x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Yorkshire is no longer English cricket's backbone

Passion for the game remains high at Headingley in Leeds, but gone are the days when the county represented the nation's nursery for the sport.

Mahela Jayawardene's majestic century against England on Friday was the best cricket Yorkshire will see this year.
Mahela Jayawardene's majestic century against England on Friday was the best cricket Yorkshire will see this year.

It is 10 years now since a parochial kerfuffle was made about the installation of the new Hutton Gates at Headingley.

The ironwork was commissioned to celebrate the career of one of Yorkshire's and England's finest batsmen, but was also meant to make a nod to modernity.

They depict Sir Leonard Hutton on one side, as well as a segment from the crowd from the 2001 Test match between England and Pakistan shown on the other.

The presence of female Pakistani supporters wearing hijabs jarred with some. Former Yorkshire players queried their relevance on the grounds that Hutton will rarely, if ever, have played in front of Asian spectators. Some called it "tokenism".

Much has changed in the past decade, let alone in the half a century since Hutton played. For a start, England did not mind venturing up north to play matches back then. They seldom do now.

Yesterday was one of the rare glimpses Yorkshire crowds will get of top-level cricket this summer. Only four of the 47 days of international cricket scheduled for the English summer are due to be spent in the north of the country.

Like many county cricket clubs, Yorkshire have been feeling the pinch lately, and opted against joining the costly bidding process for the right to stage a Test match. None of the seven UK Test this summer matches will be staged in the north.

A capacity crowd of 16,000 at the new-look Headingley suggests that cricket still has a strong following in an area long regarded as the heartland of the English game. Or the backbone, as Hutton himself described it.

"In an England cricket XI, the flesh may be of the south, but the bone is of the north, and the backbone is Yorkshire," he said.

Local pride has always run deep, but the idea that a strong Yorkshire means a strong England does not ring quite as true anymore. Even in matters of selection the drift has been so extreme that they often go as far south as Africa. Four of yesterday's England line-up - Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Craig Kieswetter and Jade Dernbach - were born in South Africa.

If such a thing as tokenism survives today, it is to protect the endangered Yorkshireman. Against Sri Lanka, Tim Bresnan, the Pontefract-born all-rounder, was the one link to the good old days.

There are as many players from Ireland in this England team as Yorkshire, and England were indebted again to the Dubliner, Eoin Morgan, for getting anywhere near Sri Lanka's total. English cricket's attempts to expand beyond its traditional centres contrasts starkly with Sri Lanka. Their players come from all over the island, yet any player worth his salt ends up gravitating to one of three grounds in the biggest city, Colombo.

Their faith in the tried and tested was typified by the fact that their most-experienced player, Mahela Jaywardene, was the match-winner. His majestic century was the best cricket Yorkshire will see this year.