Towards the end of last year, the ECB released ticket ballots for the English Test Summer which, predictably and depressingly, priced out thousands of potential buyers for yet another year. Fast forward to February 2021, after a historic win in Chennai that brought Test cricket to the uninitiated via Channel 4’s free coverage, and these ticket prices rear their ugly head more emphatically than ever.
Barring many potential variables, by June, the nation will be emerging from a gruelling lockdown, desperate to go to see live sport. Such a situation represents a huge opportunity for English Test cricket, after a winter of attracting interest from a fresh audience, to save itself from the supposed decay that it is suffering.
Ultimately, the longest format is not “dying” in this country, thanks largely to its core group of dedicated fans who will pay huge fees regardless to watch England play. But this is the group upon which the ECB has leaned for far too long. It is time to branch out, to actively grow the game by accessing those on the fence, who ultimately do not climb over due to the ludicrous sums they are asked to part with.
This year, for the Test against India at the Oval, tickets for a day will set fans back an average of around £90. As England head to Lord’s to face New Zealand, tickets will regularly pass £100, rising as high as £150. Antagonistic sentiment towards prices similar to these has been around for some time.
In 2018, The Cricketer carried out a survey that revealed 72% of fans believed tickets for the cricket were either overpriced or very overpriced, with two thirds feeling that they were simply unaffordable. Three years on and little has been learned.
Cricket, although not dying, is certainly stagnating as a sport in the UK. According to Statista’s figures, involvement in the game at a grass-roots level decreased by roughly 20% between 2016 and 2019, with a dismally low increase of 0.07% from 2019 to 2020, when, amongst bans on other team sports and foreign travel, a far higher participation rate was expected.
Test cricket remains the nucleus of the sport at an elite level: it is the pinnacle which must continue to play the principal role in attracting viewers and players of the game. Many continue to claim that Tests are being diluted by T20 cricket, supposedly a microcosm of the modern world desiring instant satisfaction and entertainment.
Instead, it is to T20 that Test cricket must look and take notes. In the Blast competition, Edgbaston offers free entry to kids, who come in their swathes to watch Moeen Ali and Warwickshire enjoy success. Counties all over the country provide family bundles that have attracted many newcomers to grounds full of energy and excitement.
Indeed, to point the finger at the shorter forms for undermining Test cricket is typically entitled and ignorant of the game and analysts alike. So wonderful is the longest format, and so pulsating it has been over the last couple of years, that its survival needs no justification through a petty blame-game.
One need only look at the global hysteria at Rishabh Pant’s unbeaten 89 to defeat Australia in the fourth Test Down Under, and compare such to the relative disinterest at Alex Hales contemporaneously smashing the ball to all parts in the Big Bash, to see where the formats rank in terms of significance.
Rather than worrying about its own disappearance, Test cricket needs to expand, to undergo a similar journey to the one T20 itself has enjoyed over the past decade. To do so, venues must go beyond slashing prices for limited fifth days, and instead offer core reductions for the key days of key Tests.
Of course, the counterargument comes in the form of the huge overheads involved in staging a Test match over five days and the spectacle it represents. Relevant, too, is the need for profits after a damaging summer of Covid-hit empty grounds and bio-secure bubbles. But this is where the ECB needs to map out a plan for Test cricket’s future development in the UK, rather than favouring quick-fixes and short-term profit.
The Barmy Army and staunch supporters will always remain, as will a scattering of attendees on “business meetings”, as happy to spend immense fees on tickets as they are on marked-up Champagne, the pops of the corks often forming the soundtrack to a day at Lord’s.
The issue lies not in these groups, but is found in the homes of those who have been excluded from the day, or have chosen against it, due to economics. For such, one-off attendees may pay hefty sums at the time, but they are not financially fruitful in the long term. By reducing costs and developing schemes to attract more families and their young children, the ECB would build a lifelong, generational fanbase that can treat a day at the cricket as a regular event rather than a special treat.
To introduce new fans to the sport, and for them to subsequently return on a routine basis, would benefit English cricket both within a context of financials and of its growth as a well-supported game.
The ties with a past of elitism, of the upper-class suppression that founded it so long ago yet which still lingers, must be severed in order for Test cricket to thrive.
With many watching a live Test for the first time since the 2005 Ashes, questions will have been posed in sitting rooms about the match, interest stoked by its intricacies and nuances. Watching Joe Root dominate a world-class bowling attack, reports flooded into Channel 4 via Twitter that many were out in the snow bowling to their kids, replicating the Yorkshireman’s sweep shot and twirl of the bat.
As England march up the test rankings, these new fans that they take with them will immediately be disenfranchised if the ECB and respective Test venues fail to seize the opportunity that such images clearly present.
Rather than blaming the global franchises of the short form, it is time for Test cricket to undergo some introspection, to improve its own accessibility by lowering these exorbitant ticket prices and ensuring an inclusive, prosperous future for the game.
Image: Aksh yadav via Unsplash