Cricket fans voting with their feet as record low Test crowd beckons
Even in the aftermath of the ball-tampering fiasco in South Africa, even amid the turmoil of World Series Cricket, even with world wars and depressions and financial crises ripping apart the fabric of society, the Australian cricket team has rarely been on the nose like it is today.
And that is likely to be underlined at Optus Stadium next week when Australia start the Test summer in front of what is almost certain to be a record low crowd.
The MCG has just experienced its lowest ODI crowd – a fair feat for a ground that has hosted matches for more than half a century – to sound a clear warning of what cricket fans think of the schedule, performance, behaviour and make-up of the national teams.
After playing with questionable focus, discipline and selection integrity in the T20 World Cup – as reigning champions on home turf for heaven’s sake – Australia changed gears to demolish England in a one-day series that had almost as little relevance as any unwanted and unnecessary tournament in the format’s history.
Talk about getting your white ball priorities wrong.
Red ball is a different matter. Australia, powered by a vibrant bowling attack, armed with high-class top-order batsmen in improving form, at home against brittle opponents, should slice and dice West Indies and South Africa teams that are mere shadows of the great combinations of the past.
But who cares?
A week before the first Test, ticket sales have been almost motionless – insiders suggest they can be measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands – with a crowd below 4000 possible next Wednesday.
Perth’s previous lowest day one crowd was provided by 3911 scattered fans who watched Australia host Sri Lanka for the first time in 1987-88.
And a decade earlier, only 3963 people were present at the WACA Ground when the home team, even with five West Australians on board, played India in a direct clash with a WSC SuperTest against the fearsome and exhilarating West Indies.
There were compelling reasons for such low crowds – the Sri Lanka match was a one-off Test against an unknown and unheralded opponent, and came after 15 ODIs and another one-off Test against England in the previous 34 days.
Cricket fatigue had well and truly set in by the time the caravan dragged itself to the WACA Ground at the end of that non-stop summer.
And the World Series schism hit the traditionalists hard in the first summer in 1977-78 with the best players in the country off with the rebels and Australia being represented by what was considered a second XI in those early days until it was recognised that they were no less players than the household names they had replaced.
Cricket fans are voting with their feet and the message they are leaving as they trudge away from the game is that things are going badly wrong.
Lose them and they might not return.
Whether it is the polarising David Warner’s attempt to regain his eligibility to captain, and Cricket Australia’s ham-fisted handling of that drawn-out and hypocritical affair, the exceptionally privileged Pat Cummins kicking a gift horse in the teeth with his indulgent view on CA’s sponsors, the ill-feeling generated by Justin Langer’s messy exit from the national coaching position or the apparent indifference of many of the nation’s most highly-paid players to how their team performs or is perceived, there is a smell surrounding the summer sport.
It extends to State level where WA Cricket is, sort of, about to investigate why half its board couldn’t hack staying around and where disillusionment amongst members is so widespread that candidates for the recent by-election had to shop around to find eligible movers and seconders.
The absence of Test cricket for three years has also scarred plenty of fans who have abandoned their memberships and, sadly in some cases, their interest.
Come next week, there might be a few more who think that plenty of other places would be preferable to Optus Stadium.
Cricket has lots of work to do.