Cricket, once it left the meadow, expanded for several reasons. It provided a medium for gambling for the wealthy, an excuse for MCC members who wanted to spend time with their mistressess in cosy St John's Wood, and it gave a higher income to those miners, weavers and spinners who could turn strength, stamina and skills into competitive sport.
No one could have imagined that a pastime of such intricacy, so dependent upon the weather, on the state of the turf, would ever be geared to making a financial profit. Now the game has in effect been stood on its head, and attendances at the money-spinning events, the Test matches and one- day internationals have become more important, to the administration, than the result.
Old Trafford's rows of empty seats have been a shock to the system. Lancashire, the host club, rightly proud of the intensive effort they have made to keep the ground in the front rank, were yesterday searching for explanations rather than excuses.
Thursday should have been a near sell-out, considering the circumstances: the sequel to a great Test at Lord's, the prospect of England's team, reinforced by Manchester's Mike Atherton, fighting back against a Pakistan spearheaded by Lancashire's overseas professional Wasim Akram.
The weather, if not brilliant, was reasonable for a ground that leads the world in Test match days lost to rain (28). The television cameras, try as they might, were unable to avoid the great gaps in the stands, especially among the more expensive seats.
Both Cornhill, the sponsors, and the Test and County Cricket Board must have had an uncomfortable feeling that there might be something wrong with the product. 'Thursday was disappointing,' John Brewer, Lancashire's PR chairman, admitted. 'We sold only 7,500 tickets when we would have expected at least 10,000. Many members might have stayed away after looking at the weather forecast.
'I cannot be sure how the recession may be affecting attendances, but it's true that it has been twice as hard to sell hospitality and sponsorship for this match than it was at our last Test two years ago.'
Lancashire does not have a large Pakistani population. A day out at the Test costs about pounds 25, which may be a reasonable expense in the south-east. In the north most would expect guaranteed value for that kind of money, especially after the Edgbaston experience, when no refund was offered for a day's play that consisted of two balls.
Not least, as Martin Johnson pointed out in The Independent yesterday, there is the one-day factor. Five Texaco matches reduces the income for five Cornhill Tests. The increasing proportion of international cricket, 30 days this summer out of a total of 72 days of the first-class game, is distorting the shape of the game; the sunflower is too swollen for its stem and roots. County clubs have now been relegated to the role of nurseries for the England team and lose their best players for half of the Britannic Championship. Yet there can be no back-tracking.
The public have been taught that international cricket, the only cricket that now receives any attention on television and in the tabloids, is all that is worth watching; and the younger generation of cricket fans would find it very different to the slower, if often more satisfying, pace of the county game.
If Pakistan, the World Cup- holders, and Australia next year cannot sustain or increase revenue then the conclusion will be that a golden era of expansion has passed and the game will no longer be able to plan ahead on the assumption of ever-increasing income from generous, altruistic sponsors and an ever-enthusiastic and unquestioning public.
There is another threat: a winter break for football, with only a six-weeks gap in the summer, has already been discussed by the FA's new Premier League. The armchair viewer has no special loyalties, and it is his, or her, finger on the control that directs television and, in turn, sponsors.Reuse content