Testing times for short-changed spectators

The camera never lies. When, during the Rose Bowl Test, the umpires decided to adhere strictly to the regulations and take tea during one of the few interruptions to rain, the cameras panned to faces in the crowd. Disbelief, dismay, disgust even, were the reactions and the umpires plodded off, seemingly unaware of the slow hand-clapping and the cat-calling that accompanied their withdrawal.

There is, naturally, a gulf between a player’s experience of a day at the cricket and a fan’s. There is also a gulf between a broadcaster’s and journalist’s experience and that of those who shell out their hard-earned to go to watch. The spectator’s perspective is virtually ignored in the media. So forgive me this week for using a letter from a reader as the basis for this column. It might strike a chord with a few of you out there.

I’ve never met Alan Higham and don’t know who he is, except that he is a reader of this newspaper and that he has paid to watch every day of over one hundred Tests, at home and abroad. That kind of commitment, and expense, not only gives him the right to express a view but gives him a perspective that ought not to be ignored. He sent me a long e-mail in the wake of the Rose Bowl Test with some thoughts on the watching experience of Test cricket in England.

He starts with the perception gained from over 27 years of supporting the national team to state that interest in Tests is in decline, or at least interest in attending, rather than watching, Tests is in decline. This depends on what time-frame you take- old footage of English Test cricket in the 1970s would suggest otherwise- but there is no doubt that outside of England and possibly Australia, live audiences for Test cricket are falling. In South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies, the Barmy Army is often the difference between half-full and near empty stadia and the vast live audiences for Tests in India are a thing of the past.

Higham suggests that Test cricket has to ‘reform its appalling behaviour towards those fans who do currently go to watch the game’. Pointing to an average cost of £60 per ticket at the Rose Bowl, and considerably more at, say, Lord’s, he says that the cost of Test cricket is outrageous and it is a policy that is patently failing to fill grounds for low-key series. He suggests the authorities consider low-coast airline pricing models, whereby those who would go to watch less popular games would be given priority for marquee occasions such as the Ashes.

Perhaps no tournament highlighted the complacency with which the game treats its spectators than the World Cup in the Caribbean four years ago. Pricing out the local fans and then offering a pale version of the kind of cricketing experience they are used to, was a disgrace. Higham doesn’t think watching in England is much better.

He feels that the paying spectator gets too little respect from ground authorities. ‘We need to remove the ban on alcohol,’ he writes. ‘If you have paid £90 to get in, you don’t want to waste ages queuing to buy poor products at inflated prices. We have a galaxy of ineffective and obnoxious stewards in the ground. Let’s use them to throw out any idiots or drunks rather than hassling spectators,’ and ‘let’s have someone who is prepared to give relevant and timely information to the crowd: too often the TV viewers know more about what is happening than the paying spectator.’ Although it has been rectified now, the previous failure to allow paying spectators to see the DRS, when it could be viewed by those watching on television, was a classic example.

He then turns to the game itself, and talks in language that I reckon most supporters would understand. For a good contest, he writes, we need a decent balance between bat and ball, one that allows for a natural result. ‘When you see a game like England’s win at Melbourne in 1998 (when a mighty Australian team needed less than 60 to win with eight wickets left and lost) you keep coming back for more.’ We need good pitches to allow that: ‘let us re-schedule the Test match for four days with 96 overs per day on pitches that allow natural deterioration, so no roller and no mower after the game starts and a fifth day reserved to capture any overs lost to weather in the first four.’

Cricket is a game defined by conditions; ‘for all its apparent artificiality’ it is, writes Joseph O’Neill in Netherland, ‘a game in nature.’ Except that with hard loam pitches, and continuous rolling and cutting, the natural wear and tear, that is the whole point of a game lasting five days, has been largely lost. Nobody any more truly advocates a return to uncovered pitches, but would not the banning of the roller compensate for this lack of deterioration, and help redress the increasing unbalance between bat and ball?

Then he gets an issue that supporters are irritated by and that players and umpires seem oblivious to; that is to say, slow play and the curious anomaly that sees more banal cricket than ever before played, but less cricket on the day of a Test itself. ‘Even with an extra 30 minutes and clear skies, spectators are regularly cheated of play. Slow over rates should be penalised with a ten-run penalty for every over not bowled within the scheduled hours.’

‘Ground authorities and umpires need to improve their approach on days when weather inevitably delays the game. Play has to start as soon as conditions are fit and not at some spurious future time and lunch and tea intervals need to be shortened or abandoned and there should be no drinks breaks if the over rate is slow. During one session at the Rose Bowl, only 23.2 overs were bowled in one shortened session and yet the players still had seven minutes off for a drinks break.’

He might have added, but didn’t, that the over-rates for the England and Sri Lanka series were slower at 13.45 overs per hour than the slowest year for over-rates in the history of the game (13.62 in 1990) and, if replicated, would reduce the game to a crawl. It has become a running joke to watch players run off continually to go the toilet (funny how you never see the wicket-keeper needing a break) and physiotherapists emerge at the first sign of physical contact between ball and body. Being a twelfth man now is no longer the cushy number it was.

As an adjunct, I went to Wimbledon last week (admittedly in some rather nice seats) and it struck me above all that the viewing experience was second to none. The players warmed up briefly and played at a brisk pace with no histrionics; Hawkeye interruptions were few and far between and when a review was called for it was done and dusted in a matter of seconds. There were no interruptions to the flow of the game, even less so now that the roof has been installed. It was a game played by players for the benefit of spectators. Increasingly, as Higham implies, cricket at the highest level is becoming a game played, umpired, administered by and written about by people with too little regard for those who watch.