Cricket becoming a niche sport like croquet, warns its former supremo

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The Independent Online

In an almost entirely doom-laden prophecy Lord MacLaurin, the former head of the England and Wales Cricket Board, warned that the country's once pre-eminent sport faced its future as a niche sport such as croquet.

But aficionados of the hoop and mallet - average playing age 70 - pointed out this may not be such a bad thing. At least the British croquet team can beat the Aussies.

Lord MacLaurin warned yesterday only a thorough overhaul of the domestic game could prevent it becoming the "summer sport that was.

"If cricket is to survive in this present environment, drastic changes have to be made," he told the Today programme on Radio 4, and called for the shedding of 200 professional cricketers and a cut in the numbers of county sides. As if to underline the point the England team toiled unproductively in the field yesterday on the first day of the final Test against the South Africans.

It is an experience unfamiliar to their croquet counterparts. While the cricket team has failed to win back the Ashes since the 4-0 drubbing delivered in 1989, Great Britain has won the four-nation Mac Robertson Shield 10 out of the past 15 times. Australia has secured it but twice, and the latest of those in 1935, according to the Croquet Association.

The sport also boasts a five-times world champion, Robert Fulford, from Colchester, who has the twin claims to fame of being in his early 30s (he is 34) and having travelled across America and Australia as a croquet bum during his younger years. "I don't understand why the England cricket team doesn't do better," he said.

The association's secretary, Nigel Graves, said there was no comparison between the two sports. "I think he [Lord MacLaurin] perhaps regrets the reference to croquet," he said. "It was just a flip comment. Cricket is a professional game. It's a completely different animal. Ours is a game for the players, not the spectators." At the Oval cricket ground yesterday, there was a mixed response to Lord MacLaurin's demand for drastic changes. Hugh Peers, 64, and a member of the MCC for the past 48 years, accepted a shake-up was needed to bring the crowds back to the county scene and inject some much-needed finances. He is from Hampshire, but the side is "so bloody awful" he never goes to watch them. However, cutting the number of counties would lessen the national appeal further, he said.

As the ball cracked into the boundary board for the latest South African four on the first day of the Test, Lord MacLaurin's radical proposals didn't go far enough for some. Pete Harris, 32, drinking a pint outside the ground, had the solution to England's misery. "Keep it short, and keep it to one day," he said.