Cardiff makes cricket history

Sport & Style Magazine June 2009

The Ashes are heading to Wales and Europe’s youngest capital is relishing this historic moment. A city immersed in rugby tradition will, instead, become the centre of the cricket world when England and Australia meet beside the River Taff for the first Ashes Test of 2009 from 8th-12th July. It’s the first Ashes Test ever to be played outside of England or Australia and also the first Ashes Test held at a new venue in more than a century.

The Swalec Stadium is the home of Glamorgan Cricket. During the 2007 season the old ground was redeveloped into a magnificent new stadium with a capacity of 16,000. Work was completed last March.

The English Cricket Board’s decision to award this first Ashes Test to Wales has shocked some cricketing buffs who say it upsets tradition and the rhythm of the English cricket season.

Wisden writer Matthew Engel has dubbed the three separate elements of place, day and month as an “unholy trinity” marking the start of the Ashes. “No wonder cricket followers don’t know what day of the week it is”, thundered The Times.

Such censure doesn’t faze Glamorgan Cricket chairman Paul Russell, the man who orchestrated the coup. He sees winning the Test for Cardiff as “a collective reward” for Glamorgan’s hard-working staff and the work done in turning around the Club’s fortunes, “now on a firm financial footing yet only five years ago in a parlous state”. More than £13 million has been spent on improving facilities.

Dr Andrew Hignell, Glamorgan’s heritage and education manager, scorer and announcer, simply shrugs his shoulders. He says a Welsh Test could have happened more than a century ago, in 1905, when Glamorgan won the minor county championship and approached the MCC to host Australia at the Arms Park. “The first test was up for grabs that year between us and Nottinghamshire. I gather we lost by just one vote.”

Cricket as catalyst

Hignell would rather enthuse about how cricket has played as a catalyst in Cardiff’s sporting history. Sophia Gardens, site of the Swalec Stadium, was the first place that sport was played in the city – and the game was cricket.

Sophia Gardens is named after the wife of the 2nd Marquess of Bute, the man who built Cardiff docks. The public parkland was laid out in 1858 by the wife of the third Marquess, a man with his own private cricket team.

“In 1874, the Marquess laid out a wicket here and played the England team, the first time the famous English cricketers had visited Cardiff,” says Hignell. “That match kick-started interest in the game here. In 1888, at the Angel Hotel opposite Cardiff Castle, the Glamorgan Cricket Club was formed with the Marquess as president.”

He also points out that Cardiff City Football Club, the Bluebirds, grew out of the Riverside Cricket Club, which played regularly at Sophia Gardens in the 1890s. “They enjoyed themselves so much that, in 1899, they formed a football club for winter. In 1907 the club changed its name to Cardiff City Football Club, moved to Ninian Park in 1910 and won the 1927 FA Cup when they beat Arsenal.”

Australian Ashes fans bound for Cardiff will have a terrific innings. Play will take place in peaceful surroundings ideally suited to the gentlemanly game. The cricket ground sits beside the gently flowing River Taff adjacent to the delightful Bute Gardens, a most green and pleasant part of the city where fans can easily stretch their legs during lunch breaks.

After a gripping day’s play they’ll be able to slake their thirst and placate their hunger in the finest of Welsh pubs, Y Mochyn Du (The Black Pig), conveniently located immediately outside the cricket ground. Two Welsh words of prime importance will be cwrwr (pronounced “coo- roo”) for beer and bwyd for food. On the menu are Glamorgan sausages, Welsh faggots with mushy peas, prime Welsh black beef, lamb and Y Fenni cheese.

Publican Richard Lewis looks forward to welcoming the Australians. “I might even get in some roo steaks,” he jokes. His crew will be pulling house brews from the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery and ales from the Otley Brewery, both in nearby Pontypridd. The pub also stocks Penderyn single malt whisky from a tiny distillery in the nearby Brecon Beacons. As the first legally distilled whisky spirit in Wales for more than 100 years it’s perfectly suited to toasting this historic Ashes Test.

Fans will celebrate beneath a bat and jersey framed in honour of Aussie cricketers Michael Kasprowicz, Matthew Elliot and Mick Lewis, who turned out for Glamorgan in 2004. Jason Gillespie has turned out for the club and left-hander Mark Cosgrove is currently enjoying his second spell there.

A real Welsh experience

“Cardiff’s a fantastic place to live,” says a Cosgrove, happy after scoring a half century in a County Championship match against Derbyshire. “You can get almost everywhere on foot. I walk everyday through Bute Gardens to the ground from my digs in the city centre.”

