Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Whose Game is it Anyway?

Twenty years ago a West Indies/England Test was more than a game of cricket, it was a significant cultural event. The Kennington Oval was practically a home venue for the men in maroon, and looking back at footage of that halcyon era the sheer vibrancy of the atmosphere is simply unimaginable for one such as I weaned on the fairly tame, sometimes staid environs that define cricket in the ‘noughties’. Barmy Army chants and cross-dressing, neither of which really have much to do with the action on the pitch, is about as exciting as it gets for a contemporary English cricket crowd. In the 1980s each wicket, even each boundary, seemed to be greeted by spontaneous displays of effusive delirium that inevitably spilled over the boundary and onto the field. One had to accept dozens of mini-pitch invasions a day as being part of the game. Nowadays such a scene inevitably seems incongruous, even ridiculous in relation to where the game has headed in the intervening decade or two. For one thing, one imagines that any such over-enthusiastic revellers capering about at a modern British test venue would have to count themselves quite lucky indeed if they escape a 42 day (if Gordon Brown gets his way) stay courtesy of Her Majesty under anti-terror legislation.

On a less flippant note, the relentless and ruthless exploitation of the commercial aspect of the sport to its absolute limits, most obviously evident in skyrocketing ticket prices, really is threatening to suck the dry the lifeblood of the game. At the recent Lords Test featuring New Zealand, hardly the opponent most likely to capture the public’s imagination in the first place, management decided upon gate charges staring at sixty pounds sterling for the privilege of watching a single day’s play. One wonders what percentage of the throngs of spectators that flocked to West Indian and Australian test s in the 80s and 90s and who imbued the grounds with such life and colour could ever dream of forking over such an exorbitant sum for a day’s entertainment. Cricket may arouse strong parochial passions, but if the game is simply too expensive to follow then people will soon latch onto another pastime more friendly to their wallets.

The ECB has strongly defended itself against accusations of greed by justifying their high prices with the evidence of high demand. One source has commented that "People ring us and accuse us of not charging enough because they have not been able to get the tickets." Even granted that this is the case, such an argument betrays a lack of both foresight and insight on the part of the powers that be. It ignores the simple fact that the board is supposed to be a watchdog for the game’s welfare first and commercial venture second. Once the team remains successful and the sport popular it is true that attendances probably won’t drop in the short term regardless of what tickets cost. However, the demographics of those going to see live cricket will inevitably focus more and more narrowly on a uniform middle-class and mostly white section of society, thus dramatically limiting the game’s accessibility and hence appeal to the broad stratum of Britain’s ethnically diverse population. The make-up of the current test team bears this out. Without the presence of Monty Panesar, the side, public schoolboys almost to a man, would wholly conform to the stereotype that Britain’s cricketing authorities are doing too little to counteract. It remains a somewhat bizarre fact that English cricket has produced only one player of Asian descent who enjoyed any longevity in an England shirt in the form of former captain Nasser Hussain. The Caribbean Diaspora has fared even worse, with Devon Malcolm’s 40 caps easily the most by a black cricketer representing England. Malcolm earned his last cap in 1997 whilst Hussain hung up his boots back in 2004. Cricket must be the only sport in Britain becoming more rather than less homogenous, and the ECB’s policy of maximising profits must have played a significant part in this phenomenon.

England of course is not alone in risking pricing themselves out of the market in the ultra-competitive world of sports entertainment. The West Indies Cricket Board in fact is even more in line to be criticised than their British counterparts. If the latter is guilty of short-sightedness and narrow-mindedness, the former must be accused of attempted suicide. The comfortable middle-class base on which the ECB is content to rely to fill their stadiums and support the sport simply isn’t large enough to sustain crowd numbers in the Caribbean. At a time when the product of West Indies cricket is perhaps less marketable than at any point in its long and often distinguished history, the authorities simply must do everything in their power to ensure a certain level of interest in and support of the national side, even if that means pricing tickets well below what they consider to be a reasonable price to put bums on seats. In any case, surely it is a matter of simple economics that if your product isn’t selling then it’s not worth what you are charging?

As if to crystallise this point, the crowd attending the recent second Test match against Australia at the brand new Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua was nothing short of embarrassing. After a performance that was at the very least credible in the opening game of the rubber one would have expected a reasonably well-attended match. Unfortunately that just wasn’t the case. The spine tingling events of the week before at Sabina Park simply couldn’t have been repeated as there were no fans to roar the pace bowlers on. The authorities might have even considered letting in fans for free: the gate returns from the handful of spectators that did show up could hardly have appreciably boosted the WICB’s coffers. Non-attendance of Test matches is a far more dangerous malaise than dodgy techniques or wayward bowling. Cricket has no divine right to remain a cultural mainstay of former British colonies and without adequate support will inevitably wither and die. With the advent of twenty20 in all its various tournaments and guises, cricket boards worldwide are raking in far more cash than ever before. If these same cricketing authorities around the world would just charge a little less for the privilege of attending test cricket, which they can certainly afford to do, the future of the game and the format would be far more secure.

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