Get Down To St. Helen’s . . . For Sunshine, Sea, And Some Special Sporting Memories

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Run for it!

Graham Thomas

Graham is a well known sports writer in Wales. He shares with the Eye stories on his other blog at http://www.dai-sport.com
Run for it!

Glamorgan are back in Swansea for their next match and Owen Morgan couldn’t be happier. It means a journey down to the beautiful seaside ground that is St. Helen’s – and a trip down memory lane.

Dear Old Blowers would have been in his element.

The retired BBC radio cricket commentator Henry Blofeld loved an attractive cricket ground which inspired him to use his vast vocabulary as a palette from which to paint pictures for his listeners.

There are few more picturesque grounds in county cricket than Swansea’s St Helen’s.

And the grand old venue was dressed in its finest colours during Glamorgan’s sun-drenched Specsavers County Championship match against Derbyshire last summer.

Multi-coloured buses travelling to and fro along the Mumbles Road, sunshine sparkling off the turquoise waters of Swansea Bay and squadrons of seagulls vying for airspace with the streetwise city  pigeons overhead.

Admittedly, the ageing venue has seen far better days, but it had seldom looked better than it did during an enthralling match which was the perfect advertisement for four day cricket.

The vast bank at the pavilion end has, in its prime, housed thousands of spectators for international rugby matches and witnessed victories over the mighty All Blacks and the Baggy Green caps of the touring Australian cricket team.

Eerily empty of paying customers, even its deserted grey slopes were a sea of colour that Blowers would have approved of, bedecked in banners urging visitors to come to Swansea and enjoy last year’s scorching summer.

This Tuesday morning (June 11), St Helen’s will open its famous old gates once more for the annual Swansea Cricket Festival, with Derbyshire again the visitors.

Fred’s Bar will be open for business serving cold beer and the warmest of Welsh welcomes, staffed by volunteers from the legendary Balconiers.

St Helen’s may not have the facilities of its Cardiff cousin Sophia Gardens, but when you can cross the road during the tea interval and go for a stroll along the beach with Mumbles Head in the background, who cares?

And what it might lack in mod cons, it certainly makes up for with a rich history making it the envy of many of the world’s grandest sporting venues.

Surely, there can’t be many sports grounds which have provided such a variety of entertainment over such a long period as St Helen’s.

Whether sitting on the sun-drenched boundary watching first class cricket, or standing on the rain-lashed terrace enjoying three codes of international football, sports lovers have flocked to St Helen’s for over 140 years.

And it’s not just its vast array of sporting entertainment and longevity that sets the blue plaque venue apart from the rest.

The truly historic moments it has witnessed over the years make it an integral part of not just Swansea’s but Wales’ sporting landscape.

The first ever home Welsh rugby international was played at St Helen’s back in 1882 when England were the visitors.

Action from Swansea v The All Blacks at St. Helen’s in 1935.

The ground regularly hosted Wales’ 15-a-side internationals, attracting crowds of up to 50,000 up until 1954 when it was decided to abandon St Helen’s for Cardiff.

But perhaps the most notable rugby union matches played at St Helen’s came at club level with Swansea RFC as the hosts.

When the All Whites beat New Zealand in 1935, it wasn’t just the first win by a Welsh club over All Blacks, but the 11-3 success still stands as the biggest winning margin by any Welsh team against the illustrious tourists at club or international level.

The historic win was inspired by a pair of Gowerton Grammar School sixth formers – Haydn Tanner and Willie Davies. Afterwards, the visitors’ captain Jack Manchester pleaded with the press: “Tell them we have been beaten, but don’t tell them it was by a pair of schoolboys.”

The victory was also notable for the fact that Swansea became the first Welsh club to complete the Southern Hemisphere hat-trick having beaten Australia in 1908 and South Africa in 1912.

And, of course, the All Whiles repeated the dose against Australia in 1992, when the Wallabies arrived in Swansea as the reigning World Champions.

But it’s not only rugby union the ground has hosted. A number of rugby league internationals have been played there . . . the first of which was a 26-10 win over England in 1945.

Two World Cup matches were also hosted in 1975 when Wales lost to Australia 18-6 and beat New Zealand 25-24.

The latter match saw one of the most notorious incidents in the ground’s history when Welsh union and league legend Jim Mills was sent off for stamping on the head of New Zealand prop John Greengrass as the Kiwi prop went over for a try.

And it’s not just league and union codes of football that have been played at St Helen’s. Association football has also featured at the seaside ground.

Back in 1894, the Welsh football team, which had previously played the majority of its matches in Wrexham, decided to head down south to play Ireland in the British Home International Championships and ran out 4-1 winners.