For local nightlife Mark suggests the cluster of bars and clubs along Greyfriars Street in the city. “And down on the bay is always good. A favourite of mine is Salt, a popular bar-restaurant overlooking the water. I’d also recommend The Cinnamon Tree in Pontcanna for Indian food and the nearby Cameo Club for a quiet, relaxing time. And the guys also enjoy a quiet pint after practice at the Mochyn Du.”

“There’s simply no better place for a real Welsh experience,” agrees Ieuan Evans, the Welsh rugby captain from 1991-1995. “And if it’s overflowing, which is likely, there’s another distinctly Welsh pub close by, The Cayo Arms on Cathedral Road.”

Evans is a member of the Tourism Advisory Council. “We are well blessed in Cardiff,” he says. “A population of 300,000 has a 75,000 seat stadium, a cricket test venue and a wonderful cultural centre and opera house on the bay.”

He heartily recommends that visitors jump aboard the local water bus for the ride down to Cardiff Bay to soak up its waterfront atmosphere. He nominates Woods Brasserie for a really stylish meal or the Mimosa Kitchen & Bar, part-owned by Welsh heart-throb Ioan Gruffudd of Hornblower fame.

Cardiff has sport running through its veins. The city’s heart is dominated by the massive Millennium Stadium, looking just like a spaceship that’s landed downtown, its spiky, futuristic outlines juxtaposed with the old square stone towers of Cardiff Castle and its ancient Norman keep. The 75,000 capacity stadium was built to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup, has since hosted five FA Cup Finals and now competes with the castle as the city’s top visitor attraction.

Radiating from the stadium are the inner city’s streets, lanes and covered arcades, many with cosy pubs synonymous with sporting celebration. St Mary Street bisects the town and is swamped by fans after a big match.

Top venues for post-match carousing include the City Arms – “always packed out on international days” – and The Old Arcade, one of Cardiff’s most famous rugby pubs, built in 1844 as the Birdcage Inn and later renamed after the arcade leading to the city markets. Park Vaults in Park Lane is lent considerable character by its stained glass windows and mahogany partitions.

Evans chuckles when I ask if any local sportsmen have turned publicans. “Over in France it seems that every former rugby player has a pub or restaurant,” he replies. “This isn’t the case in Wales. But we certainly do support such establishments!”

Modern mixes with traditional

The revamped Brewery Quarter beside the new St David’s shopping mall development has a sunken courtyard with shops, cafes and restaurants. The Yard stands on the site of the original Old Brewery of 1713 where beer was brewed for 286 years. The modern pub, revamped in 2006, has a suitably industrial décor of copper piping, stone and stainless steel, with comfy sofas, low tables and long bar. Its upper floor was taken over by a celebrating contingent of Welsh Guards when I visited.

Pontcanna is an affluent and peaceful suburb at the top of Cathedral Street, within easy walking distance of the Swalec Stadium. It’s nicknamed Taffialand, after the river but also mocking its trendy ambience. Pontcanna Fields is the expanse of attractive greensward beside the river, part of the extensive Sophia Gardens parkland.

A new gastro pub in Pontcanna, The Conway, exemplifies modern Cardiff style with its comfortable armchairs, sofas and banquettes, a communal dining table in the rear and cosy fireside dining in winter. The chalkboard menu features seasonal local fresh produce with chef Stephan Nilsson adding inventive twists to favourite standards. Nearby is the Cameo Club recommended by Mark Cosgrove.

Gareth Davies, Welsh fly-half from 1978 to 1985, particularly likes The Butcher’s Arms in the suburb of LLandaff, “a traditional village pub in the old sense of the word, a good watering hole with a great sporting atmosphere. It was once run by C D Williams who played for Wales back in the 1950s.”

Davies lived in Sydney until recently as head of the economic development agency International Business Wales but left in May to become Dean of Sport and Education at Leeds Carnegie University in the UK. He also made an out-of-town suggestion.

“The villages of the Vale of Glamorgan, west of Cardiff, make for a great day’s outing, by car or bus. Cowbridge is a quaint market town with some excellent one-off shops.” He put in a plug for The Red Lion in Bonvilston. “It used to be known as rugby pub in my day. We’d stop off on our way back from playing in Swansea.”

Ending on a personal note, I must mention Garlands Coffee House in Castle Arcade opposite the castle, not simply for its Welsh Heritage menu including caws wedi pobi (Welsh rarebit) but because it’s the one place I found in Cardiff where they understand a request for a flat white!

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