The mushroom treatment

TED CORBETT

ISN'T it time that the authorities did something for the wretched spectator. At the moment he is kept in the dark, ordered about and driven from the ground the moment the game ends.

I found this unpalatable fact out for myself at Lord's at the end of the Cheltenham and Gloucester one-day final. I waited for my partner at the bottom of the lift, perhaps an hour after the game, talking to two friends. Along came three heavyweight security men.

"Please make your way to the gate, sir," said one in the tones of a sergeant major who does not intend to be contradicted. "I'm waiting..." I began. "Hey, wait outside," he snapped. My partner arrived at that moment or, I suspect, I would have been given the Harsha Bogle treatment.

So I know the status of the modern spectator is lower than that of the widely-despised scorer, another sub-species with a low spot in the pecking order. But we will talk about the dots and stats people another day.

In the age of communication it is no longer acceptable to have a cricketing under class and, unless there is a change in attitude and intention, spectators, or - as the public address system is apt to say - boys and girls will vote with their feet.

They will all go to alternative sports - football, ballroom dancing, synchronised swimming (drowning while smiling, some say) underwater darts - leaving those who ignore their needs so blatantly wondering what went wrong.

That one-day final between Yorkshire and Somerset was packed to the rafters. It had been sold out for almost a month and it was the first pre-booked full house since 1997. That fact is probably due to a sense of relief in Yorkshire - champions last year, bankrupt this year - and Somerset, enjoying a glut of one-day success recently.

It may also be due to the vibrant coverage on Channel 4 this year of all that good Indian batting and England victories against Sri Lanka.

After all, most sporting success in the 21st century comes by way of television. That is how, in my country at any rate, we have witnessed sport for the last 50 years. About three full generations have been spectators at major sporting events because TV has brought them into their home.

I am a sports nut so I have watched cricket in 15 different countries, played rugby in three, seen sumo wrestling in Japan, Australian Rules football in Sydney and golf all over the globe. I have also seen the Grand National, the Five Nations Tournament, the Open golf; never live, always on television.

Like most people, I hear what the commentator says without realising how much I am being influenced. And that is the key to my argument.

If cricket's authorities are to keep those casual sports watchers who happen to wander into a Test, they will have to do more to help them understand what is happening.

In that ancient sport of sumo wrestling it has been happening for 1,000 years. At the end of each bout - lasting no more than a few seconds - the referee announces what has happened, and how he has reached his verdict.

It is part of the wonderful ancient formalities yet it holds a lesson for cricket. The sumo judge is brought up to date because now there is a tiny microphone pinned to his traditional clothing.

Isn't is time our game caught up? Nothing elaborate; just an information service. That is not what the spectator gets at the moment.

What, for instance, happens at Lord's when a man is out? The public address announces the name of the next batsman.

We had a fine example during Somerset's innings. Marcus Trescothick - playing with a thumb that had only just healed although no-one told us that - skied a no-ball to fine leg where Ryan Sidebottom took an astonishing catch and got the ball back into his wicket-keeper Richard Blakey so quickly that there were only two runs.

The public address announcer said: "The next ball is a free hit." He might have said: "Just in case you didn't hear the umpire's call, that was a no-ball so all Sidebottom's brilliant work did not produce a wicket for Yorkshire. The batsman can have a free hit at the next ball. By the way, that is three runs to the total."

I am not - yet - in favour of a rah-rah commentary that includes a lot more partisan cheering but I gather from a conversation I had with a high official at the England and Wales Cricket Board that when the new 20-over competition begins next summer there will be more helpful remarks from a commentator. They are looking for the right formula and the right man.

We should welcome this step forward because cricket is teetering on the verge of disaster in this country even though many officials with impaired vision refuse to acknowledge how deep are the game's troubles.

Yorkshire have mismanaged their affairs and only clever men with cool heads will keep them from implosion. Other counties stave off bankruptcy only because they receive a big pay-out from the television and sponsorship rights each year. Wages are high both for the run-of-the-mill player and the overseas star, tickets are costly, outgoings are at an all-time high and such extras as the cost of security make old-fashioned committees go white.

The media only notices the game when it suits its agenda. Football demands attention; all other sports take a back seat. The tabloid Sun, a great supporter of cricket, has recently left out all mention of the game on occasions, and The Daily Mail, which once made a point of covering games all over the country now rarely has more than a few paragraphs about any game save the Test.

Paul Fox, former editor of Grandstand, a television magazine programme, who writes about sport on TV, recently claimed that cricket was a minority sport. Christopher Martin Jenkins, who always writes protectively, about cricket described that statement as nonsense; my own feeling is that Fox is right.

Just as, 25 years ago, American football set up a working party to analyse every part of its structure, from the size of each player's shoulder pads, to the referee's uniform and the presentation ceremony, so cricket should strip itself bare and rebuild from top to bottom so that the spectator can see and understand exactly what is happening.

I write this piece, remember, as a professional sports reporter, who has 50 years experience to draw on wherever I sit to see any sport. If I don't understand I can turn to an expert - probably sitting no more than a few feet away - or ask a scorer next to me. Or draw on a mass of paper listing every statistic known to Wisden. Or consult half a dozen standard books and a couple of computer programmes that are never more than a keystroke away.

But the youngster, the casual spectator, the wife dragged along for a day out and the sister given a ticket she does not want are all ignorant of the niceties and will remain so unless someone tells them what is happening.

Are they ever likely to return? I think not. Especially when they have repeated in their ear at regular intervals that they must not invade the pitch, a pastime undertaken only by the outrageously drunk or the severely mad.

That will be my outstanding memory of the summer of 2002; the booming voice over the tannoy reminding spectators that they must not run on the pitch. No wonder some come to the cricket never to be seen again.

For it seems that the cricket spectator has no privileges, that his tickets are far too expensive; although the Headingley Test's final day was seen by an enormous crowd because the cost was reduced to five pounds. And when he chooses to attend a match he is given no information. It is known as the mushroom treatment. He is left in the dark and apparently resented.

Unless we make sure they have enough information to enjoy the game - and enough creature comforts to make their day out memorable - they will be off. Permanently.