Interest in the upcoming Indian tour of England is high

TEMPERATURES are low in England - the Sri Lankans are freezing despite three jumpers - but things are getting unbearably hot for the cricket authorities. Football, and David Beckham, is England's obsession and with the World Cup unfolding shortly interest in cricket is less than negligible.

People are barely aware the Sri Lankans are here, tickets are just not moving, and there is a distinct prospect of cricket taking a massive financial hit. Forget Sri Lanka, even India's efforts in the West Indies receive only a passing reference in the media, often not more than two paragraphs dumped in a corner of the sports page.

But all this is likely to change rapidly once Sourav Ganguly brings his boys through immigration at Heathrow. Interest in the upcoming Indian team tour is very high, there is an enormous sense of expectation and hype. Indians have not been here for six years, in that period Asian interest in the game has grown and much else has changed.

Not least of this is the superstar status of Tendulkar S. R. who drives the business of cricket in more ways than one. Clearly, he is a megastar, his fan-following is matched in England only by Shahrukh Khan. What this means, in practical terms, is there is plenty of commercial activity taking place, as a result the ECB is happy, for them the Indian tour is a lottery which could not have come at a better time. For India's international games tickets are already scarce.

While the ECB is pleased at this financial bailout there is plenty that is causing considerable concern, typical of what is wrong is evident at any ordinary county game. One and a half hours out of London on the motorway, on a bright sunny day, Sussex played Hampshire at Brighton, a city of retired persons where anyone under 50 is considered a baby.

It is the home of Sussex, a modest team led by Chris Adams, a county club which is almost 170 years old - and through its long history has had a strong Indian connection. Ranji was here at the turn of the century, he was followed a generation later by Duleep and then, much later, by the Nawab of Pataudi. All three made runs and captained the county.

Watching the match, one felt little could possibly have changed since the days of these masters. At Hove, in terms of facilities, there is a club house with limited seating, the ground is located in the middle of a residential colony, and residents of neighbouring buildings have a good view of cricket. The cricket field slopes 10 feet from one end to the other - a hard forward defensive push from a batsman could easily roll all the way down to the boundary.

Cricket was languid, the proceedings were watched by about 1500 persons, not many of these were below the prescribed voting age.

Most, on the contrary, would have voted in several elections and it seemed they were there not for cricket but merely to sun themselves and occupy their time.

Yet, there was a seriousness to watching cricket as they kept score (I wonder why), clapped politely, refused to move once the bowler started his run up even when seated on top of a terrace 20 rows back at square leg. But there were no kids, no shor, no josh, no noise - the scene was similar to being at a play where one does not want to disturb the performers. Truly, tradition is important in England, this helps retain character but the flip side is an inflexible attitude makes cricket appear fossilised and un-modern.

At present, cricket is in the middle of a crisis and seems to be sinking under its own weight. Counties like Sussex employ 20-odd professionals (on fees ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 pounds) but sponsors are largely disinterested, attendances are thin and in many cases club memberships are declining sharply. Still, quite admirably, England has kept pace by developing the sport through several innovative methods, and even succumbed to the ultimate, but crass in the opinion of many, marketing gimmick of approving 20-over games.

This certainly is an aberration because, ordinarily, more conventional methods are used. Sussex, for instance, has erected permanent lights to attract bigger crowds in the evening, the only ground to have done this so far. Trent Bridge has installed motorised covers which protect the entire field similar to the ones used at Wimbledon. Leeds has put up new stands to enhance capacity. Even at other centres there is a constant attempt, doubtless because of the continuing threat from competing sports, to keep inventing new ways to package the game.

Sometimes, however, the best efforts fail. Consider for example the strange case of Yorkshire, one of England's oldest counties with more championship titles than any other side. Last season they won again after about 30 years, which led to widespread celebration and production of a wide variety of merchandising (expensive bone China plates and silver besides the usual shirts / caps / beer mugs ) with the slogan Back On Top Again.

Oddly, improvement in Yorkshire's cricket fortunes coincided with a sharp dip in economic health. When Yorkshire played Lancs, their traditional rivals, the Committee room was abuzz, Dickie Bird and others watched in horror as their team collapsed for 81 on a lively wicket under dark clouds on a dreary, dull day. Since the Boycott controversy hit the club, things have not been the same at Leeds, observed a disappointed member nursing his drink. Nothing seems to be working out. The only way out, according to people who know, is for Yorkshire (and England for that matter) is to find another Botham, a genuine star capable of sparking a revival and drawing youth away from football. But that is a long term, and perhaps an exceedingly optimistic view, because there is no Botham on the horizon and the kids are firmly devoted to football.

"A far easier way to trigger a revival," said a person who understands this business, "is to get Sachin back at Yorkshire. Tendulkar is enormously popular here and impressed everyone with his commitment, polite behaviour and amazing focus - you can't ask for a better role model."