YORKSHIRE believe they have made significant strides in their efforts to clean up Headingley’s image as an international ground as they battle the ongoing problem of poor attendances for Test matches at Leeds.
Around 37,500 watched the Sri Lanka Test – a slight improvement on last year’s total against New Zealand but still some way short of the club’s wish for 55,000.
Although numbers remain disappointing, with Yorkshire fighting to prove Headingley has a long-term international future, the club insist they are moving in the right direction and there was evidence against Sri Lanka of improvements in crowd behaviour and general atmosphere.
The Leeds venue has long had problems with rowdy elements in the notorious West Stand, but the segregation of that stand – now renamed the White Rose Stand – created a better environment for spectators, albeit with plenty of fine-tuning still to be done.
Yorkshire split the stand into four sections – Fanzone, Popular Enclosure, 1863 Enclosure and Community Stand, each with its own criteria relating to age, alcohol and fancy dress.
There was only one arrest during the match, when a spectator threw a piece of cheese at a Sri Lankan fielder, causing a short stoppage in play, and just eight ejections for drunken conduct.
Last year, there were two arrests following a pitch invasion and 27 ejections as Yorkshire admitted they “lost control”.
Chief executive Mark Arthur, who said Yorkshire will now review their performance as well as begin their ticketing strategy for next summer’s New Zealand Test, feels the club have created a solid platform.
“We’ve got something really good to build on,” he said. “The crowd behaviour at this Test match was vastly improved and the environment was much better than it’s been in the past.
“The two things (improving crowd numbers and Headingley’s image) go hand in hand.
“If we create the right image, more people will want to come and watch international cricket in Leeds.
“For us, it’s a three- to five-year programme. We’ve got to build on that 37,500 figure. We want to get it up to 55,000 and will continue to work hard and engage with cricket followers.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the people who came to the Sri Lanka Test will have gone away saying they’ll go back to Headingley, and that’s the habit we need to create.”
Arthur believes there are several reasons people have been reluctant to watch international matches in Leeds.
“There hasn’t been any consistency to the programme,” he said.
“We’ve had some bad weather too, while the neutral Test match a few years ago wasn’t well received by the Yorkshire public.
“I think there’s a number of things – it’s not one single factor – and the key for us is to improve the behaviour and environment for cricket watchers of all different types while not losing the unique atmosphere that Headingley has.
“We’re not getting carried away, but I think we’ve gone a long way towards achieving that.”
Arthur said he had received plenty of positive feedback and praised the club staff for their efforts.
“The team behind me have been absolutely brilliant,” he added.
“We don’t have a large staff and there were a number of people behind the scenes who went to extraordinary lengths to put on a fantastic Test match.
“We’ve still got a long way to go to where we want to get to, but the feedback I’ve had so far is what a welcome change it has been to come to Headingley.
“People have spoken positively of the way they were greeted by the stewards, and we’re really pleased with the progress we’re making as an international venue.”
Not everything, of course, went according to plan.
Arthur said he had received complaints relating to loud announcements/music played during breaks in play, while a beer snake briefly got out of hand on Saturday.
“Operationally, the one weakness I saw was when a beer snake in the popular stand went over the barrier into the 1863 stand and that should have been stopped,” said Arthur.
“We will learn lessons from that and it won’t happen again.
“I’ve also asked the other grounds to see what their experiences are in the forthcoming Test matches against India in terms of the music and announcements, because we must remember that the Test match audience is different to that in the T20 Blast.
“Not everyone wants, at every possible break in play, a PA announcement and loud music being played, and we need to make sure we listen to our customers.”
On the field, Sri Lanka won off the penultimate ball in a thrilling finish and Arthur said: “The bottom line is that once again Headingley produced a great Test match.
“Full credit to groundsman Andy Fogarty and his team for producing such a terrific pitch.”
Having arguably batted for too long in the first Test at Lord’s and then found themselves failing in a race against the clock to bowl the Sri Lankans out for a second time, England surrendered a position of strength at Headingley and ultimately, the series.