Wales cricket's charm offensive
England will always have Cardiff. That is, the memory of the first Ashes Test of 2009, recently evoked by the images of Monty Panesar helping Matt Prior rescue a similarly triumphant draw in Auckland. There have been difficult times for Glamorgan and their ground since then - in particular a hefty loss on the Sri Lanka Test of 2011 and the subsequent forfeiting of a West Indies Test last year - but in June, the global cricket caravan will cross the Severn for the opening game of the Champions Trophy, a tournament that could go a long way to determining the future of hosting international fixtures in Wales.
As with England against Australia four years ago, cricket in Cardiff might be considered to have its back to the wall. Less than a mile down the River Taff squats the Millennium Stadium, home of Welsh rugby. In their national sport, Wales have breathed fire over the Six Nations in recent years, and last month they won a fourth title - including three grand slams - since 2005. In football, Cardiff City are closing in on promotion to the Premier League,where they will join Swansea, who in February became the first Welsh side to win the League Cup.
Passion for the English summer game may be harder to discern than daffodils in this bitterest of springs. But walking along the river towards the SWALEC Stadium, although the trees are bare, it is possible to make out a faint, pointillist constellation of yellow. In a couple of months, with the rugby and football seasons finished and cricket out of hibernation once more, the cricketing world will be introduced to the ECB's silent W.
Or perhaps not so silent, as Robert Croft, the former Glamorgan and England offspinner, alludes to in his promise of a "carnival atmosphere" at the Cardiff Wales Stadium (as it will be called for the duration of the Champions Trophy). Croft is used to fielding questions about Welsh support for an England team - in most sports, theSais are jeered rather than cheered across the border - but he is confident that the locals will open their arms and clear their throats. TV coverage is expected to reach hundreds of millions of eyeballs and little stirs the Welsh as much as pride in a sporting occasion. Indians might not know the words to "Bread of Heaven" by the end of the Champions Trophy but the hope is they will want a further taste.
"There's going to be the eyes of the world on Cardiff," says Croft, who is now in a coaching and ambassadorial role with Glamorgan after retiring last year, and will be prominent during the tournament. "We want the Welsh cricket brand to get across to the global audience. There'll be a lot of potential people who would love to come to Wales getting an opportunity to see it on television - so we want to make that sing, as it were."
Croft believes that the continued ability to stage cricket at the highest level is important for the game in Wales. Alongside the immediate financial benefit to Glamorgan, having regular international cricket in the Welsh capital can help to pique the interest of a new generation, who might otherwise be lured to rival sports.
A man who knows something about nurturing the grassroots of cricket in Cardiff is David Kirtley, younger brother of the former England international James. Having moved from his hometown of Eastbourne in the 1990s in order to go to university, Kirtley has captained Cardiff Cricket Club for the last eight years and can remember as far back as the days when they played their home games at
Cardiff CC now play in Whitchurch, to the north of the city, but as part of the Cardiff Athletic Club they are still officially billeted in a small brick building between the Millennium Stadium and Cardiff Arms Park, an insurgent in rugby heartland. Founded in 1819, the club is one of the oldest sporting associations in Wales - Kirtley jokes that they are older than the Australia team - and with almost 200 years of history to fall back on, there are no feelings of insecurity. Having a Test ground up the road is an added fillip, reckons Kirtley.
"There's no doubt it's been a benefit for cricket in the area, havinginternational cricket on your doorstep," he says. "Our junior section iscontinuing to grow and we had definite a spike around when the Ashesstarted."
For Glamorgan's chief executive, Alan Hamer, hosting a successful Champions Trophy is a matter of "reputation". While the first Test match to be held in Wales was well received - Wisden described it as a "triumph" - the drive to construct international venues in outposts such as Cardiff, Durham and Southampton has been characterised in some quarters as the fake sound of progress. A £1.7m loss in 2011 did little to counter that argument but, despite the economic turmoil of the last few years, Glamorgan have taken steps to improve their financial footing and Hamer is confident that a regular offering of international cricket is central to the county's fortunes. A successful Champions Trophy will be a prerequisite to Glamorgan's prospects in the ECB's next four-year match allocation cycle, which will include the 2019 World Cup and Ashes, as well as the World Test Championship, which is expected to be held in England in 2017.
Perhaps just as important to bringing in the crowds and establishing Cardiff as a cricketing citadel is the regeneration of Glamorgan as a genuine county force. Gimmicks such as calling the one-day team the "WelshDragons" have been abandoned and Glamorgan recently published a Strategic Plan aimed at improving links with Welsh clubs. In the club's 125th year, Croft has been touring the country and taking part in q&a sessions; Kirtley says that after a "rocky time three-four years", Glamorgan are going in the right direction.
Hamer also acknowledges the need for a corrective. "We recognise that continued poor performances in the Glamorgan team have compounded the gap between the profile of rugby, football and cricket. We know we have an important part to play in resurrecting that interest. Over the last few years we've pursued a strategy which has involved investing money in cricket by signing players, either from other counties or overseas. It's not something financially sustainable long-term but also in order to resurrect the interest in the Welsh public in Glamorgan, we need as well to be developing our own players."
Forty years ago, in Swansea, England and New Zealand played the first international match ever to be held in Wales. There were no Welshmen in the side that day and Cardiff is still waiting to cheer a homegrown hero in an England shirt. "I would have loved to have played in an international here," Croft says wistfully. "It's very important for the profile of cricket in Wales that we get another Welsh lad playing at the highest level." That, surely,would secure Cardiff's status. And all the cricketing cathedrals in the world will not have heard a roar like it.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo