May 29, 2008

English cricket needs a new home

Despite revamps, capacities at England's cricket grounds remain below par. The ECB needs to consider adopting London's Olympic Stadium

No Ashes Test for Old Trafford next year © Getty Images

So farewell then, Old Trafford. England's recent victory over New Zealand may have been their fifth in six matches at the venerable old ground, but Test cricket will not be returning to Lancashire for at least another three years. The ECB has decreed that other venues have better claims, which means that - next summer, when Australia return to England - there will be no repeats of the scenes that transfixed the nation in 2005, when 10,000 fans had to be turned away at the gates as Ashes fever officially took hold.

If you were a stranger to the decision-making process that has taken next summer's Ashes away from Old Trafford, you'd assume that common sense must have prevailed. After all, why is it that so many spectators were denied the chance to partake in that historic summer of 2005? It is because the ground itself, a snug 19,000-seater, is far too small to satisfy such an overwhelming public appetite.

And yet, where have the ECB decided to relocate the first Test of the 2009 Ashes? To Cardiff, of all the ridiculous venues. A £10million refit for Sophia Gardens will offer up a puny 15,000 seats to the general public, and yet somehow it has been deemed worthy of hosting the most eye-catching Test series in world cricket. So much for common sense.

Never mind the tradition and the guaranteed excellence of Old Trafford's wicket, 4000 precious Ashes seats have been cast aside, and that is the greatest sin of all. For, if 2005 taught English cricket anything, it is that there is a market for the sport that exists in spite of the status quo. That market has already been compromised by the loss of free-to-air broadcasting for home Test series, but to restrict - on top of that - the public's opportunity to come and watch the national side in action. Well, that is sheer madness.

To be fair, several of England's senior grounds have cottoned onto the need for expansion - Lord's and The Oval both have extensive renovations in the pipeline, while Trent Bridge has just completed its new £8.2 million Bridgford Road stand. But still their capacities are woeful by the standards of their Antipodean rivals - Lord's, by a distance England's largest at 29,500, is dwarfed by every major Australian venue bar the WACA and the Adelaide Oval.

The summer of 2005 came back into my thoughts earlier this week when the latest proposals for London's Olympic stadium were unveiled. Ten weeks before that year's Ashes parade culminated in Trafalgar Square, the 2012 games were awarded to London amid equally euphoric scenes, and the centrepiece of the bid was a magnificent 80,000 amphitheatre. Now, it seems, the organisers would rather flatpack the composite parts, and ship them off to Illinois in a bid to balance the spiralling £9.3billion budget. Such a lack of ambition is staggering, but entirely in keeping with a sporting nation that managed to translate the joy, goodwill and exquisite excitement of the 2005 Ashes into a 5-0 ransacking in the return series 15 months later.

An artist's impression of the 2012 Olympic Stadium in London © Getty Images

The flatpacking proposal is "about trying to avoid leaving infrastructure that will burden a city," said the director of Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid, which is an incredible statement when you think about it - how on earth could such state-of-the-art sporting facilities turn into a burden for a sports-mad nation like Britain? Partly it's because the full range of possibilities have not yet been explored. As a remarkable new book has set about revealing, building on the 2005 Ashes success and building a legacy for the 2012 Olympics need not be mutually exclusive.

William Buckland, a 41-year-old management consultant and England cricket fan, saw the possibilities while the rest of the country was still celebrating, and spent the winter of 2005 trying to persuade the ECB to adopt the Olympic Stadium as the new home of English cricket. With a modicum of tinkering, he believed it could be ready to take on the Australians in the 2013 series, and he even found the odd sympathetic ear within various corridors of power. But in 2006 Cardiff was given its outlandish promotion, so Buckland abandoned his petitions in disgust, and instead set about writing his magnum opus, Pommies (Matador, £15).

