David Hopps

Is winter coming to Yorkshire?

The proudest of English cricket's counties is looking at dark days ahead, as its creaking home ground and financial difficulties paint a worrying picture

David Hopps
David Hopps
"Yorkshire 'ave won again": there's nothing locals like saying more  •  Getty Images

"Yorkshire 'ave won again": there's nothing locals like saying more  •  Getty Images

Think of Yorkshire and certain images spring to mind: the plain-speaking, bloody-mindedness of its people; the grandeur of its landscapes. This is a region that thinks well of itself and doesn't mind you knowing it. And when it comes to thinking well of itself, traditionally there is nothing as central to that self-belief as Yorkshire cricket. In Yorkshire, cricket is half-sport, half-religion, a game that defines the county like little else.
Or so the story goes. The reality is somewhat different because Yorkshire's cricketing prestige is once again under threat. Headingley, their hard-featured HQ, a ground that might have been designed to prove that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is potentially a couple of months away from losing its international status. No World Cup matches in 2019, no Tests from the following year, perhaps; in the eyes of some, no future worth living. It is debatable, in the long term, whether Yorkshire's endless production line for England cricket could survive such a blow.
In political circles at least, the fact that Yorkshire cricket is so intertwined with the county's social fabric seems to have been forgotten. That Yorkshire faces one of the most critical challenges in its history is the direct result of a sudden decision by Leeds City Council's ruling Labour group to withdraw a promise of a £4m grant to part-finance the replacement of the crumbling old rugby stand that has served a dual purpose for cricket and rugby clubs over the past 84 years.
Not only that but the terms of the envisaged council-brokered loans of £13m have also still to be resolved. Yorkshire need the council's involvement, too, to secure favourable terms to allow them to commit to their £17m share of a £32m stand jointly used with the adjoining Leeds Rhinos rugby league club. Negotiations are at a delicate stage. Without this development, the ECB has indicated, the ground is simply not up to scratch.
This is a region that thinks well of itself and doesn't mind you knowing it. And when it comes to thinking well of itself, traditionally there is nothing as central as Yorkshire cricket
The cruel irony is that Yorkshire are facing a crisis when they are being run as well as at any time in their history. They are winning cricket matches again. They are forging strong community links at a time when cricket, in some parts of England, is shrinking and lazily over-reliant on well-worn links with well-to-do clubs and private schools. They can claim to have productive relationships within immigrant communities, dominated by cricket lovers of Pakistani heritage, whereas a generation ago they were held up as an example of bad practice.
Yes, they are heavily debt-ridden - £24m at the last count - and would have gone bust years ago were it not for the multimillion pound largesse of a former chairman, Colin Graves, who is now fulfilling an identical role at the ECB, but their modern-day efficiency contrasts markedly with the financial shortcomings of yesteryear that caused the mess in the first place.
For Headingley to lose international status would be a stain on a county that forever claims it values cricket like nowhere else on earth.
Headingley spectators have long accepted the limitations of this most unpretentious of grounds. They have traditionally had eyes for line and length and batting technique, and scant regard for creature comforts. Pimm's and oysters are best left for Lord's. In Field of Dreams: Headingley 1890-2001, the former Yorkshire Post correspondent Robert Mills termed the ground "dour, prone to bouts of mournfulness and generally a bit odd". Duncan Hamilton, another respected Yorkshire-based writer, complained in Wisden that Headingley had become "a dowdy mongrel of a place", remarking: "The rugby stand looks like a ramshackle old oil tanker run aground… it so obviously belongs to the glum, austere era of post-war England that I half-expect Fred Trueman to emerge from the dressing room."
For all that, it has provided so many memories since the time more than 20,000 descended on Headingley for its first Test - the Ashes Test of 1899 - and the city was all agog at the news that Johnny Briggs had suffered a fit at the Empire Theatre during the match, the start of an illness from which he never recovered.
There was Don Bradman's love affair with the ground, including his 304 in 1934, when he stilled wild rumours that variously had him suffering from anaemia, heart trouble or a nervous breakdown. Trueman, shock of black hair flowing, reducing India to 0 for 4 on his debut in 1952. The Botham Test of 1981, which persuaded England that individual magic was the answer and probably set them back 20 years in the process. Geoffrey Boycott's homage to Headingley - his 100th hundred - in 1977*, painstakingly delivered. Kevin Pietersen's brash and brilliant 149 against South Africa at the ground in 2012, even as his relationship with his captain, Andrew Strauss, began to collapse around him. And many more besides.
