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June 27, 2014

Headingley's challenge to get the crowds back

Dave Hawksworth
Sri Lanka fans added colour to the Test but where were all the locals?  © PA Photos
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My home town isn't exactly a teeming urban metropolis, and the surrounding countryside could hardly be described as densely populated. But my local cricket club still manages to put out four sides on a Saturday, another midweek, with enough volunteers left to run a range of junior teams from Under-9s through to U-18s.

The main league that the club plays in has eight divisions, almost a hundred teams, and is only one of a number of leagues that operates in the area. Our local newspaper might be increasingly dominated by adverts, but it still finds space for match reports that cover 2nd XI games between villages you'd struggle to locate on a map. And when an international or domestic game is being televised, my local pub will normally be showing it on its large screen to an audience ready to tell you, from the comfort of their bar stool, exactly where everyone is going wrong.

Yet if I'm honest, where I live has always been more of a rugby league area. By Yorkshire standards, at least.

But then anyone who saw coverage of the recent Headingley Test could be forgiven for thinking the entire region was only interested in other sports. Certainly the two days I spent watching from sparsely populated stands didn't marry up to the interest in cricket I know exists in Yorkshire. Somewhere along the line a gap has opened between interest and attendance.

It might be that the gap is limited to Test cricket. The next game at Headingley - a domestic T20 clash with traditional local rivals Lancashire - was announced as a sell-out while England and Sri Lanka were still playing in front of a sea of empty blue seating. An indication that the Yorkshire public still love cricket, or confirmation that they remain stubbornly parochial, depending on your point of view.

It's tempting to suggest that the poor attendance for the Test was in part down to dissatisfaction with an unsuccessful national side and a management set-up that hasn't exactly endeared itself to the public in recent months. But in reality, attendances at Headingly Test matches have been disappointing for a number of years, long before England fell apart like a backfiring clown car in Australia this past winter.

Last summer's Test against New Zealand saw an especially small crowd; although this year's attendance feels more disappointing given the presence of three Yorkshire players in the England side, and crucially, a significant reduction in ticket prices.

It's hard to see what more Yorkshire could have done. The message has been broadcast long and hard to the wider Yorkshire cricket community that the club is in serious debt and needs income from international games to secure its financial future. And from a spectator point of view this was certainly the best staged Test I've attended at Headingley. Perhaps all that's left is for prices to be dropped even further.

The fact that crowds were slightly higher this year might suggest that Headingley's lowest ebb has already been reached. But when Yorkshire's current staging agreement with the ECB runs out in 2019 there needs to have been a significant improvement for the right to host international games not to pass to other counties with better facilities, ambitious management and local populations hungry for a chance to see Test cricket on their own doorstep.

Headingley might have history on their side; hundreds, possibly thousands, of committed local clubs like the one in my town within its borders; and famous ex-players to trumpet its cause in the media. But no one has a divine right to host international games.

My heart tells me that Yorkshire will find a way to get the crowds back, that they will keep international cricket at Headingley, and with it the financial means to help Yorkshire out of debt. But after spending another few days in the half-empty stands of a Headingley Test match, my head is struggling to work out just how that'll be achieved.

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Posted by   on (June 29, 2014, 14:29 GMT)

England fire their genius talent and leading all time run scorer and take cricket off free to air tv and wonder why people arent interested. Am i missing something?

Posted by   on (June 29, 2014, 12:44 GMT)

Any soccer match involving Suarez, and any cricket match involving Pietersen, will sell out instantly. Equally, people won't pay big money to watch cart-horses and trundlers. You have to learn to handle the genius nutters ... they're the people the pubilc will pay to see! The worldwide public will queue up to watch McEnroe or Bubba Watson ... they won't queue for Tim Henman and Justin Rose!! [no disrespect to the last two].

Posted by Insult_2_Injury on (June 29, 2014, 3:47 GMT)

It's never one thing, which is why 'fixing the problem' is the wrong way to approach an issue which isn't just restricted to one English county. This is happening world wide. You have noticed - in cricket mad Yorkshire - exactly what I noticed 12 months ago at the MCG - in cricket mad Victoria; bays of empty seats on days 2/3 of the Boxing Day Test.

To me the symptoms are obvious. The national team garners best support in the most rabid location, but when performing poorly, spectators won't part with exorbitant entry, food & concession stand prices. They may attend the 'occasion' day (Boxing Day) but the ensuing days are left to the cricket fan (not the event spectator). When the team is continually under performing it is even a stretch to get all cricket fans to choose the paying option as opposed to the more difficultly quantifiable TV option. More finishes like the last Test are the solution. Spectators want guaranteed excitement while cricket fans want Test Matches, no quick fix!

Posted by Udendra on (June 28, 2014, 18:07 GMT)

It happens. Specially when the home team is about to embrace defeat and has been having a very bad tour.

Posted by LillianThomson on (June 28, 2014, 12:35 GMT)

We saw a similar thing in New Zealand almost two decades ago when Glenn Turner purged Chris Cairns and Adam Parore.

Ultimately, box office is box office. If England don't wake up and recall KP they will find that Lords Tests are the only ones that they can sell out.

Posted by   on (June 28, 2014, 7:22 GMT)

First time I have missed a test at Headingley. Why? - no KP, a useless captain. I'm a Yorkshire lifetime supporter and we supplied three players. A sad day for me. England should have selected Jason Gillespie - the best coach in England and asked Gayle to captain the side. Right now English cricket is boring and defeatist. Moores and Cook a pair of losers in the quality cricketing brain category. The pair are just LOSING support and the last time I watched live cricket was at Lords for the Middlesex - Yorkshire match. Young Joe Root skippered but at least we saw some interesting cricket. We should NOT have lost! Sorry Headingley you have lost me...

Posted by gr_wgtn_j8 on (June 28, 2014, 6:04 GMT)

I wanted to see NZ play at Headingley last year but the ticket prices were prohibitive when you add travel and accommodation. Not sure how many NZers live in Yorkshire but it must a lot less than in London or Scotland. I think the cheapest seats were in the Barmy Army stand which somehow didn't appeal very much either.

Posted by Herath-UK on (June 27, 2014, 22:10 GMT)

Parking is a significant issue when I parked last time to see the Sri Lanka's ODI,had to walk back a significant distance. I do not think you can have a good crowd in Test matches in the early summer games whoever the opponents as the weather is unpredictable & dismal & who in right mind would buy tickets in advance. For the summer games locals will come in droves to enjoy the sun whoever the opponent & whatever the result going to be. In Sri Lanka's case they now cannot hold the lame excuse of not competitive having been thrashed in all forms of the game this time. And then this is the time cricket has to grapple with football world cup (Olympics,Wimbelden etc) & if you listen or watch any media broadcast, all are full of them & how little attention cricket get. ECB is not doing its PR good except for the Ashes.

Posted by Pyrahtechnics on (June 27, 2014, 20:21 GMT)

It wasn't that long ago Yorkshire had a membership package which included all international cricket. Maybe this is where the problem lies, especially when 92% of Yorkshire members did not attend last years test match against New Zealand.

Posted by   on (June 27, 2014, 17:47 GMT)

Perhaps if northern grounds were treated to the prestige test matches routinely allocated to the Oval and Lords it'd be a fairer comparison. Why they are given these games without question is beyond me. Could it be anything to do with the cricketing establishment being made up of Surrey and MCC members?

It's this London-centricity that frustrates us north of Birmingham the most.

When Headingley updates the Rugby Ground end it'll be a different proposition. Look how the feel of Old Trafford has changed for the better.

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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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