Crowd numbers suggest Twenty20 overkill
In his most recent fortnightly column on English cricket, Lawrence Booth warned that the signs were there that Twenty20 cricket in England might be starting to lose its appeal. After six seasons where crowds flocked to games, early ticket sales, he said, suggested that interest was cooling.
The acid test was always going to come on the opening day of this season's competition. At Lord's, everything was set for a bumper crowd. The sun was shining, it was a Bank Holiday Monday, and the game featured Middlesex, the defending champions, against cross-London rivals Surrey. Five years ago, this same fixture attracted almost 30,000 people in a game that was a virtual sell-out. Last year, more than 16,000 attended.
This time there were only around 10,000 inside Lord's, with pre-sales only 7000. But the organisers didn't help themselves. One would-be spectator contacted Cricinfo to report his frustration. "I joined the queue near main gates at 2.10pm," he said. "The queue didn't move, and we were told they'd 'run out of tickets'! The [new] tickets arrived at 2.35pm as players were going out. I got to front of queue after play had started (we could hear inside ground) only to be told it was for 'members only'." He gave up and went home.
The lower attendance was not a one-off. It was the same story across the country where counties reported sluggish ticket sales - some indicated they were as much as 40% down. Coming so soon after very poor attendances for the Tests at Lord's and Chester-le-Street, the warning bells ought to be sounding within the ECB.
Excuses are already being prepared, ranging from the recession to people keeping their powder dry for the ICC World Twenty20 and the Ashes. Critics counter that the marketing for the earlier-than-usual start has been poor and the scheduling means that there is now a glut of Twenty20 cricket, a situation which will only get worse. Next year the ECB unleashes its second Twenty20 league, meaning a substantial increase in the number of matches.
Those running the game would do well to take heed of the crowds and also the views of the players. Speaking to the Independent, Shaun Udal, the veteran Middlesex captain who has been in the game for almost two decades, warned that "there's a danger we are going to kill it". He continued. "It's typical of English cricket, you get something that's right and it gets overdone. It's daft, it's just being greedy. It's not good for the players and it's not good for the spectators."