Cricket: High time for a miracle at Lord's

MCC and women: Dangers lie ahead for the wider game if the members maintain their narrow vision
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SOME TIME tomorrow night it will be announced whether the MCC has decided to enter the 20th century on the verge of the 21st by permitting women to become members. The result of the ballot to be declared after a special meeting at Lord's will embrace far more than purported political correctness and the admission of females to the old pavilion.

It may well go beyond jokes about daft old buffers and the sort of women who would wish to join such an archaic institution. If the poll fails to record a two-thirds majority in favour of lifting the exclusion - and latest indications are that it will be desperately close-run - the stability of the professional game in England might be seriously affected.

After the last vote in February, when 56 per cent, 10 per cent short of the required majority, registered in favour, there was a huge outcry. This time it could be worse and has the potential to undermine cricket's status as a major spectator sport.

Corporate sponsors, who are probably essential to help the club fulfil a role in developing the game at large, would be difficult, bordering on impossible, to find. Two have already pulled out of prospective deals solely on the women's issue. While MCC could still doubtless get by as a private organisation it would have to contend with rather more than a diminution of potential funds.

The logical, alarming extension of a continued ban on women is that other influential cricket organisations, especially the England and Wales Cricket Board, would distance themselves and possibly consider a complete break, that touring sides would refuse to play at Lord's and that members would be sitting in the ivory tower of the Long Room without anything to watch.

Television might easily resist the blandishments of a sport so blatantly unwilling to progress in the most elementary way. The fact that Lord's should also encourage a vast untapped army of potential spectators: women - witness the upsurge in their numbers in countries like South Africa - seems almost negligible.

These are dramatic prospects and those who wish to retain the status quo are doubtless banking on the almost mystical power of Lord's to overcome future stumbling blocks. The MCC own the ground, also remain guardians of the game's laws and the committee at least are proud and protective of its status as a "private club with a public function".

While the MCC's direct influence over the professional game has waned (voluntarily, to some degree) and they gave up control of the sport in the UK 30 years ago they remain omniscient in the public's estimation and, therefore, that of sponsors. This is specially bad news for the ECB, an organisation fighting grimly to rid itself of all former prejudices and take cricket into a brave new world, but which is still seen as an arm of the MCC.

The ECB is in favour of women being allowed into the MCC (presumably one of the first nominations would be the model Caprice, who launched their World Cup apparel last week) but the chief executive Tim Lamb declined to be interviewed on the grounds that it would be unhelpful. The board also categorically refused to state what the reaction might be to a no vote.

As the ECB has appeared to rush into print via the correspondence columns at every opportunity for the past six months this is a sure sign that they know the consequences would be catastrophic. The board is anxious to promote a progressive, unfuddy-unduddy image and by way of illustrating this a spokesman said that only one of the eight chief officers was over 50. The majority of staff were in their 20s and 30s. So, progressive and ageist, then.

While the MCC committee, who have come across as genuinely progressive and in the mood for change under the presidency of Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, are sweating on the outcome, there appears reason to hope that enough members have changed their mind since February. John Bromley, for instance, now talks with the zeal of a convert. "I voted against earlier this year because it was all a bit confused in the way it was presented to the members," said the Sky Sports consultant, former head of ITV Sport and chairman of the Lord's Taverners. "A lot of it appeared to to be to do with political correctness and therefore I was against women being eligible.

"But the committee have put a much better case. The PC element has gone out of it and it's quite sensible if we want to maintain our position as a private club to change the rules. The MCC got a lot of bad press last time, and it's quite clearly affected our ability to raise money, which will equally affect the good of cricket."

Another to have changed his mind is one of the game's larger benefactors, Paul Getty, who writes in the MCC brochure that he had not fully appreciated how the issue impacts on the club's role. To the outsider it seems as though MCC has covered every argument. Women will have to join the normal waiting list of some 17 years and though some playing members will be elected the rest will be given no preferential treatment. There will also be a men's bar in the pavilion.

In a joint letter to members Ingleby-Mackenzie and Tony Lewis, the president-designate, said a vote in favour was vital for MCC and good for cricket. It will also be good for the MCC and vital for cricket.