THERE are now no more sleeps until that most marvellous of mornings – the first day of the Headingley Test. Across the far reaches of God’s own county and beyond, alarm clocks went off early. Travelling across the moors and down the dales, families and friends are headed for meeting points near the ground which have been debated since January.
For me it has to be a hearty English breakfast at the Original Oak pub in the centre of Headingley, flavoured with Yorkshire-born former Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s favourite brand of brown sauce.
I fondly recall my own first time at the stadium clutching the hand of my father in 1970 to watch England play the Rest of the World. It may have been a Test match that was subsequently expunged from the record books, but it featured perhaps the finest collection of talent ever gathered at the ground including Gary Sobers who scored a century.
Granted, the somewhat muddled architecture of Headingley is an acquired taste, but all the more appreciated by the faithful for that. There is no finer place on earth particularly on the first morning before play begins – the world is new and anything seems possible. Or reflecting on everything and nothing at the end of a day watching the shadows lengthen with a pint in hand.
England against the West Indies will be the 75th Test match played at the ground since the first one against Australia in 1899. The future of international cricket seems more secure in Leeds than it has for many a year.
It was only in 1996 that the County Committee momentarily proposed to rip up its heritage and move Yorkshire cricket next to a junction on the motorway near Wakefield.
After another decade of wrangling, the club finally gained ownership of the ground in 2006. Yet, even as late as this Spring, there was much speculation that unless investment could be secured to rebuild the old Rugby Stand, the auld establishment at Lord’s would withdraw Test match status.
Leeds City Council stepped in and brokered a loan of £35m. A new stand will be built in time for the first Ashes match in a decade in 2019 a year which will also see the return of World Cup matches.
There are still many things to concern lovers of a sport that struggles to justify its previous undisputed place as England’s summer game. Hidden behind a paywall since the glorious Ashes summer of 2005 inspired nine million to watch on Channel 4, cricket has gradually slipped from the national consciousness.
England v West Indies: Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow hoping to carry on where he left off at Headingley
When commentator Simon Hughes recently recorded a message from Joe Root for his son’s birthday party, most of his schoolmates had no idea who the England captain was.
The numbers playing the game, both casually and at club level, have declined significantly. Still the rise in women’s cricket and a recent significant increase in county attendances across all forms of the game give some cause for optimism.
The English Cricket Board have finally tacitly admitted that coverage on free-to-air television, and indeed websites, does matter. They are not yet ready to accept the recommendation of the last Government review in 2009 that Ashes Test matches should be a listed event live on free-to-air (as occurs in Australia).
Instead, starting in 2020, they have designed a new Twenty20 competition to be played in August with franchises modelled on India’s Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash.
They have pretty well given away the live rights to 10 matches, including the final, to the BBC. The Corporation have promised to give the tournament the same promotional treatment they usually reserve for the FA Cup. Headingley will almost certainly be home to one of the franchises. The question is will the allegiances of supporters transfer easily when, after a players’ auction, Yorkshire stars like Joe Root or Jonny Bairstow could well be playing for teams based in London or elsewhere?
For now, there is a Test match to enjoy. Here’s hoping on the weekend the city of Leeds celebrates 50 years of the Chapeltown Carnival, the West Indies team recover their pride and make a decent fight of it.
Soon it will be September with county matches starting half an hour earlier in anticipation of Autumn. Yorkshire will have two final games at Headingley not to compete for the title as in recent years, but to fight to save their division one status.
Before we know it, the last match of the year will be upon us and with it the unique farewell of the seasoned cricket supporter – “winter well!”.
John Grogan is MP for Keighley.