Diminishing returns mar London derby
It's the big London derby and the old rivals, Middlesex and Surrey, are playing a Twenty20 at Lord's. Simply put, outside of the international matches played in England this summer, it ought to be the biggest attraction going.
There are plenty of spectators in pink - more male then female, incidentally - and that's because today Lord's has turned pink to support Breakthrough Breast Cancer. There's plenty of beer and chips doing the rounds, fans rise to their feet and wave boundary placards every time a batsman finds the ropes, and there's even an American couple settled in London - knowledgeable about the game - who have brought their two young boys to Lord's for their first match. Unlike in 2004, when the volume of musical interludes accompanying key moments of the first Twenty20 here were kept to a reasonable limit, now Akon, Dexy's Midnight Runners, 10CC and a bevy of 80s funk mixes blare out at regular intervals.
It's a marked difference from exactly a week ago, when Middlesex wrapped up an innings victory over Essex in a Championship match in front of a smattering of a crowd. This game turns out to be a low-scoring affair, keeping with the trend in the Twenty20 Cup's first week, but that doesn't deter the crowd from cheering and swaying in the stands.
From an outsider's perspective - and one who has viewed the disparity between attendance at Ranji Trophy matches and Indian Premier League fixtures - it's a shame there isn't more of a crowd to do justice to the occasion. The attendance for today's match is estimated to be about 16,000, out of which 14,000 were pre-sold and the remaining were tickets held by MCC members. That's poor by local standards and all the more so when you consider Surrey are playing Middlesex at the home of cricket, which is also the largest ground in England.
When these two teams played here in 2004 there were 27,500 spectators, the first sell out at Lord's since the two teams met in the County Championship in 1953. There were nearly 30,000 here when the two teams played on a warm June evening in 2005, and in 2006 more than 28,000 packed Lord's as Surrey maintained their unbeaten Twenty20 record against Middlesex.
Forty-five years ago the Gillette Cup, England's original one-day tournament, was launched, primarily as a result of dipping attendances for county matches. Twenty20 was ushered in in 2003 as an antidote to the diminishing crowds for county four-day fixtures. Lord's stayed away from the new format that year, but hosted one Twenty20 game in the 2004 and 2005 seasons. That improved to two the next year and in 2007 it hosted three and that figure stands for this season, which means crowds have the option to choose which games they will watch live. That could be one explanation for why the numbers are down, as compared to when there was just one derby match between these two rivals.
"This isn't nearly as good a crowd as I've seen in recent years," says an elderly gentleman in the lower tier of the Edrich Stand, who has made it to three of the last four London derbies at Lord's. "The crowds love it but this is disappointing. You'd think because of all the developments in Twenty20 cricket and Middlesex's unbeaten run in the competition that there would be a buzz here."
Another fan, in his late 20s, says he and his colleagues have tickets to all the Twenty20 matches at Lord's and a handful for ones at The Oval. "It's just something fun for us to do after work. The crowd's into it, there's beer to be drunk, so what's not to like?" He and another colleague rise to their feet and wave their hands as Surrey's James Benning cracks a boundary towards midwicket, and then he adds: "It's not so much about the cricket as it is the chance to chill out with friends."
The thoughts of the two fans differ slightly but they're still brought here by the cricket. It's a shame there isn't a bigger turn-out, but that doesn't entirely deter from a pleasant evening's cricket.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo