Warwickshire v Kent, Royal London Cup, Edgbaston September 4, 2014

Warwickshire return to Lord's, but English cricket should worry

Warwickshire 219 for 4 (Trott 58, Ambrose 51*, Chopra 50) beat Kent 215 for 8 (Billings 40*, Rankin 3-34) by six wickets
Scorecard

The contrasting expressions on the faces of the players told the story: whatever the gentle decline in popularity of county cricket over the last couple of decades, the prospect of a Lord's final still means a great deal. Warwickshire, winners of the NatWest T20 Blast not two weeks ago, go to the home of cricket with a chance of achieving a notable double.

So what a shame this game was witnessed by so few. Despite Warwickshire's best efforts - tickets cost a maximum of £10 and members of both clubs and U16s were let in free - there were fewer than 3,000 spectators inside the ground.

Compare that with a similar match from the not so distance past. In 1994, these sides met on the same ground in the semi-final of the NatWest Trophy. On that occasion a crowd of around 14,000 created a memorable atmosphere. Somewhere along the way, the game has stopped engaging with the mass market.

This was a match that might be used as a microcosm of much that is wrong in English cricket. On a decent but worn pitch - again, that is not fault of the groundsmen, there are simply no fresh surfaces available at this stage of the season - that will bear no comparison to the surfaces anticipated at the World Cup in Australasia, on a weekday during the school term and in between two high-profile international games on the same ground within the week, there is simply not the time or the appetite for spectators to attend. The schedule is bloated and broken.

It is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that, almost a decade after the game all but disappeared from free-to-air television, a decade after central contracts and the increased international schedule snatched the best players from the domestic circuit, cricket is dying in England. Or at least slipping into gentle irrelevance. Like Morris dancing and origami.

Such is the gradual drop in spectator numbers, that this may go unnoticed. But we are fools if we ignore the empty seats at Durham when the Ashes were won, the empty seats in Southampton during the India Test, the drop in average gate numbers for the re-launched NatWest Blast, the reliance on foreign-raised or privately educated players in teams up and down the land and the decline in space offered to the game by newspapers. No amount of hubris can replace the oxygen of publicity. Eden is burning and if the management of the ECB are unwilling to acknowledge and confront the issue, they will have failed in their duty as custodians of the game.

And yet, as this game demonstrated, there is still quality to enjoy. Despite the absence of three first choice bowlers - Chris Woakes, Chris Wright and Keith Barker - Warwickshire demonstrated skill and variety with the ball and athleticism and commitment in the field. While this was not the high-scoring encounter that might have been desired of a show-piece domestic fixture, there was still entertainment to be derived from Warwickshire's masterclass in limited-overs bowling on a pitch a little better than the low scores might suggest.

Boyd Rankin, bowling with the pace and hostility that must have Ireland supporters banging their heads in frustration, claimed three wickets - including both openers due to extra bounce - and struck Alex Blake on the helmet in an impressively sustained spell of fast bowling that earned the Man-of-the-Match award.

Jeetan Patel and Rikki Clarke demonstrated the skill and control that has played such a huge part in their side's progress and Recordo Gordon and Oliver Hannon-Dalby bowled with a maturity that belied their relative inexperience. With Kent restricted to a score perhaps 30 below par, the game was all but over as a contest long before Warwickshire began their reply.

Certainly Varun Chopra and Jonathan Trott were made for run-chases such as this. The pair batted with composure in adding 110 for Warwickshire's second wicket, with Trott compiling 50 from 49 balls with those characteristic clips through midwicket and a series of reverse-sweeps that once won many games for England. By rotating the strike with calm skill on the same pitch on which England were suffocated by India on Tuesday, he provided a reminder of what England had been missing in recent months.

While both men will be disappointed that they failed to see their side home, Tim Ambrose, an often under-rated talent, made sure of the victory with a typically busy half-century.

Perhaps, had Sam Billings - averaging more than 100 in the competition this season - batted higher than No. 8, Kent may have given themselves a batter chance. As it was, by the time he reached the crease in the 38th over, the damage was too deep to be repaired.

And perhaps, had Daniel Bell-Drummond, who scored three half-centuries in six games in the qualifying rounds, been selected ahead of Rob Key or Fabian Cowdrey, they may have a little more firepower.

As it was, Kent struggled to adjust to the surface and, in attempting to post 260, failed to reach the 240 that may have proved adequate. Until Billings thrashed 23 from his final nine deliveries and helped Kent ad 26 from their final two overs, no batsman passed 34 and provided the foundation on which his colleagues might have built.

With Ian Bell and Woakes expected to be fit and available, Warwickshire will present tough opposition in the final. Twenty years after the club completed a remarkable treble of trophies, the class of 2014 are proving worthy successors.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments