Cricket: Anoraks in paradise

By Dylan Cleaver

A lone spectator watches Canterbury take on Otago at the Village Green at QEII, Christchurch.

The intro to the lead story in the local paper said it all: "Vicious spring weather tore across the South Island yesterday, wrecking homes torn apart by wind, and felling trees, creating havoc for motorists." A sure sign the cricket season is upon us.

At the Village Green, Christchurch, the evidence was watertight. The opening day of the first-class cricket season is like stepping back 30 years to when towelling hats were de rigeur.

A quick inventory read: thermos flasks, three; field glasses lovingly protected in leather cases, four; tartan blankets, eight; chilly bins, two; fold-out chairs, six (one in camouflage colours); cricketers on field, 13, (plus two umpires).

From nowhere appears the incongruous sight of a blonde with fashionably rolled up jeans carrying a sleeping bag that would have served Edmund Hillary well at altitude. That pushed the crowd total above 30 for the first time that day.

When the first wicket fell at 119 - Otago captain Craig Cumming caught Todd Astle, bowled Leighton Burtt for 63 - the applause never quite reached a ripple. It takes more than a wicket to prise Colleen, another woman braving the Canterbury elements, from her book.

As the wind whipped through this barren oval it did so unhindered. The trees planted on the embankment look some years short of offering any protection against the weather. Jackets were pulled around ears, the less hardy souls looked for pockets of protection offered by parked cars and the modest pavilion.

But Lindsay Broome, 58, perched on the embankment square of the wicket, was going nowhere. He's used to staying in one spot and, anyway, his saddlebagged bicycle was chained to a tree behind him.

"Cold wind today, isn't it?" he said before adjusting his meteorolical standards slightly. "But it's not too bad. It's a nice quiet atmosphere, isn't it?"

"Yes," I agree out loud. Kind of like a morgue, which I keep to myself.

But a confession here: I love domestic first-class cricket. Have done ever since the first time my parents took me to Pukekura Park, New Plymouth. Some of my most vivid cricket memories are not tests or one-day internationals but first-class matches at Puke, which is still the best ground in the world.

There was Ian Rutherford, older brother of Ken, batting forever for a double century in a Shell Trophy final. There was Jock Edwards on one knee putting a quick bowler into the lake beside the ground. There was Martin Crowe's maiden first-class century for Auckland. There was some bloke called McKenna dismissing Jonathan Millmow, now a cricket scribe, lbw in the last over of a three-day match for a famous Central victory.

So I empathise with people like Broome. I just wish there were more of him.

"I don't go to the one-dayers at Jade Stadium," Broome says. "Sitting there on a hot day, you've got the influence of booze - I don't drink or anything like that - and you just don't know. If you get unpleasant people next to you, you can't get away so that's not the best, is it?

"There's a few rough diamonds in the DB Draught Stand and look at what they did at Carisbrook, the students lit a couch there once," he says with a shake of his head. "I've just bought Marc Ellis' book and I bet there's a few stories like that in there."

It wasn't always that way. Broome used to go to Jade when it was known as Lancaster. In 1969 he remembers going to the test against the West Indies with his dad, who died two years later. "He [dad] didn't like the tests much, found them a bit boring. He would have liked one-day cricket but it didn't really exist back then. I'm not sure about this Twenty20 though."

Broome's recollection of cricket and rugby in the province is astonishing but he's also got a firm grip of the sporting issues of the day. "I can't understand why you're [Auckland] not thinking more about North Harbour Stadium. It's got the land, there's no problem with resource consent and the bus service is improving all the time."

Which brings a surprising revelation. "I've never been to Auckland, of course. But I listen to Murray Deaker."

Stephen Goodliffe, 51, is another who would choose the serenity of the Village Green over the hurly burly of a one-day international any day.

"I've been coming to Canterbury games for 20 or 30 years. You feel like you get to know the players. I still enjoy the one-dayers but not that Twenty20 - too short. But this is good here. It's a good pitch, good outfield and lovely sightscreens."

Which is where he takes up station, just to the left of the sightscreen at the city end of the ground. Unlike a test match, he knows as long as he doesn't move behind the bowler's arm, he won't get shifted. And he knows there won't be an overzealous security man asking to rifle through the contents of his chilly bin. "I'm getting more and more put off going to the big games because of that," he says."

