J2nd evening at Lord’s, and the day began to sag a little. The cricket is starting to lose its grip on you, a windy day of sunshine has put you to sleep, and so you decide to stretch your legs and take a walk. You stop for a cup of tea, which costs £3.10. Faucet. Beep. The tea simply draws attention to your empty stomach and so you join the ragged queue for a portion of £12.50 fish and chips. Faucet. Beep.
You walk a bit longer, past the pastry stand, past the gin concession, past the gift shop and the Great British Fudge emporium. A little further on is a charity collector shaking a tin can. An invitation to book a site visit. Faucet. Beep. Everything is so easy and frictionless, a sunny orchard of card readers all arching their branches towards you and promising you a little fun.
“Lord’s is a cashless lot,” announces a message on the big screen as you enter, a claim that’s only true until the moment your bank statement drops. But that’s always been the genius of Lord’s: a place that works the senses so well that you barely notice how effectively it simultaneously works your wallet. They’re not really obsessed with anything as vulgar as money here, largely because for centuries it’s been run by the kind of people who have so much it doesn’t really matter. .
We got a taste of that earlier in the week, when MCC was briefly caught off guard by a sudden controversy over ticket prices for the first Test. Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes have both spoken out. Pundits and journalists fumed at the audacity to charge £160 to watch a fifth of a cricket match.
Eventually, faced with a deluge of sour headlines, the club were forced to issue an extra tranche of £20 junior day four tickets and a promise to review their prices for the 2023 season. Cricket began.
Everyone has moved on.
In a way, the whole thing was grossly exaggerated. Ticket prices at Lord’s broke the £100 mark a few years ago and hardly anyone batted an eyelid. And as for empty seats, well, have you ever been to Lord’s? Even at full capacity, Lord’s still has empty seats.
People walk away and walk away. People arrive late and return early.
There are punters who barely use their seat, for whom a day at Lord’s is above all a chance to catch up with old friends and wander around the place. All of this is fine. But in another sense, MCC’s obvious unease was quietly telling.
After all, one of Lord’s unspoken maxims is that pecuniary matters are the kind of things little people like to worry about. An Englishman’s bank account is his castle and all that. And what’s more, it’s a place that likes to believe itself above the vulgarity of books and pennies.
It’s an experience, a brotherhood, a guild. If you need to ask the cost of the costume, man, then you can’t afford it.
Of course, behind the scenes, the terrain has been changing for a while. For most of the past decade, the club has been embroiled in a civil war between its traditionalists and speculators. The pandemic has cost MCC around £30m in lost revenue.
The controversial redevelopment of the Compton and Edrich Stands cost £52million. Two years ago the club voted – against strong internal opposition – plans to allow the super-rich to buy express membership, skipping the infamous era waiting list. Home Secretary Priti Patel was one of the first to sign up, paying £45,000.
And if you visit Lord’s today, what strikes you most is the smell of money, the way it swirls through the hallways and lobbies like limited-edition aftershave, the feel of being sold a premium experience. City boys in aviator shirts and sunglasses. City girls in designer dresses and uncomfortable shoes. Just over a decade ago, as a scruffy, poor student, I could sit at the Compton Lower for £35. But Lord’s doesn’t want people like us anymore.
Maybe that sounds like a charming, parochial thing to get bored of.
But somehow the whole sport is being rebuilt along the same lines. At tea, ICC chairman Greg Barclay was interviewed on Test Match Special and mentioned income or money 10 times in the first six or seven minutes.
Barclay said bluntly that with the Twenty20 franchise leagues and ICC tournaments on the rise, the bilateral cricket test will inevitably be cut in the future. “There will be unfortunate consequences – from a revenue generation perspective – for some of these countries not getting the amount of cricket they hope to get,” he said.
Very often, the debate over the future of test cricket is reduced to nonsensical abstractions such as attention spans and excessive rates. Likewise, administrators happily gossip about diversity and representation, create task forces and task forces, never approaching the elephant in the room.
There is not a problem in world cricket that can be solved without addressing its toxic relationship with money. But it’s embarrassing, and besides, Lord’s isn’t really the place to discuss such things.
So instead, you go get another drink, tap your card on the reader, wait for the beep.