Canterbury tale: one club fighting for its future

Kent's problems stand out but many counties face financial crisis in the year ahead
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The Independent Online

If you want a taste of how cricket is really changing, then turn off the IPL and take yourself down to Canterbury. The St Lawrence Ground has been the home of Kent since the middle of the 19th century and in that time most of the greatest players the game has known have appeared there. This is one of the most romantic, and romanticised, venues in the world game, but recent years have not been kind to Canterbury.

Peeling paint, rust, greying whitewash: Jamie Clifford, the club's newly appointed chief executive, admits the ground is in desperate need of a facelift. "It's not good having that sort of thing on a ground that is renowned for being among the most beautiful in the country," he says. "You start to wonder if it really is such a beautiful ground when you see things like that."

But there is no money, at least not for now, to clean things up. Kent made a loss of £802,452 last year, and the only hope on the horizon is a ground redevelopment which was supposed to have taken place before the recession. The club plans to get cracking at the end of this season, thus creating desperately needed revenue streams.

Kent's story is not untypical of a modern county cricket club. While their deficit in 2009 was large, other counties also suffered: Essex, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire also made six-figure losses last year. Clubs left behind by the more adventurous (Hampshire, Durham) and the lucky (Surrey, who own a ground in the middle of Britain's biggest city) are struggling to deal with the world of modern cricket. "Some clubs are in survival mode," says Rod Bransgrove, chairman and chief executive at Hampshire.

The latest threat on the horizon for the county game is a possible drop in England and Wales Cricket Board income as a result of proposals to force home Ashes series to be shown on terrestrial TV. Ofcom's decision that Sky must cut the price of their sport channels could also have an impact. "It would have a desperate effect if the money from Sky was to be reduced," says Bransgrove. "It is possible that counties could go to the wall."

Could Kent be the first? Perhaps, but the club's problems date from before worries over Sky money emerged. They were evident four years ago when they were forced to sell Albert Chevallier Tayler's famous painting of the Kent v Lancashire match at Canterbury in 1906. Things have accelerated in the last couple of years, and much is now reliant on ground redevelopment (which would include a hotel), as Clifford admits.

"No business can sustain massive losses year on year," he says. "Without our ground development, things would be bleak. I'm pretty sure that without the redevelopment we could survive, but we'd have to make compromises in which players we wanted and we've always been very strong on keeping our best players."

In seeking to generate revenue away from cricket, Kent are following a well-worn path. Bransgrove is a pioneer in this respect – he is one of the major proponents of the nine-franchise city-based Twenty20 proposal that refuses to go away – and his club's latest business plans involved signing up to the Rajasthan Royals' "global franchise".

"Domestic cricket is a tough business model," Bransgrove added. "We have linked up with Rajasthan to bring in new revenue. If you're just reliant on the income from the ECB, then you're vulnerable."

This is a fact that Kent acknowledge, but it's easier said than done. Last season the club hosted two pop concerts at Canterbury – the Sugababes and James Morrison – with disastrous results, £190,000 was lost on the two nights. They are wary of taking that sort of risk again.

But money must be made somewhere. This season has seen big increases in Canterbury membership fees. Supporters are upset. "Over the years membership revenues have gone down year on year – to just allow that to happen would be negligent," says Clifford. "It was a bold step and we have taken a lot of flak. But membership revenue is up 20 per cent and that's pleasing."

Another bold step is holding a "home" Twenty20 match against Essex at The Oval this year. "The risks are tiny," added Clifford. "We have to bring in more than 4,000 to cover the costs. Well, if you can't get 4,000 in The Oval you might as well give up. We get 4,000 at Canterbury regularly. It's a one-off but if it's a success we'll look at it for future years."

In the meantime, Kent are tightening their belts, which could have hidden benefits. Once a great nursery of cricketers, Kent have in recent years imported much talent from the country of their South African coach Graham Ford. He was replaced in the winter by Paul Farbrace, a Man of Kent committed to developing local talent. "We have a proud history of bringing through players," said Clifford. "Over the past 10 years we've been guilty of looking to bring in players at the expense of developing our own. There will be a move back to home-grown lads."

He added: "We're committed to doing things properly, that means getting control of costs." It certainly does – or the St Lawrence ground itself could become as much of a memory as those famous cricketers who once trod its turf.

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