The Lord’s test match is a highlight of London’s summer – 28,000 people crowding into the St John’s Wood ground for top-level sport at the “the home of cricket”. This year sees the much-anticipated Ashes clash between England and Australia on August 14 – a fixture worth an estimated £9 million to the local Westminster economy alone – as well as five Cricket World Cup games, including the final in July.
It can feel as much a social as a sporting event, with corporate guests doing as much drinking as cricket-watching, Mick Jagger and John Major often spotted in the pavilion, and a sometimes uncomfortable divide between the “members” in the famous scarlet and gold MCC ties (18,000 of them, and a 29 year waiting list) and the rest of us lucky winners in the ticket ballot.
For cricket lovers though, a Lord’s test match retains a definite magic. Since my first visit in 1976, hitchhiking down the A1, paying on the gate and sitting on the grass to see the West Indies under Clive Lloyd, they have always had that sense of occasion, of anticipation, almost of privilege and, I suppose, feeling part of a living tradition.
All rather different for the first County Championship game of the season at Lords on a cold Thursday last week, a division two meeting between Middlesex and Lancashire. I was one of perhaps 2,000 or so dedicated spectators, in coats, scarves and hats; pretty much men of a certain age, and fewer young people than I’d expected in the Easter holidays.
With more than half the ground closed off, we huddled in the lower tier of the grandstand. The unroofed upper level of the Compton stand began to fill towards lunchtime as the sun grew stronger, and the pavilion, open to Middlesex members for county games, but its strict dress code still in force – “Gentlemen shall wear lounge suits or tailored jacket and trousers, shirt, tie or cravat…Ladies shall wear dresses; or skirts or trousers…or culottes, with blouses or smart tops…”
But even in early season, with the players themselves wrapped up in sweaters, hands in pockets between balls, the ritual of red ball cricket weaves its spell – a succession of slow-building moments of intensity, the intricacies of bowling change and field-placing, white on green.
There was plenty of talent on show: Lancashire’s Jimmy Anderson, second best bowler in the world at the age of 36, test opener Keaton Jennings, Australian star Glenn Maxwell, England hopeful Haseeb Hameed, fresh from 200 not out in a pre-season friendly; and Middlesex ranks including England one-day captain Eoin Morgan and internationals Dawid Malan, Steven Finn and Toby Rowland-Jones.
It was a knowledgeable crowd too, including youngsters autograph-hunting by the boundary. And there was plenty to interest fans – an Anderson seam bowling masterclass and a Middlesex batting collapse in what was an early challenge for two venerable counties both seeking promotion to Division One, the league which Middlesex topped just two seasons ago.
The 18 first-class counties face a constant struggle to survive however, highlighted in a recent Sheffield Hallam University report, with low attendance at four-day games and significance reliance on grants from cricket’s governing body, the ECB. The advent of the new Hundred quick-fire competition next year, with eight city rather than county-based men’s and women’s team “franchises” taking part, raises new concerns about the future of the county championship, which is still the “bedrock of the cricket calendar”, according to the ECB, and the nursery for test cricket.
The new 100 ball a side challenge will provide all counties with funds over its first four years, but it’s a long way from the traditional game – cricket for people who don’t like cricket, as some commentators have said.
Meanwhile Lord’s continues to develop, with custodians the MCC planning two new stands replacing the tired and draughty Compton and Edrich stands in 2020, increasing capacity by 2,500 for major games.
But at £20 for five hours of cricket at one of the premier sporting venues in the world, a Middlesex county championship home game remains a great day out for London red-ball fans. See it while you can. Fixture list here, and there’s always the fascinating MCC museum if rain stops play.