SCOTT WILSON COLUMN: ECB must act to ensure North-East Ashes Test is not a one-off (From The Northern Echo)
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SCOTT WILSON COLUMN: ECB must act to ensure North-East Ashes Test is not a one-off
HISTORY will be made today when the North-East stages its first Ashes Test, yet amid all the excitement and pride, there will also be a sense of unease. As well as being the first Ashes Test to take place in the region, there is every chance this could also be the last.
Unless the England and Wales Cricket Board take proactive steps to ensure the most attractive Tests remain a financially viable proposition for all, counties such as Durham will have to reluctantly concede that they cannot afford to host them.
That would be a huge shame, depriving large swathes of the country an opportunity to see the England side in action and fostering a sense of resentment that the ‘national’ side is actually no such thing, but rather a preserve of London and the Home Counties.
The process is already under way, with Durham having been forced to give up the right to host a Twenty20 game against India next summer and a One-Day International against Australia 12 months later.
When England next stages the Ashes in 2015, there will not be a single Test north of Nottingham with Durham, Yorkshire and Lancashire all having been denied a chance to get involved.
It is a wholly unsatisfactory situation, yet it is also the inevitable result of a bidding process that prioritises short-term profit over the long-term good of the game.
Rather than awarding Test matches on a rota system, the ECB have opted to swell their coffers by dishing them out to the highest bidder.
Inevitably, those highest bidders tend to be concentrated in the south given the prices that grounds such as Lord’s and The Oval are able to charge for international matches, the scale of their hospitality income, and the success of the domestic T20 programme in the capital.
Counties such as Durham face a difficult dilemma: outbid their rivals in order to attract the glamour fixtures which offer the highest potential reward, but leave themselves open to financial ruin if ticket sales are poor or bad weather intervenes, or grudgingly accept that top-class international cricket is no longer an option.
Having effectively gone down the former route in order to secure the staging rights for this week’s game, the Durham hierarchy were forced to go cap in hand to Durham County Council and the local enterprise partnership earlier this year for a £5.6m bail-out that effectively meant the Test could take place.
Similar funding is unlikely to be available in the future, and unless the ECB accept that their current bidding programme is not operating on a level playing field, it will be impossible for Durham, and most probably the other northern counties, to make ends meet.
“It’s only going to get harder,” admitted Durham chief executive David Harker, in the build up to this week’s Test. “If you can get 28,000 into Lord's paying 100 quid or whatever they charge, then there is going to be a move towards the bigger grounds getting the bigger matches.
“But it's important to stress there will still be a role for provincial grounds in staging international cricket, just at a price we can afford.”
Those last seven words are the key, as the current system forces a county like Durham to overstretch themselves in order to host the most attractive matches, and that cannot be good for anyone.
From the perspective of the county game, it penalises those who attempt to run a financially-stable ship, and does nothing to encourage the development of improved stadia and facilities in the hope that regular international cricket will eventually be the reward.
Michael Clarke, the Australian skipper, meets the fans yesterday
From a national point of view, it detracts from one of the best things about the England cricket side, namely that it is not exclusively based in one home stadium tucked away in the capital.
A redeveloped Wembley might be one of the best, and most lucrative, stadiums in the world, but it can be argued that the period when it was under construction was actually something of a golden period for the England football team in terms of its standing in the eyes of its supporters who live at the opposite end of the country to London.
England played matches at St James’ Park, the Stadium of Light and the Riverside, not to mention Elland Road, Old Trafford and Anfield, enabling northern-based fans to watch ‘their’ national team on their doorstep.
Now that England are back closeted away at Wembley, a sense of detachment has crept back in again, with supporters in the North-East understandably reluctant to brave the Friday-afternoon traffic to watch a night match in London.
If the ECB are not careful, the same will be true of England’s cricket team, so while the governing body undoubtedly has a responsibility to keep its finances in order, it must seriously look at modifying its bidding process in the future.
If a straight rota system is deemed too uneconomical, at least one Test in each ‘glamour’ series (currently Australia, South Africa and India) should be guaranteed to one of the three northern Test grounds.
If they cannot pay what the ECB deems to be the going rate, the governing body should fund the shortfall.
It might seem like commercial madness, but the alternative is a north-south divide that will have a hugely detrimental effect on English cricket moving forward.
For the good of the game, it is imperative that days like today do not disappear from the schedule.
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