If you manage a heavy metal band, best to book gigs in Germany and Wolverhampton. If you have professional sport to sell, Liverpool is where customers are guaranteed. The city is famous for football but pretty much everything is devoured here. Even handball and cage-fighting thrive.
When the BBC wanted to move Sports Personality of the Year out of London, the ECHO Arena was the logical choice and Premier League darts has enjoyed huge ticket sales at the King’s Dock. Tennis, athletics, professional boxing and championship golf visit intermittently – but draw big and boisterous crowds.
Cricket is the latest sport hoping to cash in. Not in financial terms, particularly, but in terms of using the Scouse sports-mania to inspire on-field success. Cricket has a long, distinguished and overlooked history in Liverpool and Lancashire County Cricket Club have been coming over from Manchester to play fixtures here since early Victorian times – but Lancs have always been visitors to the city rather than dependent on it.
Until now. Old Trafford, the county’s regular ground, is undergoing redevelopment so the county are making Liverpool their ‘home’ for the 2011 season, which starts early next month. Five of the eight championship games Lancs are hosting will be played in Aigburth at Liverpool Cricket Club – an entity so old that the Napoleonic Wars had eight years still to run and Nelson had a full compliment of body parts, when Liverpool CC was formed.
Aigburth is a cracking place to watch cricket, indeed a county match there is simply a cracking day out – whether or not you’re a fan of the game. Last September it was idyllic; sunshine, lager, champagne, burger vans, barbecues and plenty raucous Scouse banter framed one of the best County matches of the season as Lancashire beat Hampshire off the penultimate ball of an epic four day contest.
This year, Sussex, Somerset, Worcestershire and Durham are coming to town and in May there’s ‘the Big One’. Yorkshire will be in L19 for a ‘War of the Roses’ clash. Lancashire, under the guidance of former England coach Peter Moores, are one of the favourites to be this year’s champions and, having come close to taking the title in recent years, believe playing in Liverpool might push them across the line.
Scousers helping a bunch of Mancs become winners? “They’ll definitely be claiming that if we take the title,” laughs star batsman Steven Croft. “I think Lancs could end up owing a lot to Liverpool. Liverpool CC have already sacrificed a lot in agreeing to put us up, in terms of rearranging their own fixtures. And the support we’ve always got from crowds at Aigburth is superb. We can repay them by winning a trophy.”
The ground at Aigburth is small compared to Old Trafford, but perfectly formed according to many who have played there. The leading cricketer of all time, Don Bradman, said it was his favourite English ground. WG Grace, that leviathan of 19th century British sport, praised its charms. The great Pakistani, Wasim Akram, first came when he was a coltish young fast bowler and fell in love with the place.
“We usually play well here,” says Croft. “At Old Trafford we can have 1000 supporters but it’s such a big ground that when they’re spread around it there’s not much of an atmosphere. At Aigburth, when there’s 1000, 1500 people watching and the sun is shining it gets really noisy and we love it. The Scouse humour means some of the comments you get from the crowd are unprintable mind you…
“But playing in an atmosphere like you get in Liverpool should inspire us. We’ve got a lot of players in our dressing room who enjoy playing the ‘big’ atmospheres and more enthusiastic supports, it makes them step up their performances. We play 16 games in a season and there are always going to be draws but since last year we’ve really tried to force more results and get the wins you need to be champions and the crowd here will be egging us on to do that.”
Liverpool can help Lancashire in another way. There’s a reason The Smiths sounded so dejected while The Beatles’ music was often laced with joy: serotonin. More sunshine on Merseyside than Manchester. Less rain. Many a Lancs title challenge in previous seasons has been stymied by the weather, with rain and bad light at Old Trafford eroding the chances of matches ending in results.
“The weather could help, definitely. I’m from Blackpool and live by the coast. Sometimes the game’s called off at Old Trafford, but you drive back home and the weather’s brilliant,” says Croft. “Playing at Aigburth will buy us a few extra days of play in the season and in the past two or three years we’ve finished second in the league but had games where there were parts of them when we could have been playing cricket, but it was raining in Manchester.”
Lancashire’s first game at Aigburth is against Sussex, starting on April 8. Liverpool City Council are determined that hosting will be a success and are putting on events to drum up interest while Lancs are in town, like ‘Kwik Cricket’ (a version of the sport tailored to children) in Liverpool One. Previous matches at Aigburth have been once-a-year treats and with the novelty value diminished, the question is whether Lancs can get big crowds for all five of their games at the venue. “It’s up to us to play an exciting brand of cricket to pull the punters in,” says Croft. “We can also make a big impact on kids here if we play well.
“My own first experience of watching county crikcket was at another out-ground, when Lancashire visited Blackpool. I was a kid and I wouldn’t have gone all the way to Manchester to watch cricket at the time. In fact it meant I saw a county gave about six or seven years earlier than otherwise and I guess it’s one of the reasons I got into cricket and became a professional cricketer.”
And as if it needed any boosting, there’ll be a further filip for Liverpool’s nightlife as the players go out on the town. That said, if you’re in Concert Square and the dudes next to you are wearing pads, gloves and whites, it’s probably a stag do. “We usually stop over when we play in Liverpool and go out in the city and eat. Everyone loves it. It’s come together as a city, and in fact last year I think we went out somewhere to eat every night.
“The difficult thing is stopping the lads straying off towards the nightlife here, though we try and be professional as we can,” says Croft. “Though I believe that when visiting teams come, they like to go out for a quick look…”
Thanks to Lancashire Cricket Club and Liverpool Cricket Club
Image by Western4uk, Flickr