Bags more common sense needed
What a difference a week makes. In Queenstown on New Year's Eve getting a drink at the cricket was up there with prising blood from a stone. Thankfully six days and two ODIs later, the superior facilities and more realistic alcohol policy of Wellington's Westpac Stadium meant fans could enjoy their day in the way they always have - with a few beers.
The much-publicised crowd trouble at the Chappell-Hadlee one-dayer at Auckland in December alerted New Zealand Cricket and the provincial associations to the need to be extra-vigilant when it comes to player and crowd safety. The result for the New Zealand-Sri Lanka matches at the Queenstown Events Centre and Christchurch's Jade Stadium was a gross and unfortunate overreaction.
At Queenstown the situation was, as NZC Marketing Manager Peter Dwan said, "unacceptable". Fears of a young crowd of drinkers on the last day of the year resulted in over-the-top security checks and a system that made attempting to get a beer a futile exercise.
I was in Queenstown for a friend's wedding the day before the match and we had purchased 60 tickets for the wedding party in anticipation of an ideal day-after gathering. We arrived an hour after the start, by which time the issues of the lengthy delays fans faced getting into the ground seemed to be at an end. I was however staggered to hear stories of ground security tipping out people's water bottles given the sweltering heat at a ground with no shade.
As we looked for a suitable vantage point, we were horrified to see the queues for the ground's only two beer tents were pushing 150 metres. We also learnt that a two-per-person limit was in force. With the beer tents positioned opposite the playing area, fans had the choice of queuing for a drink or watching the cricket. It did not surprise therefore than many of our group left within half an hour of arriving. One friend promised he would be "writing a letter".
Shortly after the innings break, in the alcohol-free flat atmosphere I eventually succumbed and headed for a near-by bar which was full of similarly dissatisfied cricket fans. Even Daniel Vettori commented after the match on the lack of spark in the crowd.
The authorities got what they wanted - a trouble-free day - but at what expense? It will take a big effort by NZC to get another sell-out crowd for the West Indies ODI at Queenstown in February. However Dwan says, "we put our hand up and say that was it wasn't good enough and we will get it right for the West Indies game".
At Christchurch, pre-match bag checks were again the issue. Asked whether he was happy with the treatment of fans at Jade Stadium, Dwan said "No", adding that "the plan was sound but was poorly implemented by the security guards". He said, amazingly, that even lolly bags were emptied at the gate.
Paul Ford, the co-founder of the Beige Brigade, agrees. "The main problem is that the people charged with enforcing the rules have no common sense", he says. "Overseas - in England in particular - the security people develop a genuine rapport with the crowd. When someone steps over the line then there are 'heavies' who step in and throw the people out".
At the heart of the problem for match organisers in New Zealand is the lack of punishment dished out to those ejected from sporting events. For instance, ground invaders are arrested and charged but, if they are first-time offenders, they are likely to escape without conviction which Dwan says "is not good enough".
The former Test player and current Wellington City Councillor John Morrison shares these sentiments. "What irritates me is that we don't punish people who are complete lunatics and ruin it for the masses with our limp-wristed judicial system".
Morrison does point out, though, that NZC needs to be wary of "not killing the goose that lays the golden egg" when it comes to security and alcohol policy. In a similar vein, Ford says "there needs to be a realisation that the people who pay good money to come to these games are the ones that need to be looked after" he says. "Who is the customer here? And who is meant to be providing the service?"
It was with a little apprehension that I ventured to Westpac Stadium on Friday after my Queenstown experience but, as it turned out, the same mistakes were not repeated and those caught in the long ticket queues could only blame themselves for not purchasing in advance.
Inside the ground, there were numerous beer outlets and the per-person limit was the usual four. Only late in the day was it reduced to two and, unlike at Queenstown and Christchurch, fans were not forced to drink low-alcohol beers at any stage. The result: a good-sized crowd; a great atmosphere and many happy, if a little beer-laden, fans; happy and safe players and not one pitch invader.
The moral of the story: treat fans with respect not contempt, deal with the troublemakers not those who are well-behaved and the crowds will come back every time. Don't, and support from the breweries and their cricket-supportive TV advertising will be severely tested, while ticket-sales revenue will dry up. A no-brainer, really.
Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show