All this and I haven’t even touched on the cricketing history yet. St Helen’s fame as a multi-coded footballing venue can surely be rivalled by its history of hosting the summer game.

It’s not only Swansea RFC who have beaten international touring teams on the fast-drying sand-based surface, where the behaviour of the wicket can reputedly depend on ebb and flow of the nearby tide.

In 1951, Glamorgan were victorious over South Africa, who at one stage collapsed from 54-0 to 83 all out.

Then, in August 1964, Glamorgan claimed their second international scalp when they defeated Australia by 36 runs.

Four years later, the Aussies were defeated again, this time by 79 runs as Glamorgan became the first county side to beat the Australians on consecutive tours.

Arguably, the most famous cricketing moment at St Helen’s came in 1968 when Glamorgan were very much on the receiving end as West Indian legend Garry Sobers became the first player in cricket history to hit six sixes in one over from the bowling of the unfortunate Malcolm Nash.

The last of Sobers’ sixes sailed out of the ground, past the famous Cricketers pub and bounced away down King Edward Road.

As well as international rugby and soccer, the ground has also hosted international cricket in the shape of a one day international between England and New Zealand in 1973 and a World Cup clash between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1983.

The blue plaque at St. Helen’s that celebrates Garry Sobers’ historic six sixes.

Some of my own favourite cricketing memories of St Helen’s came in the late 1980s when Glamorgan played a series of day/night matches against the Rest of the World.

Having grown up watching from afar the furore of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket circus in Australia, it was a thrill to sample a taste of the glamour and razzmatazz of that time, just up the road in Swansea.

Some of the all-time legends of the game took part in these matches including Clive Lloyd, Martin Crowe, Dennis Lillee, Richie Richardson, Javed Miandad, Gordon Greenidge, Sir Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar.

Despite the array of cricketing superstars named in the invitational side, I can remember the excited chatter amongst spectators, as we walked to one of the games, being dominated by whether a certain young Glamorgan batsman would  be playing.

A few years earlier, Matthew Maynard – now the county’s coach – had announced his arrival on the county scene at St Helen’s by reaching a hundred on his first class debut with three consecutive straight sixes.

I seem to remember at least one of the Rest of the World games being played in light drizzle. However, a damp July evening at St Helen’s is a world away from a wild mid-winter night watching the All Whites play.

As wonderful as St Helen’s can be on a glorious summer’s afternoon with a welcome cooling breeze floating in off the sea, it can be equally wretched with an icy squall gusting in from the bay.

I reluctantly remember one of Swansea’s European encounters against Bath being played on a particularly filthy Friday night in December.

Normally, I would stand on the open bank, but because I had my young nephew with me for company, I’d decided to pay an extra couple of pounds on the gate for a place under the covered enclosure in front of the now demolished stand on the opposite touchline.

I needn’t have bothered! Despite standing as far back under cover as we possibly could, our backs firmly against the wall, the driving rain swirling almost horizontally around St Helen’s managed to blow in under the roof directly into our faces.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so wet at a rugby match. We might as well have been lined up against a wall and power-washed.

Even a trip to the refreshment counter for some hot drinks failed to warm us against the elements as the rain dripped off the exposed kiosk’s “shelter” and down that annoying little gap between collar and neck.

The deluge turned the contents of those little sugar sachets into a sticky gloop which refused to be removed from its paper packaging and into my rain-diluted and not so steaming polystyrene cup of tea.

However, the evening was saved by the diminutive Trebanos ten Arwel Thomas, who came on as a replacement to score a penalty and a last minute try and conversion, to give the Whites a 10-9 win.

That evening was as far removed from a sunny summer’s Sunday afternoon watching Glamorgan as you could possibly imagine, but that just sums up the wide variety of entertainment – and environments – St Helen’s can serve up.

Ask my children about their memories of the ground and they will reply “fireworks”! The annual November 5 spectacle has been lighting up the Swansea skyline for so long even I can remember attending as a wide-eyed and excited schoolboy.

The historic days don’t come by so regularly now with the development of Sophia Gardens and the advent of the Liberty Stadium on the other side of the city. So, hopefully, the rain will stay away this coming week and this year’s cricket festival will be full of memorable fireworks rather than damp squibs.

With the Welsh county at last challenging again at top of the County Championship Second Division, there couldn’t be a more fitting venue for the clash with Derbyshire than the ground that has added so much colour to Glamorgan County Cricket Club’s rich history.

It’s enough to bring Dear Old Blowers out of retirement.

The post Get Down To St. Helen’s . . . For Sunshine, Sea, And Some Special Sporting Memories appeared first on Dai Sport.

 

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Graham is a well known sports writer in Wales. He shares with the Eye stories on his other blog at http://www.dai-sport.com