Test cricket is 'London-centric', says MCC president
Roger Knight, the president of MCC, has told club members during the AGM at Lord's that Test cricket has "become London-centric" and "the time has come to pay attention to that fact".
Knight's comments come amid fears that Lord's could be forced to relinquish its privileged status of hosting two Tests a year, due to the likelihood that fewer Tests will be staged when the ECB re-negotiates its TV rights packages from 2019.
Drawing upon recent statistics, Knight told his audience of 600 members during the president's address that attendances at Tests held outside London in May during the past three seasons had attracted fewer than 110,000 spectators - 32% of the figure for Lord's.
Several non-London venues have struggled in recent years to sell tickets for Test cricket. In 2012, Cardiff relinquished the right to host West Indies in the first Test of that summer, with Lord's taking the contest instead. The crowd for that match, Knight added, ended up being higher than the other two grounds for the three-Test series, Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, added together.
Durham, who host the second match of the forthcoming Sri Lanka tour, are not expected to bid for any more Tests in the near future following their failure to sell out the fourth day of their Ashes-sealing Test in 2013. In recent seasons even Headingley, where the Test summer will begin on May 19, has struggled to live up to Yorkshire's traditional support for the format.
Between them, Lord's (129) and The Oval (98) have hosted just under half of the 494 Tests to have been played in England since 1880. Ever since the introduction of a seven-Test summer programme in 2000, London has hosted three matches per season, with Lord's claiming two, and The Oval one.
"When one examines the attendances at Test matches around the country, it is noticeable, in respect of the first series of the summer especially, that crowds at Lord's are far greater than at other grounds," said Knight, who added that 342,000 members and spectators had attended Lord's May Test in the past three years.
Ticket prices are another significant factor in the viability of Test venues, and here it could be argued that London, with an economic micro-climate that is far removed from the rest of the country, is more of a problem than a solution.
With a greater proportion of corporate clients than other venues, Lord's and The Oval are able to charge significantly higher prices for a day's play - Headingley's and Chester-le-Street's general admission tickets for the Sri Lanka series are priced at £55 and £35 respectively. Certainly, the London venues would argue there is little reason to follow Cricket Australia's recent policy of capping their prices for Tests and ODIs at A$30 per day.
But Lord's, who are midway through a £21 million rebuilding of the Warner Stand, remain fearful that the change of emphasis at the ECB - with white-ball cricket and, especially, T20, becoming an ever more significant part of the board's long-term strategy - will leave their ground with fewer big games to justify their expensive outlay.
"The Committee is doing its utmost to ensure that MCC is placed in the best possible position to continue to host two Test matches in every year when there are two touring teams," said Knight. "We have enjoyed such a programme in most years since 1965; but it is by no means certain that from 2020 onwards there will be sufficient Test matches to enable MCC to be awarded two per summer.
"This is nothing to do with the club's capacity to stage these matches, nor is it a result of our relationship with ECB, which I can tell you is healthy. It is simply because there may not be sufficient Test matches to distribute amongst the grounds that would expect to stage them. I feel that the position is improving slightly, but there should be no complacency."
Elsewhere in his address, Knight highlighted the MCC World Cricket committee's role in the pioneering of day/night first-class cricket, with the recent Test between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide following on from the successful implementation of a pink ball for the MCC v Champion County fixture in the UAE.
"The floodlit Test match between Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide in November was a huge success," said Knight. "Large crowds, a fantastic atmosphere, an entertaining match, a unique event.
"It was an inspired choice to play it at the Adelaide Oval - and the MCC World Cricket committee in particular is to be congratulated for providing the inspiration, for the idea originated from them."