Lancashire try to fan the embers

Leicestershire 385 and 94-3 <br/>v Lancashire 275
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The Independent Online

There are small signs that the old boy is fighting back. This is still pretty far from making a full recovery, which is hardly surprising when you are on a life-support system, but the distinctive mood of the County Championship is that it has had enough and isn't going to take it any more.

There are small signs that the old boy is fighting back. This is still pretty far from making a full recovery, which is hardly surprising when you are on a life-support system, but the distinctive mood of the County Championship is that it has had enough and isn't going to take it any more.

The most enduring cricket competition in the world has been copping flak from all sides as lacking in strength, support, direction and compunction. Splitting it into two divisions might have been one thing, but continuing to retain a three-up, three-down procedure is another.

Attendances are down 17 per cent in five years, and since they were nothing fancy then, the decline has been perceived in many quarters, almost casually, as terminal. It is certainly a soft target. The coin-cidence of the fixture list pitted together in the opening round of First Division matches two of the counties who have been particular candidates for sniping.

Lancashire are a big club – these matters are relative in cricket – fallen on spartan times, Leicestershire are a small one trying to repel the waves of doom. Both are on many pundits' lists of bottom-three finishers, partly because they have both shed good players faster than Jimmy Ormond puts on pounds, partly because they have a perpetual financial struggle.

Lancashire have an overdraft of £1.3 million and made a surplus of £214,000 last year. Leicestershire, with 7,000 fewer members, turned a £150,000 loss into a £24,000 profit and desperately needed to.

Yet enough may be enough. The criticism reached such shrill proportions that the game's guardians – those who support it, whose number is much greater than those who watch it – are doing what Brits do in times of travail: rallying round.

The England and Wales Cricket Board are being sensibly bullish about the future; they have managed to secure a new Championship sponsor for four years. Clubs, while recognising the need to be sensible about staffing and wages, are digging in. Salary caps – meaning the total, not the individual – are being talked about.

Pre-season press coverage was sympathetic. If it has not quite dwelt on a golden past that never was, it has recognised that here may be something worth persevering with and worth preserving. Why, even the Australians have been called to provide evidence that they admire the competition, especially since the split.

Jim Cumbes, Lancashire's chief executive, said: "We recognised long ago that diversification was necessary if we are to remain viable as a club and continue playing cricket. We must not forget that the Championship is a development ground. It still has a place because it is perhaps why people become members, and that brings in income of £600,000 a year to this club, which is very important."

But he is aware, and his members ought to realise, that the most significant star to appear at Old Trafford last year was Robbie Williams. His concerts made them £200,000, almost their total profit. If Lancashire have a grouse, it is not that there are no cricket heroes but that there are not enough pop idols doing open-air gigs.

"It is an uphill struggle," said Cumbes. "I still believe that we need fewer clubs, and the idea of three clubs going up and three down is ridiculous. It's 33 per cent of the membership. If that happened in the Premiership, that would mean seven being relegated." At least there is now recognition that it is a hard world out there. It is also accompanied by anger at the shortage of sympathy for the recent evolution in the game. Perhaps the culmination of the recent bout of easy disparagement came in the "Notes by the Editor" in the 2002 edition of Wisden Cricketers' Alamanack, the 139th. In calling for a domestic structure based on cities, not counties, the book was being intentionally radical, but it was still the behaviour of attention-seeking pimply youth rather than that of venerable sage.

The game still needs sponsors, and in recruiting one willing to part with £1m the ECB have scored a minor triumph. But the fact that they are a financial company rather than a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company – say a soft drinks manufacturer – speaks volumes. And they know it. As Cumbes said, sponsorship is hard to come by. Part of the problem is that many decision-makers in companies that may be appropriate have no affinity with cricket, victims of its gross neglect in state schools 20 years ago and before the clubs got to grips with it. The ECB are addressing that substantially, persuading a new generation about the merits of cricket, even Championship cricket.

Ah, the cricket. It was an engaging enough contest played in front of 2,000 people who would have filled a pleasant outground and given the sense of an event. In the Old Trafford bowl they were largely lost. City cricket indeed! Lancashire were dismissed for 275, 110 behind, with some loose batting. The new- ball pairing of Phillip DeFreitas and Devon Malcolm had 75 years between them, supporting those, including Wisden's editor, who say there are no bowlers any more.

DeFreitas took six wickets to add to his 51 runs in the first innings, showing abundant enthusiasm for the cause. It took his tally of first-class wickets to 1,100, the most among current English players. Alec Swann, on his debut for Lancashire, was their top scorer with a dogged, well-fashioned 80 after being dropped on 16.

David Byas, the former Yorkshire captain, making a somewhat more notorious Lancashire debut, had no such luck. He was lbw first ball to a full-length inswinger. Leicestershire increased their lead, on a pitch betraying indications of uneven bounce, to 204. But it all went on until 7.05, which meant seven hours, five minutes of cricket, a nonsense on the part of the players and the game, which once more reduced sympathy for the old boy.

The Championship is now being sponsored by Frizzell, which is pronounced as in "gazelle", denoting grace and speed, and not "drizzle", as in a right shower.