

Edgbaston – the ground where England has been most successful – and Headingley Carnegie, notorious for its vociferous young crowd and fancy dress day, will follow next, on 30 July-4 August and 7-12 August respectively.
It was at Edgbaston where the Ashes were tipped in England’s favour four years ago. With the crowd closer to the pitch than at any other venue, it creates an intimate atmosphere, unlike some other cricket stadiums. As fans will testify, getting to the bar and using the facilities can be a nightmare at the Birmingham ground, so hospitality packages are always popular with those travelling in from around the country.

The Brit Oval holds the potentially deciding Ashes Test from 20-25 August. As expected, hospitality has been selling extremely well. ‘We only have packages for the Saturday and Sunday left and we expect those to sell out soon’, says Ceri Richardson, head of sales at the venue.

With its new roof terrace and glass-fronted, pitch-side dining areas, it arguably boasts the best cricket hospitality in the world. A casual buffet on the roof is the ticket of choice for ex-cricket professionals, while a more formal four-course lunch is available in the restaurant. The food here is always well received. You can expect the likes of cured salmon with vodka and lime crème fraîche to start, followed by slow-roasted rump of Cornish lamb for main.

Returning from a less-than-fruitful Caribbean winter, England has a chance to repay the West Indies on home soil in May. Beaten in the $1m-a-man Stanford Super Series match over Christmas and then defeated 1-0 in the Tests, our team will certainly be out for revenge.

Throughout May, five English grounds will be getting an early-season airing. Lord’s and Chester-le-Street will host back-to-back five-day Tests on 6-11 May and 15-20 May, followed by three ODIs at Bristol, Edgbaston and Headingley Carnegie.

Lord’s still has boxes available for the Test (starting at £4,000) but we particularly like the Nursery Pavilion package, offering great value for money at £199 per person. This option comes with the added bonus of being able to watch the players warming up in the nets just yards away, while seats are reserved in the Mound Stand, which has the best atmosphere in the ground.

Bristol’s Nevil Road stadium will host the first ODI on 24 May. Kevin Ashley, head of sales, says: ‘It’s always good to welcome England back, particularly against a big side like the West Indies. Guests will get to try out our new hospitality facilities located on the site of the old changing rooms.’ It’s a rare opportunity to witness international cricket in the South West and with Bristol being so accessible these days, it should draw a steady Home Counties crowd too.

The second-ever outing of the ICC World Twenty20 will hit British shores from 5-21 June. After a hugely successful inaugural tournament in South Africa, it’s England’s turn to play host to the fastest-growing sport in history.

Brit Oval - 65478455_2nvKa9sy.jpgLord’s, The Brit Oval and Nottingham’s Trent Bridge will host the fixtures, with the former set to hold the final. The 27 games are crammed into just over two weeks and a real buzz is expected to take over the country. London will take the higher-profile games and welcome in the spectators descending from all over the cricketing world.

Twenty20 is a more accessible form of the game and makes a cracking hospitality option for those less in tune with the longer versions. Matches are short, lasting only a few hours, and an exciting climax is invariably guaranteed where team totals are rarely more than a few runs apart. The atmosphere is more like that found at a gig, with music blaring out when runs are scored and partying common in the stands.

Hospitality at Twenty20 games is similar to that found at Test matches, but more condensed. ‘Due to the two games in one day, we fit our catering in around it,’ says Robinson. ‘We offer a brunch in the morning, before the first game at around midday, followed by an option of three different meals before the 5.30pm evening match.’ With top-end catering partners Tamarind serving contemporary Indian cuisine as an option, guests have the opportunity of sampling food designed by some of the best Indian chefs in London. Contemporary British cuisine is also a speciality at Lord’s, served as an added extra in any of the boxes or included with the hospitality packages.

The Oval, too, will fit meal times around the games, saving its cheese plate for the 45-minute change of innings in the final fixture. ‘The two Twenty20 games work out a similar length to a full day of Test match play, so we keep the food coming regularly,’ says Richardson.
The ICC haven’t started marketing the tournament yet and it’d be a good idea to get in before the surge in global demand. An influx of spectators from the subcontinent is expected due to the weak pound and huge interest in the shorter form of the game. Richardson of the Oval says: ‘We expect demand to rocket when the ICC worldwide campaign launches. Most of our Twenty20 fixtures were complete sell-outs last year.’

Hospitality and cricket have always gone hand in hand. While the Twenty20 format is still finding its feet, you’d have thought Test cricket was custom-built for corporate entertainment. A good three-quarters of the nine-hour day is spent with the ball not in play, so face time with clients is constant and the only real diversion comes in the form of polite applause. Food and drink offerings are enough to keep the most ardent connoisseurs happy, while a lunchtime stroll around the ground offers up talking points and entertainment at every turn.
As March saw the England ladies team lift the World Cup in Sydney after a comfortable win against New Zealand, it’s the men’s turn to stand up and be noticed.

To expect similar scenes to the open-topped buses and parties of 2005 may be too much to ask, but don’t give up hope of a summer of celebration just yet. Remember last year’s Olympics? Not so long ago, Brits the world over wore smug grins thanks to our fourth place finish, two places above the men from Down Under. And how about the Rugby World Cup in 2003 and in 2007? British sport all too often does itself down – let’s put the Champagne on ice.

This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2009

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