Cricket: Fans stay away from Test

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The Independent Online
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 turnout 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.

The 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 competition from rival attractions was making it increasingly hard to sell Test cricket.

"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. Cumbes admitted that, had they been given the opportunity, Lancashire might even have chosen not to stage a Test this season, although this had as much to do with the relaying of the square.

"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 still 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. Given that Headingley and Trent Bridge are in their centenary years I was surprised that we got a Test in the first place."

Cumbes suspects also that cricket grounds need to update their facilities to attract more spectators and has argued as much from his position on the Test Match Grounds Consortium, which is trying to persuade the ECB to channel a greater share of international cricket revenue back to the host counties. "If you compare ourselves with Manchester United I would say that 10 years ago we had the better facilities but not now," he said.

Ironically, just as building work is pushing United's capacity up to 60,000, Cumbes has seen the cricket ground lose 3,000 seats with the H- block stand demolished - "It was condemned as unsafe and we just cannot afford to replace it."