Yorkshire provides more England cricketers than any other county and loves nothing more than to remind you about the fact. Joe Root, who would be among most people's top three batsmen in the world, has been freshly appointed as England's Test captain, merely the latest player to encourage an outpouring of regional pride. A proper batter, they will tell you in these parts, full of Yorkshire virtues. And drawn from the same Sheffield club as Michael Vaughan, who led England to the Ashes 12 years ago.
Around 12% of cricket in England and Wales is played in Yorkshire, nearly 800 clubs across the county, most scraping by with the help of volunteer labour. Thirty-two Championship wins (33 if you count the one they grudgingly shared with Middlesex in 1949, when Brian Close first burst onto the scene and the Headingley pitches were too flat), two of those titles in the last three years. And more unwelcome taps on the shoulder in hotel bars from a brusque figure pronouncing that "Yorkshire 'ave won again" than any other county.
Headingley spectators have long accepted the limitations of this most unpretentious of grounds. They have traditionally had eyes for line and length and batting technique, and scant regard for creature comforts
Not that this seems particularly valued by Leeds City Council. Local government faces challenging times, but the council's withdrawal of support suggests a lack of understanding of the ground's contribution to social cohesion, especially as it also houses Leeds Rhinos' rugby league operation on the other side of the old stand. While Leeds United have spent two decades in the football doldrums - a period that Garry Monk, an impressive young manager, is finally showing signs of ending - cricket and the two rugby codes have given Leeds sporting sustenance. And, with Manchester looking ever more ambitious and attractive on the other side of the Pennines, that matters.
Whereas councils in Manchester, Birmingham and even Cardiff - hardly a city with a strong cricketing pedigree - have delivered financial support, recognising the commercial benefits of an international cricket ground, Leeds is now reluctant to show that faith. Graves, a businessman who made his fortune in supermarkets, gave Yorkshire a long-term loan of £17m to stop them entering bankruptcy. The council representing - if you count the neighbouring city of Bradford - the third biggest conurbation in Britain, a region supposedly steeped in the game like no other, can't even stump up £4m. The reputational damage to Leeds cannot be lightly dismissed.
So what has caused such an impasse? It is partly the result of nearly a decade of austerity across the UK since the 2008 banking crash, as council budgets continue to be drained by central government cuts. Unsurprisingly, Labour Leeds puts the blame firmly with the Conservative government and its pursuit of a smaller public sector. Leeds is receiving 47% less in core funding from central government than in 2010, a figure amounting to more than £200m. Already 2500 council jobs have been removed in that time, with another 800 in the pipeline. An increasingly elderly population has seen the council's social-care costs spiral - indeed it was the planned closure of three care homes in the city that sparked resistance to the Yorkshire grant among the Labour rank and file and caused it to be withdrawn as this year's budget was being hammered out. Councils are hunkered down, in survival mode. It is no recipe for growth.
But when all revenue is calculated, Leeds has an annual budget of £2bn. In that context, Yorkshire's ambitions for a grant of £4m - or even a long-term soft loan - seem modest, especially considering that rugby and cricket clubs combined pay £250,000 in business rates a year. Investments in sporting facilities are as important in their way as investments in transport or city-centre development, and the council makes much of recent surveys that have presented Leeds as Britain's No. 1 city for quality of life. High-end shopping developments in beautiful arcades means these days that even if you can't afford most of the goods on show, at least you can pretty much walk from one side of Leeds city centre to the other without getting wet. But you can't sit in the decrepit old stand at Headingley without the rain leaking in.
This is also the story of how cricket's hold on Yorkshire can no longer be taken for granted, and therefore serves as an illustration of the pressing importance of the ECB's restructuring of the professional game in England. Whether plans for a new regional T20 tournament are the right solution is highly debatable, but when the WWE wrestler John Cena was discovered last year to be more recognisable among children than the England Test captain at the time, Alastair Cook, then the game had to recognise it had a problem.
