Why cricket is ripe for revolution

You cannot help thinking that if it were a public utility the Tories would privatise it in a flash
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The Independent Online
The Championship is heading for a thrilling climax, but it remains unloved and unwatched. It can't be long before the television moguls move in, argues Robert Winder

The English cricket season has reached an exciting climax, with Warwickshire and Middlesex going up the straight neck and neck. In the final matches of the season an impressive gallery of top-class internationals - Allan Donald, Dermot Reeve, Mike Gatting, John Emburey, Angus Fraser, Mark Ramprakash and others - will burst their lungs and wrench their knees one last time. It ought to be a gripping tussle, with the nation holding its breath over the last-ditch twists and turns. But it probably won't be. The nation rarely holds its breath over Championship cricket these days. Probably the season will sputter to its denouement in an unsatisfying drizzle of rain, sweaters and the raucous din from football stadiums. And the worst thing, the thing that must alarm the game above all, is this: not many people care.

Attendances at Championship matches are not printed in newspapers along with the scorecards (as they are for football) and there is a good reason for this: they make embarrassing reading. In 1962 more than half a million spectators (580,000) pushed through the turnstiles - such a frightening tailing-off that the authorities invented the Gillette Cup to entice back the crowds. Thirty years later, the figure has shrunk to 160,000. On average, only about 600 people pay to see a day's play. Membership is rising (113,000 in 1991; 134,000 in 1994). And the audiences for one-day competitions continues to grow.

But on Championship days the turnstiles need rust-remover to get them going. It is an open secret in the game itself - almost an in joke. If you tell a serious cricket watcher you have been to a county game, he tends to say, with a knowing snigger: "Oh yeah? How many people were there?" If only it was funny. In 1993 just 2,600 people paid to watch Leicestershire in the entire season. That is about as many people who watch Woking play Halifax in the Vauxhall Conference; it is fewer than file through the urinals under the West Stand at Stamford Bridge on any old Saturday.

A Championship match, as everyone knows, is a cross between an old people's home and a child care centre. World celebrities hurl themselves about in front of a few devoted members, a handful of retirees reading Jeffrey Archer novels in the sun, and a gaggle of boys dropped off for the day to keep them out of trouble.

It seems, nonetheless, like a timeless scene, part of the humdrum pageant of the English summer. But how long can it last? County cricket is one of the most heavily subsidised industries in England: a professional circuit supported almost entirely by the proceeds of international cricket. You cannot help thinking that if it were ever to be classed as a public utility, the Tories would privatise it in a flash. Is it possible that it can continue in its present state, with this pointed absence of public enthusiasm? Australia, after all, supports only about 30 or so professionals. Here we have 400. With winter coming, what kind of a future can they look forward to?

It is tempting to say, simply, watch out. The most powerful trend in modern sport is that the elite scoops up the television money and leaves the rest to go hang. It has happened in football: the rich clubs grew tired of sharing the swag and reached for the sky on their own. And it is happening in rugby. Why should cricket be different?

Here is how it could go. Some television mogul - a Rupert Murdoch or a Kerry Packer, or possibly someone you have never heard of - will hear the sound of pips squeaking. He will read for the "nth" time about injured bowlers and exhausted batsmen. He will twig that top stars - Lara and Donald, most prominently - don't want to play county cricket any more. And he will think: what if I offered these guys a pay rise to quit their present jobs and play for me? After all, with television rights climbing to serious-money levels, it might be cheaper just to buy the players and rent the grounds. All of a sudden you would have a lucrative, round-the- world international cricket circuit, purpose-built to appeal to the armchair viewer.

It would not have to follow traditional lines. Indeed, the present taste for three-month tours is in some ways a relic of the steam age, a time when good English chaps went exploring while their wives kept the home fires burning. The new international scene might look like this. The top nine countries would play each other in home-and-away Test matches. At the end of the year - why not? - the top four could play semi-finals and a final. There would be handsome prize-money, and cameras would ogle every ball.

Instead of a six-Test summer against one country, and a six-Test winter against another, we would be treated to a succession of decisive one-offs - England would play eight home Tests against different opposition, and eight return matches overseas. Obviously there would be a one-day circuit running alongside the main event.

Don't laugh: it could happen. Major changes in sport usually happen abruptly and are provoked by a sharp gale from outside rather than sober planning within. England's cricket administrators are wracking their brains for new ways to market the game. There are five-point plans, new boards, fresh coaching initiatives and so on. But they must be aware, as they compare notes with the old, um, boys at Twickenham, that the rug might get pulled from under their feet at any moment.

The effect on the English game would be dramatic: county cricket would collapse. It would lose its best players, and also the revenue that comes from the Test and County Cricket Board through international matches. There would have to be an alternative domestic competition - a regional contest, for instance, featuring, six clubs: North-west, North-east, West Midlands, East Midlands, South-west and South-east. But this would be played on a semi-professional basis. Cricket would cease to be, except for a handful of international performers, a career.

This might sound like science fiction, but in fact it would merely be a way of bringing English cricket into line with the way it is played elsewhere. There would be shrieks of anguish from every crevice of the present structure - much like those from the amalgamated rugby league clubs. And the shriekers would have a point: in many ways such a revolution would be a crying shame. But it might not be up to them. And the shrieks might not be loud enough to drown out the sound of hands rubbing in the corridors of the television studios, in the so-called corridors of certainty. These people have seen the future, and who cares if it smirks?