Brian Halford is hardly the sort to blow his own trumpet – but all cricket lovers and newspaper readers with the fortunes of Warwickshire CCC at heart recognise that he will always be a piece of Edgbaston history.
In the autumn of 2014, Brian, who had covered the fortunes of the Bears – as they are known to their thousands of followers – for nearly fourteen years as Birmingham Post and subsequently Birmingham Mail cricket correspondent, was called in by the then Mail editor and told his services were no longer required.
“I asked them, 'what is going to happen with the cricket?’ There was clearly no future plan or staff to cover the matches. The editor mentioned clicks and expenses…”
The fate of the Birmingham Mail’s last ever cricket writer may seem a familiar story of cutbacks by regional newspapers faced with seemingly irreversibly falling circulations and correspondingly declining advertising revenues. But there's a bit more to it than just another newsroom redundancy.
The Birmingham Mail was effectively giving up the ghost on detailed professional coverage of an institution which was part of the very fabric of the Midlands. Cricket may not have the same pulling power with readers as football – no-one can dispute that – but the Bears have been around since 1882 and a fixture in the County Championship since 1895, while Edgbaston itself is a world-famous test match arena where the greats of the summer game, from Bradman to Larwood and Sobers to Botham, once performed heroics on the lush green turf.
“I had 500 messages of support from people in the game, many of them supporters who I had never heard of who followed what I did. I just felt very sorry, I was quite proud of the cricket coverage, I knew that people read the Mail to find out what was happening at Edgbaston.
“I do not feel sad for myself because I am very lucky to have covered county cricket and met some amazing people. But I do feel sad for the cricket lovers of Birmingham who want to know what is happening at Warwickshire and have to fight harder and harder to get information. Newspapers have turned their back on potential readers, it's a self-inflicted wound.”
Newspapers have turned their back on potential readers, it's a self-inflicted wound.
Today, Brian, who has written eight books on football and cricket, is a freelance covering the Bears for the club website while also providing reports for governing body the ECB, one of eighteen cricket writers hired to cover the counties. But, like so much of the regional press, from business to features desks, specialisms such as education or crime, the never-ending culling of quality writers who know their subject has taken its toll on the end product.
“The Birmingham Mail just cuts and pastes the material. They have got no staff at the games so the only way they are going to get county cricket in the paper is to take it off the wire.”
Like Brian, George Dobell found himself cast aside during a previous round of cutbacks in Birmingham, losing the cherished role of the Warwickshire man on the Post, then a daily broadsheet.
“I was made redundant in 2008, I was hugely disappointed. It was a sad way to end. When I worked for the Post and Mail, which I loved, that area was very well served by cricket writers. There was a sense of competition, it was very good for people to be up against each other.”
Today, George is senior correspondent for ESPN Cricinfo, a hugely popular international website, covering the fortunes of the England team worldwide when he is not jetting to the likes of the Indian Premier League. But he freely admits he would never have found himself on a plane to India had he not cut his teeth reporting on the Bears at Edgbaston.
“When you went to Edgbaston or New Road, Worcester, you knew that people had read what you had written and they would say you had had a good day, or they would give you a kick up the backside. Working for the Birmingham Post was life-changing for me. I would not have had the success that I have had if I had not started there, I was terribly lucky to work for them.”
Today, the press boxes at the likes of Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, or even Lord's and the Oval, where all-time great cricket writers such as John Arlott, Neville Cardus or Alan Gibson penned their immortal prose, are largely deserted for days at a time during the county season.
Regional papers – with at least one honourable exception – have consigned the dedicated county cricket correspondent to the same fate as farm editors, labour correspondents or even the angling man.
Ex Daily Telegraph county cricket freelance Paul Bolton – another former Warwickshire CCC man for the Birmingham Mail – says: “When I started at the Telegraph, they covered every county match, even university matches. That started to change with the Barclay brothers and in 2009, they cut most of the freelances and decided they were not going to every game.
“There is a view that no-one is interested in county cricket but it’s a great myth. It can be expensive to cover – you are there for four or five days – but the county game has gone the way of local courts coverage.