Acceptance is growing within the game that international cricket's absence from free-to-air TV has had a deleterious effect. Revenue from cricket rights deals has funded many good things, but exclusivity has also removed the game from the public consciousness. The absence of cricket stars from many TV screens has accentuated the feeling that cricket is a middle-class preserve. Not in Yorkshire, it's not. But councils can treat cricket dismissively without fearing the anger of the electorate quite so much.
While cricket has struggled to hold its appeal, even in Yorkshire, central government of both left and right has shown more interest in the past decade in the search for Olympic medals, an outcome that has arisen from London 2012. Elite sportsmen and women are highly funded if they are felt to be medal prospects, so allowing the nation to gorge itself on a two-week feast of flag-waving. Cricket, played mostly as it is by a limited number of former Commonwealth countries, its image weakened by repetitive political wranglings and its attempts at global expansion little more than tokenism, no longer has the same cachet.
The cruel irony is that Yorkshire are facing a crisis when they are being run as well as at any time in their history
And Yorkshire, in particular, has developed a love affair with cycling. The Tour de France being enticed to the county in 2014 was a tourism coup. The Tour de Yorkshire is now an annual event, and the county's roads are regularly filled with cyclists in a manner that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. The accent is on individual pursuits; team sports, although so beneficial in teaching the importance of communal relationships, increasingly struggle to dominate in an age of self-obsession and limitless choice.
Life was simpler for cricket when the rugby stand, now partly condemned, was built in time for the 1933 cricket season by William Airey and Sons for only £20,000 - allowing for inflation, a snip at £1.3m, even allowing for its unambitious design. It was the time of the Great Depression, but it was also a decade during which Yorkshire were so strong that Neville Cardus wrote that England might as well pick the whole of the Yorkshire side to face the Australians, except perhaps for the addition of Wally Hammond and Eddie Paynter.
Yorkshire's historic mismanagement forced the club to go deep into debt to buy Headingley, and it means that if the council fails to deliver on its promise, the club has minimal room for manoeuvre. Even if a solution is found, they will be regarded by some as irresponsible for extending their debt levels from £24m to something around £40m. The club insist that they are on the edge of a financial tipping point. Given council support, they insist they can deliver a stable financial future. Without the grant, a stand that has been five years in the planning - the cricket and rugby operations have never worked together more closely - is impossible to contemplate and the ground will deteriorate once more. Work on detailed architectural plans is already dangerously delayed. And the diggers must be in by the start of September.
None of this goes down well with Yorkshire members, many of whom remain suspicious about the onward march of T20, and resent the fact that future financial health is predicated upon a guaranteed minimum of £1.3m a year for a minimum of five years that would arise from the ECB's controversial proposals for an eight-team T20 tournament - a tournament that is aimed not just at a new generation of younger fans, who are felt to be unresponsive to the county game, but which is also unapologetically designed for the Indian TV market.
And any talk of spending whatsoever does not please Boycott, who has lectured Yorkshire about their uncomfortable level of debt, holding true to the traditionally cautious Yorkshire economic policy of counting your pennies rather than investing them.
For Headingley to lose its international status would be a cruel outcome for a county that under the stewardship of Mark Arthur as chief executive and Steve Denison, a senior partner in an accountancy firm and the successor to Graves as chairman, has shown a meaningful commitment to community involvement, made multiculturalism work at a time when it is under question, increased income from £6.7m to £8.7m in the past three years, restructured the debt and given Yorkshire cricket the chance of a bright future.
A generation ago, when Yorkshire cricket, amateurish, untrustworthy and economically illiterate, went to war over Boycott, the possible loss of international status briefly caused an outcry. Now as cricket in England struggles to regain its place in the nation's consciousness, one of world cricket's most famous brands faces a critical time in its history.
The question is whether the right people are listening. In the old rugby stand, where the sun never creeps and coats are a necessity all summer long, the world has rarely seemed bleaker.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps