Geoffrey Boycott: North East could become no-go zone for Test cricket

Friday will be a momentous day in the history of North East sport as the region hosts an Ashes Test for the first time. But one of cricket's leading voices tells Stuart Rayner that English Test cricket is in danger of becoming a southern sport

Geoffrey Boycott
Geoffrey Boycott

On Friday the Ashes comes further north than ever before, but when they will be back is anybody’s guess.

The fourth Test at Chester-le-Street will be a massive one, and not only because England can win the series.

There is an awful lot at stake for Durham too as they fight their ground on the congested battlefield to stage international cricket in this country.

The notion that Test-match cricket is in danger of becoming the exclusive preserve of the south has not escaped the notice of Geoffrey Boycott.

When the Ashes returns to these shores in just two years, it will give our part of the world a miss. None of the 2015 matches will take place north of Nottingham.

It is an alarming state of affairs for northern cricket-lovers, but Durham have not helped themselves.

Due to host two internationals in 2014 and 2015, they have sent back games against India and Australia.

There are still tickets available for Monday’s fourth day. Empty spaces would be a major embarrassment considering the first four days of all other games in the series (and all five at Lord’s, The Oval and Trent Bridge) have sold out.

“I was a bit concerned to see Durham handing one-dayers back – that’s just the beginning,” says former England opener Boycott.

“The most important thing is the national team belongs to everyone in Great Britain. It can’t just belong to London because they can charge the highest prices. Tickets are always going to be more expensive in the capital city.

“But it’s not just about making money, it’s about creating interest throughout the UK to make everyone feel part of it.”

With nine Test grounds in England and Lord’s all but guaranteed two and The Oval one of a maximum seven five-day matches per year, it is a genuine concern. Boycott worries about that, and the influence of television, from which he earns a large part of his living.

“I don’t know how you fit a quart into a pint pot,” the outspoken commentator and Yorkshire president continues. “It’s a problem exacerbated by the advent of television. It pays such a lot of money to keep Test cricket alive, but it’s taking people away from the matches.

“We need to embrace TV, not let it take over. We sell the rights just for the money.

“TV’s so good now people can watch in comfort and they don’t have to drive in the traffic and queue up outside the ground, then do the same going home.

“If you carry that to its nth degree we’re going to be very rich but with no spectators in the ground.

“But they don’t take any notice of me. They just pat me on the head and say, ‘That’s just Geoffrey’.

“I think I’m a visionary. I love cricket. But they never listen to me.”

Whether you agree with him or not, it is hard not to listen to Boycott – more forthright, expert and entertaining in his views than perhaps any other sports broadcaster. He will outline them at Newcastle’s City Hall tomorrow in the “Boycott and Aggers” show which has been following the Ashes series around the country. Rory Bremner joins Boycott and Test Match Special colleague Jonathan Agnew for the evening, for which tickets are still available.

Boycott has been here often enough to understand the region’s passion for sport.

“I opened the houses on the ground with the mayor,” he recalls. “I remember it as clear as a bell. Back then it wasn’t the magnificent ground it is now.

“A lot of clubs have great tradition, but Durham don’t have that yet. It’s like Newcastle United: they can play well and fill the place, or moderately and still fill it – that’s tradition for you. It’s in the blood.

“Long after I’m dead maybe that will happen to Durham, but it takes time. Tradition is hard to build but very easy to lose.

“But it’s a sports-minded place, it’s in the people’s psyche. They will love having Ashes cricket.”

While the excitement on the terraces has been palpable this summer, Boycott worries whether supporters can be brought back for less glamorous games.

“You can see from the number of people listening on the radio, watching it on TV and reading about it in the newspapers and on the internet that people are really, really interested in cricket,” he argues.

“You’ve got to have a major plan to get people into the stadium.

“Any sports event’s better for having a full house. Watching Newcastle play in a half-empty stadium is not good.

“As a player you get a buzz from a full stadium, but not enough Test cricket around the world is played in front of them.

“When you go away with England there can often be more English people there than home supporters.

“The last time England were in Cape Town it was only full because there were 10,000-12,000 English people there. I played there in 1965 and you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money.

“Calcutta Tests used to be 100,000 sell-outs, now it’s more like 25,000.

“All the (English) Test-match grounds have improved. Lancashire and Edgbaston spent about £30m, and we paid £23m at Yorkshire. We’re all in debt.

“It’s not helping county cricket and it will have a knock-on effect on the international game. Maybe not on the Ashes because it’s such an iconic series, but on the others.”

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