A membership inclined to stuffiness at the best of times is further stuffed by its own waiting list

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The Independent Online
A beautiful midsummer day at Lord's. The sun is out, the sky is blue, the gates are shut, and the world's most entertaining batsman is facing England's most entertaining bowler. As Darren Gough dashes in from the Pavilion End, there's only one problem. Behind him, you can see dozens of empty seats.

Sport is theatre and the Lord's pavilion is one of the great backdrops. But the pleasure of seeing the whites of the players and the green of the grass set off by that rich red brick is somewhat dented by the realisation that, although the match is long since sold out, some of the best seats in the house are going unfilled.

Having applied for tickets in the ballot but not got them, I watched this riveting game on television, missing the odd ball when the BBC insisted on covering more trivial matters, but catching up with the highlights. At no time was every bench on the bottom level of the pavilion full. What should have been a carpet of shirtsleeves and panamas was often a threadbare rug. If the members had been asked, like a modern church congregation, to shake hands with their neighbour, many would have had to stretch.

At times there were excuses. You expect a few gaps either side of lunch. Rugby-loving members could be forgiven for drifting indoors at 2pm on Saturday. At 11am on Sunday, some were doubtless at matins, praying for the famous victory that is becoming Mike Atherton's trademark. And on Monday, there were gaps all round the ground - it's not only the wearers of egg-and-bacon ties who have a strange aversion to attending the fifth day of a Test.

However, none of these factors applied when Gough was bowling to Lara, just after midday on Friday. This instance was neither isolated, nor all that new. There were gaps in the pavilion during the one-day international last month (another outstanding game), and during the Test against South Africa last year (outstanding for some of the wrong reasons, but extra- eagerly awaited). It adds up to a small scandal.

Why does it happen? The MCC has 17,500 members. The capacity of the whole ground is only 26,500. The pavilion accounts for only 2,091 of that figure. On big-match days, members' guests are allowed in surrounding stands but not in the pavilion itself.

Membership is greatly sought after. There's a waiting list so long, the club can get away with charging people to be on it. The wait varies, but it's somewhere in the region of 20 years. After all that time, you'd think people would make use of the place.

The MCC does most things very well. The ground looks gorgeous, the pitch is better than Andy Roberts might admit, the indoor school is an excellent public facility.

Contrary to its popular image, the club is capable of moving with the times. The signposting is much improved, the Mound Stand is one of the wonders of modern architecture, the video screen introduced this year is an instant hit. There is even a chance of finding a sandwich that tastes of something.

In other ways, however, the club remains hopelessly out of touch. Behind this small scandal lies a bigger one. If you are a man, all it takes to join the MCC is four friends or relations who are members, a bit of cash and a lot of patience.

If you're a woman, you can be a former England captain and not be allowed in, as Rachel Heyhoe-Flint discovered in 1991 when she was put up by some of the more enlightened members, including the late Brian Johnston, and turned away by the silent, bigoted majority.

Some members feel that because the MCC is a private club, it can do what it likes. But it is not just a private club. It is a public institution, with public responsibilities. It has a duty to keep up with the times.

The people who run the club seem to understand this. The people who merely belong to it do not, and it is they who decide major issues such as the admission of women - which would require a two-thirds majority.

A membership which inclines to stuffiness at the best of times gets further stuffed by its own waiting list. If you have to wait half your adult life to join a club, it is hardly surprising if you are a generation out of date when you get there.

What needs to happen is this: women should be admitted, on equal terms; older members should be given the chance to hand on their membership to the younger person of their choice; instead of sponsors, applicants should be asked to produce evidence that they are committed to the game, whether as player, umpire, coach or mere enthusiast. It would become a matter not of whom you know, but what; the process might even run to a viva voce examination, with questions devised by Bill Frindall.

The upshot would be that fewer people would get on the waiting list, the wait would get shorter, and the membership would shuffle into the 20th century.

What, then, are the chances of this happening? About the same as the chances of a young bowler taking 7 for 40 on his Test debut at Lord's...