Andrew Tong reports on the furore surrounding the council, contractors and cricket week at the Nevill
QUESTION marks hung over the Nevill ground like dark clouds last week as Kent prepared to take on Sussex beneath glorious blue skies.
The future of the town’s Cricket Festival now hangs in the balance after more than 100 years.
The county club considered moving the match to their headquarters in Canterbury because of concerns about both the pitch and the outfield.
Parts of the square were flooded because it was not covered to protect it from rain, while other necessary works were not carried out.
Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club [TWCC] has accused the Borough Council, which owns the ground and is responsible for its upkeep, of undermining the cricket week because of the costs involved.
A huge effort by Kent’s own groundstaff and club members permitted the match to go ahead.
Kent romped to victory over their local rivals by 147 runs. But officials made it clear they will not tolerate any repeat of the ‘fiasco’.
The council use contractors Sodexo to carry out the works, and problems began to surface after the head groundsman Jon Buddington left in February and was replaced by another Sodexo employee.
Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club Chairman Mark Williams says: “It was clear to me he was not experienced and indeed has never worked on a cricket ground – but he had worked on a golf course.”
The new groundsman was off sick for several weeks and not replaced – during which time no work was undertaken to get the ground in a fit state for the new season.
Mr Williams says: “The lack of supervision of Sodexo has been appalling. We complained to the council but they did not react positively. So we started work on the outfield ourselves and informed Kent we had concerns.”
The county’s Chief Executive Jamie Clifford visited the Nevill ten days ahead of the big match and told Sodexo about the specification required to make the ground fit for first-class cricket.
“Jamie contacted the council for an urgent meeting at the ground on Friday [May 19],” relates Mr Williams. “We agreed with all that he said, including the inadequate staff and the fact Sodexo had employed someone incapable of preparing a first-class pitch. We asked Kent to stay – and they did.
“The game would not have gone ahead if TWCC had not taken practical action over the ground.
“Kent’s chief executive Jamie Clifford made it absolutely clear that the match would have been moved if it had not been for the good weather and the enthusiasm of our club to have the game take place.
“Jamie and Kent’s head groundsman were appalled at the incompetence and lack of professionalism of a Sodexo employee when they visited the ground.”
‘This is incredibly naive and short-sighted.
It ignores the massive benefits the festival brings’
Mr Williams complained to the council’s Chief Executive, William Benson, and the local MP Greg Clark. He claims: “It had been made clear to us that the council are not interested in the county game as they see this as an expenditure and cannot see what it brings to them.
“This is incredibly naive and short-sighted and it ignores the massive benefits the festival brings to the town. We understand the cost is nominal and amounts to the toilets that are provided.”
The festival welcomed more than 7,000 spectators over the four days. Mr Williams insists: “TWCC are very clear in wanting the Council to properly supervise the contract they have with Sodexo, who have been inept.
“The Council must be honest and transparent, and state what they will do from now on.
“Whether this involves the club taking more ownership or third-party sponsors becoming more involved, it is vital we save county week.
“The council must take proactive action to relieve Sodexo of their responsibilities at the Nevill. Jamie Clifford wants positive assurances from the council about what action will be taken.”
The Nevill is the only ground used by Kent that is not owned by the county. Canterbury’s St Lawrence HQ and Beckenham are the other two venues.
Tunbridge Wells had already lost its popular and highly lucrative annual Twenty20 match this year because of a change in the timetable.
Kent’s CEO, Mr Clifford, told the Times: “We love to host cricket around the county but there are certain standards we need to meet to ensure the comfort and safety of players, officials and spectators.
“The festival week is an integral part of the Kentish cricketing summer but with public funding scarce, it’s great that our commercial partners can support us in keeping cricket at Tunbridge Wells.
“We thank Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club for their continuing hospitality and hope the schedule allows us to bring first class action and visitors to the town in the future.”
The council responded: “We will be talking to Kent about the comments they have made and their plans for future fixtures in Tunbridge Wells and how we might work together to achieve this.”