The whole dynamic of sports journalism has changed dramatically and it has changed for the worse.
How it used to be
“They will say that county cricket does not generate any clicks but if you do not cover it, it will not get any clicks. When I started in 1987, if Yorkshire were the visitors, there would be correspondents from the Yorkshire Post, the Yorkshire Evening Post, the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, the Hull Daily Mail, BBC Radio Leeds, freelances. You learnt, you listened, you got to know people, there was a real social side to it,” says Paul, who today works as communications manager for Worcester Warriors RFC.
“You were always chatting, you were never stuck for talking to players, I don’t think that that happens now, you have to go through a media officer. The vast majority of county cricket is now played out with only one or two journalists in attendance at most.
“But there are still people who are interested in county cricket, they want stories. If no-one is interested in county cricket, why does Cricinfo flourish?”
Paul’s impassioned defence of the county game – and the continuing interest in it despite a behind closed doors summer ravaged by Covid-19 – is reflected in the thoughts and opinions of Chris Waters, cricket writer at the Yorkshire Post for sixteen years, and arguably the last man standing in the footsteps of all those dedicated pros who once pounded the county beat for summer after summer.
“I am quite fortunate at the Yorkshire Post because the editor is interested in writing, he wants quality writing. My role has not changed, I cover Yorkshire home and away. I have separate problems to a lot of people – I have a huge amount of space to fill, which is great.
“Cricket is a religion up here. They just let me get on with it. I can set my own agenda. In the winter, I cover international cricket.”
But even the last man upholding the great traditions of county cricket coverage has his misgivings about many aspects of today's sports coverage. “The whole dynamic of sports journalism has changed dramatically and it has changed for the worse.
Sports clubs, particularly football, are increasingly institutions who look to keep everything in-house.
The curse of in-house PR
“Sports clubs, particularly football, are increasingly institutions who look to keep everything in-house. Media Relations Officers are called Media Prevention Officers by a lot of people – they see their jobs as keeping journalists at bay. They can control information through their own websites.
“You could not do that before the internet. Clubs once needed newspapers more than they do now.”
But if, unlike county cricket, football clubs are happy to keep newspapers at bay to deliver their own in-house versions of the truth, it's pretty obvious from the wall to wall coverage of the 'beautiful game' both in print and online that newspapers need their football fix more than ever, clocking up the clicks with transfer rumours or speculation over the next candidate for the chop in the managerial dugout.
But there's a journalistic price to pay for all those column inches, says Brian Halford, who spent years covering Birmingham City and Walsall in the winter months for the Birmingham Mail.
“In my last year at the Mail, we were having to live blog matches. Over 90 minutes of a football match, I probably watched 10 minutes' action.
“You have to keep asking colleagues 'what happened?” There is less opportunity to write anything well, you are just stringing words together.
“I thought that if this is the future, let somebody else have it. You cannot write a 700 word report, do a live blog and tweet at the same time, your head would explode. We will get to a generation which has not known detailed analysis.
“The more technology and the more fast-paced it gets, the less the quality.”
The downsides of football reporting for today’s digital generation notwithstanding, it's clear that the summer game faces an almighty all year round battle to keep its tens of thousands of followers abreast of the action and the comings and goings, particularly at county level.
Sadly, it looks increasingly like a losing fight, although up in Yorkshire, Chris Waters seems to be digging in Boycott-style for a lengthy innings. But as George Dobell says: “The decline in county cricket coverage is a reflection of the decline in investment in journalism in regional papers.
“But I do not think that the decline in local newspapers was inevitable. They didn’t invest in journalism – that is the key reason they have declined. The real test is, are their policies working? I would argue they are bloody well not.”
A gifted wordsmith, Brian Halford puts forward a non-cricketing analogy to describe the current state of play. “If you are running a restaurant and you have a bad couple of weeks, and you get rid of the chefs and the portions get smaller, then the customers do not return.
“People bought the Birmingham Mail to look for the cricket. Warwickshire CCC are part of the community and newspapers should still be embedded in their communities.”
The decline in county cricket coverage is a reflection of the decline in investment in journalism in regional papers.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.