How healthy is county cricket?

The County Championship’s relevance in an era dominated by Twenty20 whambam is in the spotlight again. It has its problems, writes Stephen Brenkley after a trip round the grounds, but is still high on quality, much-loved and well watched

The three young men stood out from the crowd. They could hardly have been more conspicuous had they invaded a pensioners’ whist drive with an Xbox.

“I asked a lot of people if they wanted to come today and very few were remotely bothered,” said Sam Walsh. “They’re used to me by now wanting to come and watch the cricket and particularly Yorkshire but it’s not something that most people have an interest in.”

His pal in the seat next door, Alex Mazzon, also huddled up against the bracing wind, echoed him. “I don’t think it’s something you can grow into. I don’t know many people who have been converted to cricket over the last couple of years.”

Sam, Alex and Luke Farrant, the third member of the triumvirate who paid £15 each for entry, are second-year students at Newcastle University. They broke their academic shackles on Wednesday to watch Durham play Yorkshire on the first day of the County Championship First Division match at the Emirates International Cricket Ground in Chester-le-Street.

In some ways, it could have been a parody of what those who do not follow county cricket imagine it to be like. The ground was perhaps a fifth full, spectators under the age of 30 were difficult to spot, the majority of them looked over 60 and the woollen blanket took on the guise of a fashion item.

The County Championship in April 2013 is facing its perennial questions: what precisely is it for, who watches it, does it have a place in the modern world? These are usually posed by those who have no proper concept of where it came from or what it still stands for, people like Sam Walsh and Alex Mazzon’s university mates.

Perhaps surprisingly, Gordon Hollins is sympathetic. “It’s not an unreasonable question,” he said. “I can imagine especially non-cricket fans see a cocktail of cricket and ask where does that one fit because nobody appears to watch it in their eyes. I get that. Where does it fit?”

Hollins is the managing director of the professional game for the England and Wales Cricket Board, charged among other things with trying to find a lasting solution to that conundrum. Some of his difficulties lie not in the fact that the Championship is moribund – attendances and passing interest demonstrate that – but in the perception of it by outsiders.

The print media has drastically reduced its coverage in the last five years partly because of the cost of covering the four days of a match in straitened times for the newspaper industry, partly because it is in thrall to football, partly because of crazy scheduling which has seen the competition split recently into distinct halves which means it is half complete by the end of May.

But this tends to undermine the truth that there is still immense affection for a sporting institution which is in essence part of the fabric of English (and Welsh, let us not forget) society. It remains a breeding ground for Test cricket but it is a high-class tournament in its own right. The idea that nobody watches it is as old as it is fanciful.

There was a boom in crowds immediately after the Second World War but throughout the 1930s Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, 150 years old this year, was littered with references to declining attendances.

In 1938, Gubby Allen, former England captain and one of the game’s grandees for half a century until his death in 1989, wrote: “It is common knowledge that in recent years there has been a serious falling-off in the  receipts of county cricket. I do not  believe, as many people do, that this is due to the increase of counter-attractions.” (He actually thought it was boring cricket.)

Relevance is haunting the Championship now as it was then and as it did in 1963 when the first one-day knockout competition, then the Gillette Cup, was introduced to try to stem the tide. There is, however, an  innate tendency to worry for the sake of it.

Although affected by dreadful weather last summer, attendances in 2011 were 530,000, almost 10 per cent up on the previous season. In last year’s survey of players by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, 91 per cent of the 277 respondents ranked the Championship as the most important competition – and this when most of them have been brought up on the wham-bam of Twenty20.

The first two rounds of matches in this year’s competition yielded 1.5 million page impressions on the ECB website alone. This year, for the first time, BBC Radio is providing live internet streamed commentary on all matches with one featured on Five Live Digital.

Hollins said:  “The retirement market is still the core audience around county cricket, we still get higher  attendances in England and Wales than they do anywhere else in the world for domestic long-form cricket.

“I believe there is a greater opportunity to develop audiences around four-day cricket although we have to accept that people these days are time-poor and that format tends to attract a much greater following than it does in attendance. But there is the opportunity to develop attendances particularly to the grey market. Cricket needs to get better at doing that.”

One man who has to deal with this on a day to day, nose to the grindstone basis is Colin Graves, chairman, chief executive and benefactor-in-chief to Yorkshire, the greatest of all English counties, which is also 150 this year. Graves – founder of the Costcutter convenience chain – became involved with the county 12 years ago and has sunk around £7m of his own money into theclub, which he wryly refers to as an investment but has done nothing more or less than keep the club afloat.

In his office in the bowels of the revamped Headingley he spoke of the Championship as you would a perplexing, but much-loved child. “The days of filling grounds for County Championship cricket, I’m afraid, have gone and I can’t see any way of getting that back,” he said. “We’re living in  reality, I’m afraid.” It was as if he was trying to quell the romantic in his entrepreneur’s soul and not quite succeeding.

“On average we will get for a county championship match 3,000 or 4,000 which is way above the norm elsewhere. The only problem we have is if you get 3 or 4,000 and you have a ground which holds 16,000, it feels empty.

“I still think Test match cricket has got a place and if Test match cricket has got a place, County Championship cricket has got a place. I still believe it is the national sport whether people agree with me or not. What we haven’t done is market cricket properly to get them to come to us.”

Graves is part of a new wave of cricket executives, who combine munificence and sheer passion for the game with a pragmatic businessman’s  approach. Recently also elected as deputy chairman of the ECB, he will tell anyone who cares to listen – and he has a persuasive quality which makes them listen – that cricket clubs are a business of which cricket is only part.

Like Hollins, he insists that the Championship has a reach far beyond those who watch it. He has half-formed but decidedly not half-baked plans to provide more information on Championship facts, figures and gossip which Yorkshire folk will be prepared to pay for on internet services.  “We’re not talking megabucks,” he said, perhaps recognising his audience but also the need, as espoused by those who would sell anything on the internet, to make it easy to pay.

Back at the Emirates ICG, which used to be the much more poetic Riverside until the need for ground naming rights entered the fray, more typical spectators were Peter and Anne Webb (pictured, below), retired as head teacher and nurse. Anne was swathed in the de rigueur item of blanket (and about four layers) but quite content.

“Every game we come to we see something that is fantastic,” said Peter. “We sat yesterday afternoon and watched on television as Chris Gayle scored a hundred in 30 balls in the Indian Premier League. It was unbelievable and it excited us but I am sure today we will see something.”

Alex Mazzon, nearly 50 years younger, had another theory: “A lot of people don’t know about it because they haven’t done it before. They don’t know it’s a nice day out and you don’t just sit there for eight hours watching cricket. It’s about everything else, the paper, the picnic, enjoying a beer in the sun.”

Anne Webb said what all aficionados truly know: “I like limited-overs cricket because I think it’s a swashbuckling ideal but more thought goes into this – sometimes you can almost see the cogs turning as the bowler is coming into bowl.

“It’s a very difficult question about its relevance today, they have probably been asking this question for a very long time and it is still going on.” Which is very much the point.

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