Bold but flawed
Cricket's most historic club, MCC, is thinking - aloud, for once - of merging with Middlesex, its tenant at cricket's most historic ground, Lord's. The idea, as the MCC secretary Keith Bradshaw told The Times, is "creating a club akin to Manchester United".
Bradshaw's openness was a breath of fresh air - even if he did backtrack a bit on seeing the notion in print, emailing members to say that it had only been "touched upon hypothetically". Hypothetical or not, it was a bold, interesting thought, of a kind some of his predecessors would have scoffed at. But whether it makes sense is another matter. MCC + MCCC = MUFC? It doesn't quite add up.
This is nothing against Manchester United, whom I happen to have supported since 1970. It's the fact that they are on another planet. They are a highly unusual sports club, in four ways: support, wealth, success and fame.
United's ground takes 76,000 people, and is just about full for every match; last year, their worldwide following was estimated at 330 million. They have won the league nine times in the past 15 years, with quite a few cups as well. They are shamelessly good at converting support and success into sterling. Their annual turnover is £212m, according to last week's report from Deloitte, which makes them the second richest football club in the world behind Real Madrid. But they also have an asset that numbers cannot begin to capture.
Their name has a ring to it that carries the deep resonance of mythology. It is steeped in Munich 1958, the Busby Babes, Matt Busby himself, Bobby Charlton, George Best, the European Cup of 1968, Alex Ferguson, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, the Champions League of 1999, and now Rooney and Ronaldo, the two most electric players in the Premier League. Their managers get knighted; their shirt is a global icon. Love them or hate them - and there is plenty to dislike, from the rapacious pricing to Ferguson's petty boycott of the BBC - it's hard to deny that they are huge.
Now let's have a look at Middlesex. For quite a long time, from 1976 to 1993, they enjoyed Ferguson-like success, winning seven county championships in 18 years. And it was partly for one of the same reasons: tremendous continuity. From 1971 to 1997, they had only two captains - Mike Brearley and Mike Gatting. And the coach, Don Bennett, lasted even longer: a staggering 29 years. For the last 10 years, however, Middlesex have struggled. And their continuity has gone to pieces. They appointed a new captain in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2007, and some of their coaches - John Buchanan, Richard Pybus - have lasted a season or less.
They are on the up again now, with a captain, Ed Smith, who is close to combining the brains of Brearley with the broad bat of Gatting. (Why Smith isn't captaining the England Lions this winter is a mystery. While Michael Yardy may be a gritty operator, it's not easy to picture him playing Test cricket.) But Middlesex remain, for the moment, a middling team, more of a Middlesbrough than a Man U.
To be fair, Bradshaw and his Middlesex counterpart, Vinny Codrington, were talking about a (hypothetical) future. They weren't saying Middlesex were like Man United now. But the results are one indication of just how far they would have to travel. And things don't look much more promising on the other scores. The Middlesex shirt is not an icon in St John's Wood, let alone across the world. Their history is fitfully glittering, lit up by Compton and Edrich as well as Brearley and Gatting, but it is history, not mythology. And Lord's gets close to filling its 30,000 seats only for internationals and Twenty20 games: at most Middlesex matches, the ground is echoingly empty.
|Lord's, as many of Middlesex's captains have found, is not an easy base for a county side. In the hearts and minds of cricket lovers, it belongs not to Middlesex, or even to MCC: it belongs to England.|
Financially, they are not even Middlesbrough. Full-price membership costs £133; at Man United, you'll pay £230 just to park your car. County cricket has only a modest appeal for broadcasters, and that is hardly going to change because MCC join the fray. The Times reporter who got the scoop, Ivo Tennant, writes that MCC would bring "wealth ... marketing expertise ... success and professionalism". Wealth: yes, but hardly in football terms. Marketing expertise? It's hard not to laugh. MCC can't even put up a decent poster outside their ground, telling the public what is coming up. They conduct marketing with all the squeamishness of an exclusive private club. They are public-spirited in other ways - taking the game to far-flung corners, raising money for tsunami victims - but their dealings with Joe Public himself are still stiff, verging on stuffy.
What MCC would bring is a great ground. Lord's is world-famous, it has some stunning modern architecture and it should get even better under the go-ahead Bradshaw. But a stage isn't the same thing as a theatre company. And Lord's, as many of Middlesex's captains have found, is not an easy base for a county side. In the hearts and minds of cricket lovers, it belongs not to Middlesex, or even to MCC: it belongs to England.
Bradshaw's motive here is twofold. He wants to "make them [Middlesex] feel more at home" and to "lift the bar in England ... to have the narrowest of gaps between county cricket and Test cricket". It's easier to picture the first intention coming true than the second. Would a merged team have so much more pulling power? Would it be able to lift standards without a gaggle of other big teams? Would it stand a ghost of a chance against the Indian Premier League?
That is the elephant in the room here. As the MCC story was emerging, cricket was finally coming up with something that might resemble club football. It is big, brash, both compelling and grotesque: sport as a vehicle for turbo-capitalism. It may be overhyped, but it is unmistakably significant, and it is a very long way from an ancient English club talking to a middling English county. Watch that space - not this one.
Tim de Lisle is the author of Young Wisden. His website is www.timdelisle.com