How county cricket can attract spectators again, 1963

Through the crystal ball

John Solan

As long as there is an English summer -- which at the frostbitten time of writing can by no means be taken for granted -- there will always be English cricket, but it does not require any special gift of clairvoyance to forecast that in the not too remote future, some aspects of it will have undergone a revolutionary change.

The game itself, the classic concept of bat versus ball, is showing signs, if anything, of turning back the clock, but the manifestation of it known as county cricket is already being forced to move with the times, and to reflect the changed uses of leisure in what is somewhat euphemistically called the sporting public.

Cricket as a game to be played is in no danger; indeed, under the influence of the strongest youth coaching movement it has ever known, it is reaching new heights of popularity. As a game for the spectator on anything like the scale of twenty years ago, however, it seems to have had its day.

Figures are notorious liars, but not, one imagines, in this case. The aggregate attendance paying at the gate at county matches in 1962 was 933,000, compared with 969,000 in 1961, and with nearly 2,000,000 immediately after the second war.

Test cricket bears a cachet all its own, but for all the popular appeal of the M.C.C. tour of Australia just concluded, it is not by any means immune from the wind of change. Even allowing for the difference in stature of the two touring sides concerned, a fall of 232,000 between the Australian tour of England in 1961 and that of Pakistan in 1962 is not without significance.

The most obvious lesson to be drawn from dwindling attendances is that six-day cricket has no future. That complex and often infuriating character, the average man, has become conditioned to expect some kind of result for his money, and on the one day of the week when he is able to present his toil-worn body at the turnstiles, he is treated to anything but that.

It is one of county cricket's most melancholy anomalies that the dullest day's play is almost invariably reserved for Saturdays. The future pattern, therefore, must have at its centre a virile and satisfying spectacle on that important day.

A first-innings decision, at least, must be assured, and the match can then arrive at its conclusion on the following Monday and Tuesday. Whether the public will turn out in any numbers to see its completion is still problematical, but it will have had its Saturday, which will have corresponded as closely as cricket ever can to the urgency and excitement of the big football arenas.

This concentrated form of cricket will involve radical reshaping of the county programme. The number of matches will be reduced to 16, eight home and eight away. The added interest in, say, a visit of Yorkshire only once every two years will be readily appreciated, as will the consequent relief that some of the more notorious tortoises posing as batsmen will have to be endured only at a similar interval.

Such considerations, however, are of infinitely less importance than the logical corollary that many talented players at present precluded from playing cricket six days a week will be available.

What, in the interests of clarity, one may perhaps continue to call the amateur already has his Saturday free, which means that he would have to absent himself from business or profession for only two days a week. It imposes no insuperable arithmetical strain on the reader to work out for himself that such a player would be away from the office for no more than 32 days a year. So far as the writer's knowledge of cricketers goes, the country's economy would not necessarily suffer irreparable injury thereby.

It is not the heresy it would have been in the great Doctor's golden reign to suggest that it is possible to suffer from a surfeit of cricket. Not even farmers in a drought welcome a wet day with more delight than your county cricketer towards the end of July, and now the administrators themselves are beginning to feel that six days is too much.

They are looking increasingly to membership to provide their finances, having long ago been forced to concede that the pulling power of cricket is less than that of the motor-car and television.

Even in this year, 1963, when the county grounds are still in use for all but one day of the week in the summer -- allowing for Minor County and Second XI matches -- it is obvious that so many acres of land cannot be allowed to lie economically fallow. There is gold in any ground on the verge of a big town, and the years must bring a growing realisation of the fact.

A county cricket ground used solely for cricket will soon be an insupportable luxury, but that is no reason why cricket itself should take a seat too far back. To believe that this could happen would be to ignore the indications of the flourishing state of club and village green cricket throughout the land.

