April 3, 2009

Statistics, lies and county cricket coverage

England's papers may be cutting back on their coverage of county cricket, but reader interest is still high, and the county game is quite the stubborn old dog

Delight in it or deride it, you have to admit county cricket is a stubborn so and so. In a media age where, to paraphrase Shane Warne, football comes first, daylight second and the rest a distant third, our domestic game looks set for another summer in which its relevance will be questioned, its gate receipts mocked and its OAP supporters hunted down in photographic evidence ("If he's clutching a thermos, so much the better!"). Recession-hit local papers will continue to close, so threatening the livelihood of county cricket's most faithful chroniclers, and the national press will pump most of its resources into the World Twenty20 and the Ashes. Then there's the Indian Premier League. County cricket's credibility has never been more tenuous.

Actually the news is not all bad - like we said, county cricket is a stubborn so and so, more of which later - but the days when press boxes contained reporters from several local papers, all the national broadsheets, a smattering of tabloids, an agency man (always a man) and radio journalists are long gone. County cricket is no longer a story in its own right. And as far as the written press is concerned, its increasing subservience to the national side is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The economic realities of modern journalism do not help. Cost-cutting is all the rage. The Northampton Chronicle and Echo - journalistic alma mater of Matthew Engel and the Daily Telegraph's Nick Hoult - now relies on cricket copy from the Northants Evening Telegraph. Based in Kettering, the Telegraph sends a reporter to all of Northamptonshire's home one-day games, but does not always have the resources to staff the four-day matches. The Wantage Road press box can be a quiet place at times.

Down in Essex, the decision by the Evening Echo and the Evening Gazette to stop paying a modest fee to the county's two freelance writers, Paul Hiscock and Nigel Fuller, and make use of the Press Association instead, means no local daily will be taking copy specifically related to Essex.

Last summer, the Birmingham Mail and the Birmingham Post - both part of the ailing Trinity Mirror group - decided to use one reporter instead of the two who for years had given Warwickshire supporters an enviable choice. And this week, the Kent Messenger Group - which in the autumn lost the services of its assiduous cricket writer Mark Pennell - was preparing to slash its sports desk from 18 to eight, with uncertain consequences for coverage of events at Canterbury.

Yorkshire - surprise, surprise - are fighting the fight in their own way. The Yorkshire Post, a regional-press heavyweight, will this summer cut back on international coverage rather than county cricket. Only the Ashes Test at Headingley will be reported extensively in its pages, but the paper's cricket correspondent, Chris Waters, is concerned that it will be "only a matter of time" before county coverage suffers too.

Above all, forbearance is in the air. "I survived the first wave of flak last year," says Brian Halford, who this summer will report for both Birmingham papers. "But at the moment I regard it as a bit like being in the trenches of World War One."

If the regional cricket writers have always acted as the umbilical cord to their local communities, then the nationals - who record every banality and burp served up by players from Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal - have regarded the county game like lofty step-parents, with suitably varied results.

The Telegraph, traditionally county cricket's paper of record, is moving almost all coverage in-house in a bid to save costs, thus severing ties with a small army of dedicated, knowledgeable and now disenchanted freelance writers. The mood among writers for the Times last summer veered between resignation and outrage when entire rounds of championship matches were squeezed into one tabloid page. This season they are discontinuing their online bulletins at lunch and tea, but will once more ask reporters to file longer pieces for the web if necessary.

At the time of writing, the Independent was still considering its options, having last summer released two long-serving freelance cricket journalists. And the Guardian, which unlike the Times and the Telegraph does not send a reporter to every championship game, is hoping web users tap into a new mobile-phone service to access regular updates to its county blogs.

And that is where the story takes a different tack, because this is the kind of development that is being mirrored at local level as journalists adapt to survive, in the process defying the perennial predictions of county cricket's demise. Bruce Talbot, cricket correspondent of the Brighton Argus, says the blogs he writes during Sussex matches attract around 15,000 unique users a month. "Last season was Sussex's poorest for some time but we still had good hits," he says. "It's quite gratifying."

Halford is justifiably proud that his own blog - the product of a discussion with Talbot two years ago - has at times generated more hits than the Birmingham Mail and Post's forums for Aston Villa and Birmingham City. Paul Jones at the Leicester Mercury has begun writing session-by-session online reports and Mark Eklid of the Derby Evening Telegraph is going as far as taking his own photos at away matches. "It's a way of making yourself indispensable," he says.

Perhaps people are just swallowing the easy line, perpetuated by those mischievous early-season shots of the lone OAP and his thermos, that no one is fussed about the county game. The chances are county cricket will continue to grow on the web, while doing a bit of what it always has done: loiter at the sports editor's door like the office workie, hoping for its break

The fact that there is a market for these products may surprise those who are forever blaming the county game for anything from England's latest Test defeat to global warming, and yet the message in non-paper media is the same: just because people don't have time to go to four-day cricket (Twenty20 is a different beast altogether) doesn't mean they don't care. A glance at a few figures reveals they most certainly do care - just as much as the journalists whose job description is changing by the season.

At the upper end of the scale, the live county scoreboards on this website last year generated a colossal 33m page views from all round the world, up from 26m (comprising nine million visits) in 2007. At the lower - but no less enthusiastic - end, the Surrey supporters' website, ovalworld-online.com, recorded over 130,000 visits in 2008, a 47% increase on the previous year. And as its editor, Marcus Hook, points out, this is despite its poor searchability: type "Surrey cricket" into Google and you won't find a link to the site until page 32. The county fanbase can be as hidden as the product it supports.

In between, Mark Church's lively ball-by-ball commentary on Surrey matches attracts around 20,000 global listeners on the web per four-day game, including a pair of loyal oil-rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico. And Sky Sports, while reluctant to part with viewing figures, regards the domestic game as important enough to cover every county at least three times each in over 60 days of live coverage every summer. Where papers risk closing down one avenue, the internet and TV are opening up several others.

What seems clear is that the apparent contradiction between real and virtual audiences is not really a contradiction at all. "I've always thought the fact that not many go to matches shows how important it is that we keep reporting them," says Eklid. "Not many people have the time to go. There's a huge amount of interest in cricket - you just need to look at the number of local clubs that flourish in the Derbyshire area. They rely on the likes of us to follow the county. I'd say we were more important than ever."

Another cricket writer, George Dobell, says that when it became obvious last year he would no longer be covering Warwickshire matches for the Birmingham Post, readers wrote in to commiserate in their hundreds. "I was always very aware of how many people read the Post and how much it was part of people's life," he says. "I had a good relationship with the readers. It was the biggest joy of the job. So I'm convinced there are people out there who are interested. Lots of people demean county cricket who don't know what they're talking about."

Or perhaps those people are just swallowing the easy line, perpetuated by those mischievous early-season shots of the lone OAP and his thermos, that no one is fussed about the county game. So what about this summer? The chances are county cricket will continue to grow on the web, while doing a bit of what it always has done: loiter at the sports editor's door like the office workie, hoping for its break. It may prove harder to resist than you might imagine.

Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk, and will be writing fortnightly on the 2009 county season on Cricinfo