Cricket's other crisis: why have all the fans disappeared?

England coach dismayed at pitiful crowds for T20s as ECB admit that season structure must improve.

Cricket Correspondent,Stephen Brenkley
Thursday 09 September 2010 00:00

Five years ago this week the nation was spellbound by cricket. England were on the verge of winning the Ashes at The Oval, the ground could have sold out 10 times over on each of the five days of the decisive Test, the team were heroes and water coolers were fed up with having to listen to new experts pontificating about reverse swing and how Shane Warne could be repelled.

On Tuesday night, the ground at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, was a dreary and barren wasteland. The Twenty20 champions of the world were on show, strutting their stuff to show precisely how and why they attained that status and they went virtually unrecognised and unloved. The ground was barely a quarter full when it should have been heaving. Somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong.

"It was a strange atmosphere," said England's coach, Andy Flower. "That must be the smallest crowd I've ever been involved in with an England team here. It's a real pity. Perhaps the weather didn't help on Tuesday but no one wants our national side to play in front of such a small crowd. And the fact that we dominated so completely meant that it wasn't a great contest for the people who did come either."

England could hardly be faulted for prevailing so easily against a Pakistan side beset by demons: three players suspended, including their two best bowlers, more likely to be under investigation, being lambasted at home for bringing disgrace on the nation. But the lack of excitement in the match merely added to the gloom.

It made a mockery of the widely held view that Twenty20 will be the saviour of the modern game. But it also cast doubt on the wisdom of this season's chaotic structure.

There are now five ODIs to come, starting tomorrow in Durham, not the first place that would necessarily be chosen for an international match in September.

Following the experiences on Tuesday in Cardiff, there are natural fears that the matches will be played in front of empty stands. Not so, it seems. All five venues report a healthy demand for tickets, which will restore some faith. But the game's administrators seem painfully aware that they can ill afford more deserted scenes like Tuesday.

Steve Elworthy, the ECB's marketing director, said: "We have got a post-season review coming up with all the counties and we are going to have to get into this, so that we really understand the spectators and understand why they have stayed away to be able to address this.

"What's going on here is a combination of a lot of factors and I think we've got to get to the heart of it to understand it. It's certainly not something we're taking lightly, we have to make a concerted effort and a strategic approach to how we going to look at coming decisions."

Ticket prices, the match-rigging scandal and the economic climate generally may all have been factors in Cardiff, but there is a general feeling that the season has been a hotchpotch which is dragging on too long.

"The underlying factor is trying to create some of consistent programme," said Elworthy. "The hardest sell of all is when things do chop and change. You want a consistent product and consistent approach, then people know what to expect. But you have to throw into the mix the economic climate. Ticket prices have been discussed at length over the course of this season.

"Price is something that needs to be looked at. But there has to be value in your product and you can't discount it to the level where you are devaluing it completely. The national team at the moment is buoyant and there is an intrinsic value in that."

There is a suspicion, confirmed by the absence of the Barmy Army this summer, that many supporters are saving their money and keeping their powder dry for Australia this winter. England are as accomplished as they have been for more than 10 years in the limited-overs game and it will be disappointing if they do not beat Pakistan in the five-match NatWest Series. The change of players has helped – the advent of Eoin Morgan, the growing maturity of Tim Bresnan, the spin combination of Graeme Swann and Mike Yardy – but the specific game plans have also been instrumental.

Flower, hurt and bemused by the Cardiff attendance, said: "To have two Twenty20 games at the same venue at this stage of the season might have been an error. It's something the ECB might want to look at.

"There's inevitably a bit of a gloomy atmosphere at the moment and with the sullying of cricket's name and reputation that's understandable. It's a pity, because we are playing some outstanding cricket."

The standard of England's cricket is high. It demands and deserves a larger audience as the season winds to a close at last.

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