Cricket: Atherton's army fails to arrive

The former England captain's Test return `at home' attracts only 7,000 fans. By Jon Culley at Old Trafford
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FOR ONCE a late start and a two-hour afternoon downpour were greeted almost with relief as Channel Four resorted to showing archive footage from West Indies versus Australia. At least it limited the time their cameras spent scanning Old Trafford's banks of empty seats.

The England and Wales Cricket Board has been braced for a low turn-out since it scheduled New Zealand to play here more than 12 months ago and has budgeted accordingly. But the sight of a stadium barely one third full was painful, none the less.

The Manchester ground currently holds 18,000. The opening day attracted advance ticket sales of only around 7,000 - even at prices as low as pounds 12 - and as play began in an atmosphere of eery quiet at noon Lancashire officials were wondering how many of those might not bother to turn up.

England's chairman of selectors, David Graveney, said that a poor crowd was "justified by England's extremely poor performance at Lord's", but Lancashire's chief executive, Jim Cumbes, said that fierce competition from rival attractions was making it increasingly hard to sell Test cricket, especially so close to the football season. "Manchester City will get 30,000 on Saturday, Manchester United will take another 10,000 with them to Everton," Cumbes said. "Everybody is after the same pound.

"And we have had other big matches here, which have had an effect. After England had won at Edgbaston our advance sales went up but when the NatWest draw paired us with Yorkshire the interest in the Test fell off again."

Last week's quarter-final against Lancashire's traditional enemy attracted a crowd of 14,500 but even the recall of Mike Atherton failed to stir the Manchester public yesterday. Cumbes admitted that, had they been given the opportunity, Lancashire might even have opted not to stage a Test this season, although this had as much to do with the relaying of the Old Trafford square as the prospect of a poor crowd.

"The problems posed by relaying the square have been added to by the number of televised matches we have had this season, all of which have to be staged using the same three or four pitches. This is the ninth televised fixture of the year and there are two more to come. Test matches are allocated by Lord's but we should be sitting down with the ECB to sort it out. If this had been the case 12 months ago we might have suggested this match went somewhere else."

Yesterday's wicket was openly criticised in some quarters yesterday, but Graveney refused to label it sub-standard after watching his side struggle to 108 for 5.

"There's been lots of debate about the wicket," he said. "They bowled well and we must do the same thing, and make sure we get the ball in the business area and exploit the bounce with the hardness of the new ball. Wickets will fall on a regular basis and runs will be at a premium. It is difficult to score runs on. And you could see the expression of Stephen Fleming when he lost the toss. He was pretty keen to win it.

"It is a little bit two-paced, a bit of variable bounce. A happy position for us would be three wickets down, but to lose two more than that is a disappointment. But our wickets fell to good bowling.

"It's a two-spinner wicket and you've got to get as many runs in the first innings to gain control. We've got to push the score up to 200."

The New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming said: "To be honest, the pitch has played a little bit better than I thought. On first appearance it's not a pretty wicket. We'll wait until the end of the game to give our verdict."