Come to the capital, and you will see Test cricket not merely surviving, but thriving. The Oval is already sold out for the first three days of the next Test against South Africa, just as Lord’s was for the first four days of the Test there. Even the first three days against the West Indies at Lord’s in September are sold out.
For those who fear Test cricket being submerged, this is a heartening tale - yet it is not a complete one. Away from the capital, Test matches in England have too often been a tale of the wrong match at the wrong time, of spectators freezing in half-empty stadiums rather than those enjoying the summer game in, well, summer. More than that, Test cricket in England has become a metaphor for the London-centricity of the country.
In the modern age, sport has increasingly moved from providing a distraction from wider life to mirroring it. That much can be seen in the rise of London’s football teams this century, with the Manchester superclubs keeping up while those from the northeast have floundered. So it is, too, in Test match cricket, where demographics and economics are working in the capital’s favour - and against those elsewhere.
Test matches at Lord’s are rather like Wimbledon tennis: a brilliantly marketed sporting event that doubles as part of the capital’s cultural summer. Both Lord’s and the Oval benefit from the capital’s wealth, but they also work assiduously to market their Tests. That they can so regularly sell-out is a cause for celebration in the game - and, because selling out means they can afford to pay more for the matches to the England and Wales Cricket Board, that means more money for grassroots cricket or to divert to other counties.
And yet there is an unavoidable sense that the ECB has also been acquiescent in the rise of London as Test cricket’s hub at the expense of elsewhere. While London has been guaranteed two prime Tests a summer, and three in total - both Lord’s and the Oval have enjoyed long-term staging agreements, and the Oval’s Test is always against the most attractive opponents in a Test summer - the other seven grounds have had to fight for what’s left: less inviting opponents at less appetising times of year, normally starting at a worse time in the week.
By paying so much - Durham paid the ECB £950,000 to stage a Test against Sri Lanka last May - grounds had to ramp up ticket prices too, even in more economically deprived areas.
Consider the six Tests that Chester-le-Street hosted in its history. It staged one marquee match, an Ashes Test in 2013, and promptly sold it out. The problem was the opposition, and dates, in their other five Tests: Zimbabwe, beginning on June 3; Bangladesh, beginning on June 5; West Indies, beginning on June 15, West Indies again, two years later, beginning on May 14; and Sri Lanka last year, beginning on May 27.
Little wonder that England won all six Tests at the ground, including three by an innings. And little wonder that the crowds stayed away, given the lack of a contest and the unattractiveness of the opposition.
Headingley’s recent allocation of matches has scarcely been better. Only once since 2009 has the ground hosted the senior tourist in a summer, and the difficulty of its job selling tickets has been compounded by repeatedly hosting the same opponents: New Zealand in 2013 and 2014; and Sri Lanka in 2014 and 2016. Three of those Tests begun in May.
For what were England’s two northernmost Test venues, a nadir was reached last May. In consecutive weeks, Headingley and Chester-le-Street hosted Tests against Sri Lanka. England won both games resoundingly - Sri Lanka made 91, 119 and 101 in their first three innings of the series - but against a grim backdrop, of chilly weather, empty stands and unavoidable fretting about the health of Test cricket.
This was the dark side of the new Test venues in Cardiff, Southampton and Durham established this century. In place of the old system - six Test matches a year shared between six Test venues - there were more internationals, and unavoidably crammed into the peripheries of summer. A ‘blind bidding system’ was introduced. It was scrapped from 2013 - by which time counties had amassed huge debts bidding more than they could afford for matches.
What happened to Durham, who were relegated and banned from hosting Tests after needing an emergency bail-out from the ECB, could very well have happened to Yorkshire too, who fell into three times as much debt as Durham but negotiated loans with the Graves Family Trust. The system also led numerous counties, including Durham, to need support from local councils, and effectively be bailed out by taxpayers.
Even in a Test match summer not beginning until July, and so mercifully free of the dispiriting spectacle of Test cricket in May, the discrepancy between London and the rest remains inescapable. All three Tests at Lord’s and The Oval begin on Thursday - the optimum date to maximise sales to corporates and the general public. Old Trafford and Headingley have Tests starting on Friday, the same as for Trent Bridge’s match earlier this month. That means the grounds, no matter how well they market the Tests, stand to earn less.
Tests away from London can still sell well. Trent Bridge proved as much, selling out on the first three days and managing a very respectable 10,400 crowd on the fourth day, despite the twin hurdles of it being a Monday and England facing impending defeat. Tickets for the Old Trafford Test against South Africa are also significantly up on the England-Pakistan Test there last year.
The Edgbaston Test against the West Indies is surging, too, with spectators wooed by the prospect of the country’s first day-night, although this does not necessarily offer a template for the future: there are unlikely to be day-night Tests at home to either Australia or India - tickets against both sell anyway, and day-night matches would be harder for fans in those countries to watch.
But the impressive ticket sales are very timely. The number of summer Tests will be reduced from seven to six from 2020, and the ECB is currently agreeing how matches should be awarded. Whether Lord’s should still be guaranteed two Tests a summer - which, combined with The Oval’s one, would mean half of Tests being played in the capital - will be discussed.
The ECB will also need to consider the challenge of keeping Test cricket vibrant in the rest of the country. From this year, the ECB introduced a new financial formula for less attractive matches, with the board and counties effectively splitting the risk, rather than the ECB being paid a staging fee earlier, while a staging fee is still paid to the ECB for the most attractive matches. But Kevan Jones, the MP for North Durham, still believes that “The entire model and the way in which English cricket is governed and run is broken.”
To keep Test cricket vibrant throughout the country, he advocates an end to the package bidding system altogether, with matches instead awarded by other criteria. Effectively the ECB would be accepting less cash for itself to maintain a broad geographical spread of Tests.
If it is played at the right time of year, Test cricket can still prosper away from the capital; it is just that, in recent times it has too rarely been given a proper chance to do so. As an era of less Test cricket beckons, the continued vibrancy of Tests in the capital is beyond question. But the future of the Test game elsewhere in England is altogether more uncertain.
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