It is simply because the club game, through the far-sightedness of those who loved it and lived for it in other days, has made itself largely independent of financial considerations, and because it differs in spirit not one jot from what it was at the dawn of cricket, that it prospers and multiplies. The idle watcher from bench or deck-chair knows that there will be a result of some kind, even if it is only a thrilling draw, sometime around opening time.

The county cricket ground of the future, therefore, can be expected to be a comprehensive sports centre, the extent of whose activities will be limited only by the space and facilities available. Members will make it their club, not merely their cricket club, and, by paying a fatter subscription, will be able to enjoy amenities in and out of doors.

It can be envisaged as a family centre, too, although one imagines that Bingo would not be wholly acceptable, say, at Lord's. Such attractions as boxing promotions should not be beyond the scope of the bigger grounds, and such games as squash, for the energetic, and snooker, for the idler elements, will be laid on.

Out-of-doors in the winter, hockey automatically springs to mind, but greyhound racing would possibly come under the same heading as Bingo and Ten-pin Bowling. To many people, such a development may seem a desecration of some of the country's loveliest spots, but needs must when the devil drives.

Week-end county cricket would fall naturally into the general scheme, but there would also be the occasional celebrity match with the club playing a side of all the talents (not necessarily all the academic cricket talents, but the crowd-drawing ones). Cricketers cast in the mould of Dexter could demand a rich fee from the more prosperous clubs, and other universal personalities could lend added variety.

At the moment it remains to be seen whether the knock-out competition is going to give a fillip to the county game, but there can be little doubt that it would be a feature of the new sports centre, and admirably adjusted to its tempo.

One thing above all others seems assured, and that is a future generation more knowledgeable than any of its predecessors on the subject of cricket's laws and techniques. M.C.C.'s lead in youth coaching and its consequent spread among schoolboys and young club members is breeding a new cricket sophistication which cannot but be represented eventually in a keener interest in aspects of cricket other than playing it. They will know what they are talking about when they watch it, and that is something not universally the rule at the present time.

If one mentions Warwickshire particularly in this matter of educating youth, it is not only because of one's association with the club as a cricket writer, but also because it may be taken as typical of the work being done by counties everywhere.

It is significant that many of the successful candidates for the M.C.C. Youth Coaching certificate last year were schoolmasters, and that a high standard is regularly achieved by candidates from the Malayan Teachers' Training College, Wolverhampton.

Indoor schools, an advantage only rarely heard of a few years ago, and, most of all, the consciousness that established cricketers and cricket administrators are really interested in their advancement, are bringing about a change which, somehow, is bound to be reflected in a widening of cricket's horizons.

It is not perhaps too much to hope that this surge of youth -- a return, if the thought is not too fanciful, to the age of innocence in cricket -- will help to revolutionise thought in this country. It could, conceivably, in years to come, alter the approach to Test cricket. It might be the antidote to a widespread cynicism in a public induced by reported statements about incentives emanating from Australia this winter.

Test cricket, like all international sport, can always rely on its following. Criticism of some aspects of it does not mean that, even on the grounds of patriotism alone, it will not continue to draw the crowds. It is faith in this that impels the counties concerned to continue to develop their grounds to the point at which the wisdom of it is not easily appreciated by the commonalty.

The counties know that they are on a good wicket. Throughout its history, prophets of doom have forecast the impending dissolution of county cricket, and have been proved wrong. Unless those now in control have less foresight and imagination than the old timers -- which I do not believe -- the pessimists will again be confounded.

The reader of the 200th anniversary edition of this Almanack, oiling his bat and debating whether it's going to be the Moon again for a holiday this year, may wonder what all the fuss was about. Fashions will have changed, no doubt, but not cricket.

He will still be pressing for a return to the old lbw law if he is a leg-spinner, and executing, in his mind's eye, the drive past old-fashioned point. He will be the only sporting figure in the world, or in outer space, to be dressed in long trousers and, in moments of retrospection, will be harbouring dark thoughts that cricket is not what it was.

© John Wisden & Co