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Pringle column: Are steady attendance rates at England Tests pushing prices towards a fault line?

By Derek Pringle

Test cricket still seems to fill grounds in England. Yet there is the uneasy feeling that the people who run it are taking that format’s core support for granted – a dangerous thing when you look at the acres of empty seats in South Africa as they play a top-of-the-bill series against Australia.

The topic of Test cricket, and its much predicted demise, came up over dinner the other night with some old school friends, Kevin and Chris, both cricket fans of long standing. Their respective introductions to Test cricket both came in childhood since when it has reigned supreme within the sport as both spectacle and challenge.

Chris first went with his Dad to watch the West Indies in the second Test of the 1969 series at Lord’s. They sat on the grass between the picket fence and the boundary rope, an option that cost less than a quid at the time. But what grabbed him most apart from John Hampshire’s hundred on debut, was the passion the West Indies supporters showed for their team and cricket in general.

He admits becoming fascinated by their vast array of homemade percussion instruments, which they banged all day. But their friendliness to those around them also stood out so much that it stayed with that nine-year-old right up until now.

That sense of community was echoed by Kevin who also saw the West Indies at Lord’s, albeit in 1973. He cites the 1974 match there against Pakistan, though, as the moment he fell hard for Test cricket.

In that match, Underwood took 14 wickets to win the match for England after rain played havoc with the pitch. But it was the kindness of Pakistan fans which he really recalls, sharing banter and their spicy delicacies with him and his friend Fred. He and Fred, both 13, were packed off on the train from Chelmsford by their parents with their sandwiches and a can of pop. They paid on the gate, £1 Kevin says, for something called the free seats but only in the sense that they could not be reserved.

It was a big adventure, though one he says he would not send his twin girls, also 13, off on today. Not that they could get in by just turning up anyway, except on the fifth day, and only then if there was still cricket going on.

Of course, Test matches then cost much less to stage than now with security and health and safety being minimal. Indeed, most of the former would have fallen to the local police force, something that does not occur now with grounds having to supply their own small army of enforcers. Also England players were paid a pittance compared to the current generation but low costs all round helped to make it a far more egalitarian than it is today.

To watch a day’s Test cricket at Lord’s now, you would have to book your tickets, at around £100 a pop, about a year in advance (all seats being reserved). Unless you live a tube ride away, there would also be transport costs as well as those incurred by food and drink, be that in preparing a picnic or buying them from the many concessions within the ground. For many parents wanting to take children the cost is prohibitive, being above the £500 mark. And even then the day could get spoiled by rain. But if the younger generation don’t become persuaded of its charms, as Chris and Kevin were, then Test cricket’s future really is in jeopardy.

At the moment, Lord’s holds two Tests a season and sells most of the seats it offers for them. The audience, you suspect, is mainly corporate and captive, but one, crucially when considering the future of the format, that is getting older and older. In any case, a Lord’s Test has become an occasion on the social calendar as much as a sporting event, like the Derby or Wimbledon, and remains well attended as a result. And yet you can’t help but feel that much of that patronage has been gained at the expense of the true cricket supporter.

Unlike Kevin, Chris likes T20 and the many tournaments it has spawned like the Indian Premier League. Even so, he still believes that Test matches provide the most compelling narratives and while he acknowledges the frustration many feel when a five-day marathon ends up as a draw, he reckons few things stirred his patriotic emotions like Mike Atherton’s rearguard at the Wanderers in 1995.

Girding his loins, Atherton made an unbeaten 185 in 10 hours and 43 minutes to save the match. Another Atherton act of defiance against South Africa, at Trent Bridge in 1998, has also stayed in the memory. Atherton gloved fast bowler, Allan Donald, to the keeper, but stood his ground and was given not out. Incensed, Donald tore in and peppered both him and Nasser Hussain, the other batsman at the time, with a torrent of bouncers as he tested the pair’s mettle. England needed to make 247 for victory to level the series and got there, battered and bruised, with Atherton 98 not out at the end.

If looks could kill: Allan Donald stares down Michael Atherton, after the opener stood his ground despite the ball nicking his glove (photo: Getty/AllSport)

Both Chris and Kevin were there to see that interlude live and reckoned it made the hairs stand up on the back of their necks. Kevin made the point that you don’t tend to get mini dramas like that in white-ball cricket. But then he reckons today’s sports fans want instant gratification and not the delicious slow savouring of seeing a drama like Test cricket unfold.

Plans to invigorate Test cricket, and therefore attract a bigger live audience, have been underway for a while. In Australia that used to extend to not showing the match on TV in the city in which the match was being played, the assessment being that if you give people a cheap and easy alternative they will tend to take it. That prohibition no longer happens but the Aussies have been quick to embrace the other big sop to the reluctant Test fan – day/night matches played with a pink ball.

Although two well-attended games at Adelaide is not proof of success, such a confection may yet work, though for my money the big test of the pink ball under lights is India v West Indies at Nagpur. If they fill the ground for that, then it has worked. Anyway, the solution might just be as simple as making it cheaper, substantially so, for those under 16 to come and watch.

My two mates got hooked on Test cricket as youngsters because it was not beyond their pocket. But while they both recognise that there weren’t any other cricket formats at international level to turn their heads back then, Test cricket’s profundity and rich complexity made them stay faithful even when there were.

And that’s surely got to be worth fighting stump and bail for.

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