Cricket: Time to Put the Paying Spectator First at Test Matches – By Mike Atherton,

— By Mike Atherton, Chief Cricket Correspondent | The Times UK

About 10,000 England supporters saw the win in Cape Town but more could be done to improve the live experience

After the fourth day of the recent Cape Town Test, I found myself among a group of England supporters. The talking point of the day was the dismissal of Dean Elgar, given out caught behind towards the end of play, as a result of a review to technology. Whether for reasons of eyesight, or seating position in the ground, not many of those to whom I spoke had seen the replays on the one big screen which was situated above the brewery stand.

Understandably, they were keen to know a little more. Had Elgar hit the ball? How does the “ultra-edge” technology work? Why did the third umpire uphold the on-field decision? It reminded me again that for all the thousands of pounds spent on going to watch live cricket, the viewer at home, enjoying the sport in the comfort of his living room, often gets more information than those in the ground.       

There are, obviously, many reasons for watching England abroad and watching live sport more generally, other than the minutiae of the action: Escaping the English winter; travelling to new destinations and combining it with some cricket; friendship generated through sport and the fun atmosphere, among them.

Those 10,000 or so England supporters lucky enough to be at Newlands will have experienced five of the best days of their lives — memories that will live with them forever — and it was wonderful to see so many supporters the morning afterwards wandering around with contented smiles on their faces. No matter how good, the television or radio experience can’t beat being there.

Nevertheless, on the ground experiences for spectators who pay high prices to watch Test cricket are often a concern. Administrators, wondering about how to prevent declining Test match crowds in many parts of the world, have been keen to tinker with the format: In recent years, we have had day/night Tests, four-day Tests – a big talking point right now – and the advent of a World Test Championship, all changes designed to revive interest in the Test game.

Rarely, though, do you hear an administrator talk about the quality of the live experience for the paying supporter. For obvious reasons, this perspective is particularly important for Test cricket. One-day games lack the subtlety of longer-form cricket because the lack of time prevents a change in conditions. You go to watch an ODI or T20 for excitement, atmosphere and, hopefully, a close finish.

You are NOT guaranteed all of those things on any given day in a Test match. What you are usually guaranteed is a high level of skill, even if those skills are often subtle and sometimes hard to discern. If you are not seated behind the bowler’s arm, for example, you cannot really see whether the new or old ball is swinging and whether a spinner is turning the ball, all key requirements to understanding the flow of the game.

Take Jimmy Anderson. You can only fully appreciate the glory of this great cricketer by watching him close at hand. The way he positions the seam like a rudder to exploit swing with the new ball; the way, if there is no swing, he separates his fingers on the seam in delivery to generate what he calls a ‘wobble seam’ ball; the way he hides the old ball in his non-bowling hand if the ball is reverse swinging, and the way he sets up batsmen before going for the kill. These nuances of the game are hard to appreciate watching live and from a distance square to the pitch.

So, a key priority must be to make the in-stadium experience as good as possible so that the live viewer, paying good money, is not disadvantaged against those watching or listening at home.

Clearly, high-definition big screens are vital here: The number of them, their size, the quality of the replays and their frequency. Some grounds do not have replay screens at all and some are poor in quality. Few grounds match the experience in some American stadia, where wrap around HD screens give the paying spectator instant replays, while enjoying the atmosphere live.

After the Newlands Test, I asked one England supporter, an acquaintance of mine who has travelled to New Zealand and South Africa already this winter and will be going to Sri Lanka in March, about his experiences. The response was largely favourable and he reckoned that watching abroad is fundamentally better value for money than in England.

He is a Surrey member and enjoyed reciprocal rights in the Western Province pavilion at Newlands for about £30 a day. He enjoyed food and drink at reasonable prices and liked the fact that the PA system did not assault his ears with incessant music, although there was no ability to listen to the television or radio commentary with earpieces, as there is in England.

At Centurion, he decided to fork out for a hospitality suite for his family because of the lack of shade in the ground. At Mount Maunganui in New Zealand it was a choice between £25 a ticket for the grass banks and no shade, or £150 for shade in a hospitality tent with restricted views. Here at Newlands, he had to wait in the hot sun until gates were opened at 9.30 on the first morning. The PA system failed to announce the result of the toss and there was no team news. He will hope that there will be no repeat of what happened in Sri Lanka last time when he, like other England supporters, was thrown out of his hotel at the last minute.

It would be good to hear from readers about the best and worst examples in the game from a spectator’s point of view, the good things and the gripes. Clearly, some cater better than others and I suspect Newlands is high up on the list of good experiences, for its combination of beauty, atmosphere and cost. With a bit more spin than at Centurion, the over rates improved, too.

But it is not always the case that the paying spectator gets well looked after and Test cricket can be a demanding game to watch:

Long hours on sometimes dull, hot days. The better the ground experience and the greater the availability of the kind of information offered to those watching or listening remotely, the better the chance of encouraging and supporting a live audience. For a game swimming in money, the paying spectator should be a priority. 

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  • Clyde Duncan  On January 11, 2020 at 3:04 am

    John Carpenter wrote:

    “I was at the Newlands Test but unfortunately missed the last day. Important to remember grandstand seats are R160 (£8) and I parked near the ground for R40 (£2). A days cricket with refreshments costs £20 rather than £150 in UK. The problem in England is scarcity of tickets and high prices.”

  • Clyde Duncan  On January 11, 2020 at 3:05 am

    Do we still have “bird-men” at Georgetown, Guyana cricket?

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