Goodliffe's binoculars look like they have accompanied him on every one of those matches over 20-odd years. Each arm is lovingly swathed in masking tape to "stop all the black stuff coming off".

"This," he says, "is real cricket." But fewer people are agreeing with him. "It's a shame," he says, pausing to take in another delivery which passes unmolested outside off stump. "You used to get more than 1000 people to these games some days.

"But there's a lot more stuff to do these days and the rugby season goes for so long you tend to forget about the cricket."

While it is easy to like the quirky souls that frequent grounds like the Village Green, their resilience masks a more unpalatable truth. While never a hugely popular spectator sport, first-class cricket is rapidly losing what patronage it once had. This at a time when the game's administrators and players claim, with some merit, that it has never been stronger.

Largely played on week days, the next step below test cricket attracts only the diehards and anoraks. In some respects, given the amount of money poured into it and the lack of traction it receives, it is the most self-indulgent sport in the world.

The media, too, has largely abandoned ship. Where once reporters travelled with their first-class teams to cover faithfully every match, now only a local reporter will be at the match and the Press Association will usually cobble together a match report off the radio or the 'live' internet scoring. Ball-by-ball radio commentary, a staple in the halcyon days of Sports Roundup, has largely been replaced by score updates.

On day one at the Village Green, I can confidently state there was no more than 100 people watching at any stage - this in the South Island's largest city and the 'home' of New Zealand cricket. At one point that hoary old phrase - two men and a dog - was eerily realistic as Canterbury Cricket chief executive Richard Reid's dog Robbie held court on the boundary.

There's few under 40 here. It feels like a Stephen King novel where an unknown force has stolen the young and deposited them in a cornfield north of Rangiora.

There's Peter Costello's eight-year-old daughter Jessica, who looks a barely willing participant, a teen in a school uniform with a growing collection of Monteith's Black empties beside him and two 20-something women drinking Speights and texting madly who had probably got lost on the way to the Riccarton races.

"It's a couple of things," Costello says. "I don't think sport is preached enough in schools these days. There's just not enough effort placed in those sorts of activities. And there are just so many more things to do. Electronic things, too, trap them, which is disappointing. If I had my son here and there was an X-Box over there," he points, "I know which one he'd choose.

"The crowds are definitely a lot smaller than they used to be."

But most people involved in the game are quick to tell you how much superior the State Championship is now compared to the old Shell Trophy and Plunket Shield days - better cricket, better pitches, better facilities, better player welfare etc.

Players' Association manager Heath Mills said first-class cricket did not have a commercial imperative.

"The aim of the State Championship is to develop better test cricket. It's valuable and it's doing that," he says. "Since it became professional, guys are staying in the game longer and that's building depth. We beat Australia A for the first time this year, so it's working.

"Obviously we'd like more people to go along to the games but realistically, with them being played midweek, it's not likely to happen."

Frankly, I'm not sure the associations would know what to do if people did turn up. There's one portaloo at the Village Green and no shop, no pie cart, nothing.

But it would be wrong to suggest New Zealand is the only country suffering this plight. A few years back, Steve Waugh begged Australian cricket bosses to drop gate fees in the Pura Cup, its first-class competition, to help get people through the gate. During the Commonwealth Games this year I went to St Kilda Oval for an hour to watch a game between Victoria and Western Australia that would determine who played Queensland in the final. Even in a match of this magnitude there were barely 500 there.

In England, county cricket is the dying domain of the county members, anybody younger than 30 has deserted it for the hit-and-giggle of Twenty20.

It's not as if the respective national bodies are caught by surprise. The model in New Zealand is that NZC generates 90 per cent of its revenue from international cricket, or should that read ODI cricket? While the State Championship might be a burden, it's a burden that is budgeted for.

At the Village Green, Canterbury's fourth first-class venue alongside the rarely used Jade Stadium, the Academy's Bert Sutcliffe Oval at Lincoln and Hagley Oval, the match looked headed for a draw after Otago racked up an imposing 601 for nine declared on a placid pitch.

But Broome, Goodliffe, Costello and Colleen with her book will no doubt be back.

If domestic cricket is the heart of the game then it's still a warm heart - but a heart whose beat is getting weaker.

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