Grim up north: Funding crisis jeopardises future of international cricket at Headingley

Headingley has a special place in the folklore of Test cricket. From Bradman’s 334 to Botham’s Ashes, Yorkshire’s home ground has provided the stage for of the game’s most iconic moments. However, as the English summer approaches, the club is confronting the very real prospect of a future without the financial lifeline of international cricket.

As George Dobell recently reported for ESPN Cricinfo, Yorkshire have just weeks remaining to raise the £17m required to begin redevelopment work on the ground’s 80-year-old North Stand. If the money is not raised, Dobell reports, then Yorkshire will lose the four World Cup matches it is scheduled to host in 2019 and would likely be overlooked as a location for a T20 franchise in the revamped domestic competition that is slated to start in 2020.

The current funding impasse has been caused by various factors that have combined to bring the development proposals to the brink of collapse. A planning dispute initially delayed proceedings and served only to muddy the waters, but the most damaging blow came last week when Leeds City Council withdrew the £4m grant that had been allocated to the project as recently as January.

The current situation leaves Yorkshire — a club that is already in £25m of debt — a long way short of their funding target at the most inopportune moment. The ECB is soon due to allocate international matches for the period 2020–2023 and Yorkshire will be in serious danger of missing out on Test matches and ODIs if it cannot guarantee the redevelopment of the North Stand. The worst-case scenario is very much in play.

Speaking as a Leeds resident, the council’s apparent reluctance to support Yorkshire in their efforts to stage international cricket is deeply frustrating. In straightened times it is perfectly understandable that sporting initiatives will suffer funding cuts, but it is the council’s inconsistency with regard to sport and leisure initiatives that is most galling.

In 2016 the council spent £29m on a cycle superhighway between Leeds and Bradford, a ‘legacy’ initiative that was a part of the city’s bid to host of the prologue of the 2014 Tour de France. The project could have been a valuable asset for the city, but it is quickly becoming a white elephant and has drawn widespread criticism for its poor design and patchy construction quality.

Equally frustrating in the context of the council’s abandonment of cricket has been its enthusiastic support of relatively low-participation sports such as triathlon. The council’s promotion of Leeds’ lottery-funded bid to host a leg of the World Triathlon championship in 2016 and 2017 was understandable as a means of engaging the city with elite sport, but seems strange when considered alongside the relative neglect of Headingley, the only venue in the region that hosts regular international sport.

Leeds may be a hub for elite triathlon, but in terms of public participation levels there is no contest between cricket and triathlon. According to recent statistics, just 13,400 people take part in Triathlon at least once a month, compared with 32,000 adults playing cricket on a weekly basis in Yorkshire alone. In light of recent developments, the council’s priorities in the sports sector look increasingly misaligned.

If, as looks increasingly likely, Yorkshire cannot raise the required funds and complete the project, then the club is likely to suffer major financial and reputational damage in the coming seasons. This situation could see Leeds — the UK’s fastest-growing city — lose its only international sporting venue and be relegated to a secondary concern with regard to the immediate future of English cricket.

Most depressingly of all, in a region where cricket is at the heart of a rich cultural identity that transcends social and ethnic lines, one of English cricket’s grand old stadiums may soon be left with only the faded memories of glorious summers long since passed.

Image: Author, 2016

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