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May 30, 2013

Yorkshire

Headingley - the '80s and today

Dave Hawksworth
Crowds flocked to matches in Headingley in the '80s even though there were no local players in the England side  © Getty Images
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It's almost 30 years since I first sat on the Western Terraces at Headingley to watch a Test match; only a matter of days since I saw England complete a series win from what has subsequently been renamed the West Stand.

That first Test experience was back in 1984; perhaps not the greatest year for England in terms of cricket, or anything else for that matter.

Britain was in the midst of a deep recession, with Yorkshire on the frontline of a bitter miners' strike. But at the time I was a 16-year-old, enjoying the long summer days between leaving school and starting college, and, as such, largely oblivious to any truth in the old adage, "It's grim up north". Perhaps if it wasn't for the excitement of attending my first international game I might have paid more attention to the rundown and abandoned factories that lined the railway commute into Leeds. And if it wasn't for my determination to get to the ground early and claim the best viewing my £5 could buy, perhaps I'd have noticed the faded shop signs and walls blackened by exhaust fumes that signal a city in decline.

But then Headingley itself wasn't exactly an area of outstanding natural beauty back in the eighties either. The players' changing rooms were housed in an uninspiring red-brick office block, the field of play surrounded by a tarmac path wide enough to drive a car around, and the smell that came from the toilets on match day could have stripped paint from a submarine. It was a functional ground rather than an aesthetically pleasing one, but in July 1984 it gave me my first taste of Test cricket.

The tourists that year were Clive Lloyd's great West Indian side, and Headingley was the middle Test in the 5-0 drubbing they were handing out to England. That series wasn't quite as one-sided as the scoreline suggests, but even the most optimistic home fan would admit that a composite side would have only found room for Allan Lamb and, perhaps, Ian Botham. England's captain, David Gower, had the pedigree to make the grade too, but against the West Indies' world-class pace attack, his personal form that summer had matched the side he led.

In the crowded Western Terraces I'd found the ideal spot I'd wanted. Close enough to the West Indian supporters' steel drums and conch shells to soak up the atmosphere, but far enough to avoid sustaining a percussion migraine. I sat and cheered on the England side as they competed for the first couple of days, then watched in awe as Malcolm Marshall routed England's second innings with a superb display of fast bowling made all the more impressive by the presence on his left arm of a cast for the thumb he'd fractured earlier in the match.

But beyond the presence of an all-time great West Indian side there was little else for the Headingley crowd to cheer, certainly no home-grown players to support, because if England were a weak side in 1984, Yorkshire were far worse. In the previous season the club had finished last in the county championship for the first and only time. Eighteen months before that, Geoff Boycott had retired from international cricket and there was no sign of a young player coming through the ranks to preserve the old lie, "A strong Yorkshire means a strong England".

The situation is different now, of course. On Saturday the Yorkshire crowd got to cheer Sheffield-born Joe Root to his first Test century. His county colleague Jonny Baristow was at the crease with him at the time. Both products of the Yorkshire academy; both with the potential for long, successful international careers.

The Leeds that Root and Bairstow know is a different place to the one I remember from growing up during the '70s and '80s. Many of the rundown factories that lined the railway into the city have been replaced by new office blocks, and expensive, smart-looking shops have moved into a city centre that has been cleaned up and largely pedestrianised.

Headingley too has had a makeover. Yorkshire has bought the ground, finally making the transition from lodger to owner. New stands have been built, facilities improved. Not quite the MCG, but a significant stride forward from how the ground was back in 1984. There's been a price to pay for that though, and Yorkshire CCC, much like the rest of the country, is laden down with debt during another time of recession.

Perhaps the tough financial situation the country is in explains the empty seats that were increasingly in evidence during the last Test? For all the lure of watching Yorkshire players in their home Test, a ticket for the Western Terraces now costs £40. With three Ashes Test matches being played in the north this summer, some supporters might be saving their money for more high-profile games.

But times were tough in the eighties, and despite a poor England side bereft of hometown players, the ground still filled up. Something has gone wrong in the past 30 years. So it was heartening to hear Yorkshire's new chief executive, Mark Arthur, state that they needed to reconnect with the huge base of grassroots club cricket that exists in the county - the first step in solving a problem being acknowledgement.

If Headingley is to still be hosting Test cricket in another 30 years' time, it's not good enough for Yorkshire to produce England players. It needs to produce a crowd that will turn out to support them as well.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dave Hawksworth
Dave Hawksworth has been in a relationship with cricket for over 30 years. During that time he's seen Ken Rutherford score 300 before tea, Geoff Boycott hit the first ball of the day for a boundary, and drunk a lot of beer. He's never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses.

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