April 7, 2013

Wales cricket's charm offensive

The Champions Trophy will put the spotlight back on Cardiff and Welsh cricket, and the likes of Robert Croft plan to make the most of it

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 Sophia Gardens

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Philip on April 9, 2013, 7:06 GMT

    It would be fair to say that Glamorgan is the keystone of Welsh cricket. With it in place, there is strength. With it in place, however, there is no flexibility of movement. Welsh cricket is tied. Would it be so terrible to wake one day to a headline like "Glammy rocks county cricket - leaves for Euro league"? Well, apart from the lame '70s music pun? Scotland's had similar problems, with the game there being seen at times as something "the English do". This of course ignores the long history of cricket in Scotland, nor does the same somewhat disdainful sentiment seem to apply to rugby or association football. Yet, at least they do have a key to unlocking that sentiment, in the shape of a "national" team. This is what Wales lacks. Sure, it has Glamorgan, but they are not national in any real sense of the word. Will a continuing reliance on Glamorgan's position to spread the game more widely in Wales do so sufficiently? Or will it merely lock Welsh cricket into the historical position?

  • Tom on April 8, 2013, 13:47 GMT

    Hmmph, as a die-hard Welsh supporter of the England & Wales Cricket Team, this irks me slightly. Keep a closer eye out when we are on tour, there are plenty of dragons on show. No problems here with a combined English and Welsh team.

  • Philip on April 7, 2013, 13:49 GMT

    So what I said about "playing for England" was tongue-in-cheek, but it was hardly wrong or offensive. The Saltires at least, are forging their own way. That means doing it tough, to some extent, outside the umbrella of the ECB, but it will surely pay dividends in the long term. It is hard to think how the Welsh public will support the game more there in the current state, when all they see at a Test in Cardiff is a sea of St George crosses and the odd incongruent Union Jack. That is not to say that nationalism is always to be encouraged in the game, but in the Welsh instance, it may well be of benefit for them to feel a sense of ownership that currently eludes them and unleash the dragon.

  • Philip on April 7, 2013, 13:35 GMT

    Let's please get this straight. Acronymns matter. The correct title may be the England and Wales Cricket Board but to 99 point something of arvent cricket supporters worldwide, it remains the ECB with not a thought of Wales anywhere. The Ashes are always billed as England versus Australia. ECB supporters on tour fly the English flag of red cross on white. The majority of Australian Ashes fans probably wouldn't know what a Welsh flag looked like if they don't happen to come from a rugby-playing state. What Wales gets out of the arrangement is a matter for the Welsh, but from the outside it doesn't appear to be an awful lot apart from a Cardiff Test now and again. I struggle to understand how the mere suggestion that this may not be an equal union in the manner of Northern Ireland and Eire, could actually upset someone, for it is not driven by anti-English sentiment, rather by a pro-cricket one. And that is one that must favour a stronger hold for the game west of the Severn Bridge.

  • Philip on April 7, 2013, 13:06 GMT

    @Munkeymomo - in theory, yes, it is the England and Wales team, but who calls it that outside of, perhaps, Glamorgan? So, yes there is.

  • Dummy4 on April 7, 2013, 12:01 GMT

    Wales must have a separate cricket team on the international cricket arena,just because of Glamorgan's financial concerns we are sacrificing the very idea of a welsh cricketing side which shall be far more competitive than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and as much as competitive as west indies and New-Zealand.Why not give Wales and Ireland both permanent test,odi and t20i status.

  • Mark on April 7, 2013, 11:42 GMT

    @SamuelH: I live in Cardiff, so watch a lot of Glammy games there, but originally from near Bath too. Know a lot of friends from the south west who travel to Cardiff to watch international games.

    It's a lovely venue and city, I hope it gets more games too.

  • Samuel on April 7, 2013, 10:37 GMT

    @ygkd - as Munkeymomo said, it's the England & Wales team run by the England & Wales Cricket Board, hence why Glamorgan play in the County Championship. It might not be a bad idea to start referring to them as that however - it might get more casual Welsh people interested in the game, as I'm not sure how many outside of cricketing circles actually know that. And talking of a homegrown Welsh hero, they might get it soon - James Harris can't be too far away from an England debut.

    From a purely selfish point of view, I'd love Cardiff to get more international cricket - nice ground, great city, not too far down the road from Bath and cheaper than any of the other options we have in this part of the country, where we have to travel to London, Southampton or even Birmingham to go see some cricket. I know Bristol gets the odd ODI & T20, but very rarely. Cardiff, if it establishes itself, could serve a much bigger part of the country than just south Wales.

  • Mark on April 7, 2013, 7:56 GMT

    @ygkd: Well it is the England and Wales team, so no there isn't.

  • Philip on April 7, 2013, 7:32 GMT

    The greatest achievement for a young Welsh cricketer is to play for England. There's something wrong with that.

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