England’s toffy cricket elite keeps the crowds at bay
Tonight, a young man from New South Wales will step on to a cricket field in old South Wales. Phillip Hughes, age twenty, son of a banana farmer, will open the batting for his country in international sport’s most enduring contest, Ashes cricket.
He’s dreamt of this moment for much of his young life. One can write with some confidence that he hasn’t dreamt of playing his first Ashes Test at Sophia Gardens, rather at Lords or Headingley or Old Trafford.
The opening match of the 2009 series will be the first Ashes Test played on neutral soil. That is, it will take place neither in England nor Australia, but in a foreign country, Wales.
The first Welshman to captain England at Test cricket, Tony Lewis, wrote of Sophia Gardens, ‘a day watching there when the prevailing wind blows is like a week at sea’.
The Australians say they don’t know how the pitch will play. The English may know less. The English cricket team have never completed a full international at Cardiff. Their two one day internationals there were washed out.
At least Australia has experience at the venue. The team lost to Bangladesh there in 2005, the day after Andrew Symonds’ first famous bender.
English sportsmen, particularly their rugby players, usually come to Wales as the enemy. Wales is a rugby nation. Rugby for many Welsh people is identity.
Cricket in Wales has its own identity too, an identity distinct from the English game.
The one Welsh side in the county championship, Glamorgan County Cricket Club, was formed in 1888. J.H. Morgan wrote in the 1970 Wisden of ‘a club which was started to serve a county and grew to represent a nation’. For Glamorgan, one of the thirteen historic counties of Wales, came to represent all of Wales at cricket.
David Lloyd George introduced the daffodil as the Welsh national emblem during the First World War. Glamorgan CCC adopted the emblem.
Glamorgan defeated the touring Australians in 1964 and 1968. On both occasions the crowd sang the Welsh national anthem ‘Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ in victory.
Australian-Welsh cricket relations pre date even the Ashes. The Australian Aborigines played The Gentlemen of Swansea in 1868. After the tourists won the match, they engaged in the throwing of spears and boomerangs.
Glamorgan played the 1902 Australians at Cardiff, while still a minor county. Over 10 000 attended the first days play. The Australians played at Cardiff again in 1905 and in 1909, against South Wales.
One hundred years later Cardiff provides cricket its one hundredth Test venue.
Yet for all of the uniqueness of Glamorgan / Welsh cricket, the decision to award its flagship ground Test status is symptomatic of so much that is wrong with the English game.
England cricket does not have a single ground large enough to accommodate crowds of more than 30 000. Lords is the largest venue, with a capacity of 29 300.
The 2005 Ashes brought us scenes of thousands of fans locked outside Old Trafford and The Oval in a futile clamber for tickets.
The response of the governors of the game, the England & Wales Cricket Board, has been to move a Test to an even smaller ground. Sophia Gardens has a capacity of 15 600.
The Barmy Army are an overseas phenomenon because they can’t get in the grounds at home.
Durham became a Test venue in 2003, now Cardiff. Southampton’s Rose Bowl has also been conferred “international status” by the ECB. Add the six historic Test grounds – Lords, The Oval, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Headingley and Old Trafford – and nine small grounds share around 47 days of England cricket each summer. Each one gets too few England games. The result for cricket fans is higher ticket prices and low capacities.
Eight professional football clubs in London all provide more seats than England cricket does in a metropolitan area of fourteen million.
In Britain new football and rugby grounds have been built from scratch as those games have expanded. Cricket has reacted to the growth of its audience by restricting access.
Kevin Mitchell of The Observer describes English cricket audiences as ‘crammed into tiny grounds designed for Victorian gentlemen of leisure’.
Worse, much worse, there is no free to air TV coverage of the England cricket team.
Since the ECB sold the rights to BSkyB in 2006 the average viewing audience has gone from 1.3 million to 250 000.
The problem with English cricket is that the game is run by and for the eighteen county clubs. That is, private members clubs made up of a tiny proportion of the cricket following population.
The structure of the ECB ensures that eighteen county chairmen own and run the game for their own ends.
Their number one priority is sustaining county cricket. That priority trumps all else – a successful national team, funding the grassroots, providing access for fans.
A majority of England cricket’s profits are spent on supporting county cricket. Eighteen county clubs are handed well over twenty million pounds between them every year, which they then spend on importing Australians, West Indians, South Africans and Indians.
Yet English county cricket does not fulfil the role of strong breeding ground for the national team.
Former Australian wicket keeper and coach of Surrey, Steve Rixon, has called county cricket ‘a cesspit of mediocrity’.
But over time we will win far more often than not, thanks to the structure of the game both here and there. Over the last twenty years Australia has won nine Ashes series, England one. The margin in Tests is thirty four to nine.
English cricket lover William Buckland authored a book last year, Pommies, an attack on the members only affair, the white upper middle class monoculture, that controls the game there.
He despaired that, ‘with small stadiums, limited TV coverage and the Lord’s Effect all working in tandem, this game could end up as an expensive indulgence for the upper middle classes in London and the shires, like opera’.
The Australian Government stepped in, in the public interest, to lead a restructure of soccer in this country when reform from within was no longer possible.
In the absence of a British Kerry Packer prepared to embark on a take over raid in order to force the administrators of the game to reform, the UK Government should nationalise the game, in the public interest.
A new governing body is needed to reorganise English cricket to serve the millions of cricket lovers denied access to the game now.
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