The Olympic stadium plan dominates the first two chapters of Buckland's book, and while it remains an outlandish proposal, the madness of the IPL and the lure of Stanford's millions provide a timely reminder that nothing in this sport can currently be taken for granted. Money is the over-riding consideration for every stakeholder in the game - whether it's the players and administrators seeking to earn more of it, or the fans being required to pay too much of it. Buckland's devastating lessons in stadium economics explain, in plain English, how it is possible to have one's cake and eat it - so long as the cake itself is big enough.

Stadium economics is a virtuous circle between access, success and finance, says Buckland. "Anyone who owns a stadium should use it as often as possible," he writes, "and assuming there are enough punters, the more the stadium is going to be used, the bigger it should be built." Arsenal, for instance, fit 25 games a year into their new 60,355 Emirates stadium, which allows them to sell their seats at a cheap enough price to ensure near total capacity all year round. The Oval, as things stand, gets six international days a year and therefore has to charge more than £100 a time to get a decent return for its 23,000 seats.

The ECB, of course, does not help itself by farming its matches out to as many as ten different venues, meaning higher prices and lower capacities for each game. And yet, all things being equal, if the majority of the national team's fixtures - certainly of the ODI and Twenty20 variety - took place in an 80,000-seater oval in the East End of London, fans of the committed and casual variety could watch the national side for as little as £10 a time, and rare would be the occasion when tickets were not readily available.

There are aesthetic reasons to keep Tests out of such purpose-built stadia - as England's recent tour of New Zealand demonstrated, the beauty of the five-day game deserves to be matched by the surroundings, not least for the comfort of the spectators who often pay for the occasion as much as the cricket. But for the shorter form of the game, the onus should surely be to pack them in and stack them as high as possible, especially given that the Olympic stadium and a national cricket stadium fit each other's contours like Cinderella and her glass slipper.

The fundamental point is that both grounds are of the oval variety. On average, such venues measure 180m by 135m, which is significantly larger than the 110m by 75m rectangles favoured for rugby and football. Some countries, notably New Zealand, attempt to shoehorn cricket pitches into their rugby grounds, but as the unloved Eden Park in Auckland demonstrates, this makes for an unsatisfactory angular arrangement, with awkward short boundaries. Conversely, rugby is occasionally played on cricket grounds - for instance, the British Lions tour of Australia in 2001, when the fans at the first Test at the Gabba were up to 40 metres from the action.

For Buckland, the Melbourne Cricket Ground is the alpha and omega of sporting stadia, and it showed just what can be done when it was revamped for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. In November 2005, the outfield was stripped to lay down a new running track. Four weeks later, the turf had been relaid, and the Boxing Day Test against South Africa took place without a hitch. Three months later, the top coat was peeled off once again, and athletics took centre stage once again. On each occasion, the 100,000 capacity meant that the cost of the refit was nothing compared to the takings for each different event.

Cardiff's Sophia Gardens seats 4000 less than Old Trafford © Getty Images

There are practical reasons why such an arrangement wouldn't work in England - the climate, for instance, is not so conducive to such drastic change of use, least of all if drop-in pitches were required - but most of the stumbling blocks are of the political variety. As Buckland explains at great length in later chapters of his book, the ECB's priorities are not to the fans who would flock to see their side given half a chance, but to the 18 counties that have resisted reform for more than a century, and continue to do so even as Twenty20 cricket blows a tornado of change through the world game.

If a three-year Test hiatus is what is needed to spur Old Trafford into a building programme to match its football neighbours, then so much the better for cricket fans in the north of the country. But, when the reward for one's investment is six international days a year, why would any ground bother with such a major overhaul? The Olympic stadium, on the other hand, will be built come what may, and it will need to be filled when the games have been and gone. What would an IPL franchise make of an 80,000-seater home ground in the East End of London, just down the road from an untapped Bangladeshi market? Maybe the ECB is no longer the institution to address. Perhaps Mr Stanford could think of a better use for all that Illinois-bound scrap metal.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo