After a winterus horribilis Down Under, cricket is about to come coughing and blinking into the still, grey gloom of an early English spring (or Welsh if you’re watching Glamorgan).
Not many are. Watching Glamorgan, that is. Or, in fact, watching any of the other 17 first-class counties. Some get fewer punters paying at their gates during an entire season than many football clubs attract for a single game.
It was for that reason that cricket has been revamped and re-packaged for 2014. With no Ashes series this summer and the cosmic obesity of a football World Cup blocking out the sun for five weeks, the stakes are as high as a Kevin Pietersen self-opinion.
But there are still plenty of good reasons to watch cricket this summer, including a chance to glimpse the exiled prince of English batting.
Lazy days watching sleeve-tattooed combatants with short fuses, unsuitable girlfriends and well-honed Twitter reflexes – cricket could finally be the new football. It’s certainly cheaper to watch, so what’s not to like?
England can only get better
The rapid decline of the England team last winter makes Manchester United look like a model of smooth succession planning.
His royal beefiness Sir Ian Botham had predicted a 5-0 rout in the Test series against Australia and he was right. In the way that he might have tipped the Battle of Hastings to be one in the eye for William the Conqueror.
England lost everything – matches, players to mid-tour retirement or stress, their head coach and global respect.
This matters. Not just to retired colonels in Surrey, but to everyone in the whole cricket industry, since test cricket subsidises the other entirely loss-making areas of the sport.
So, support for England pays for every bat, ball, pad and glove the county game provides for kids after it has helped meet most of the other bills.
The suits will hope fans are still enthused about Test matches against Sri Lanka and India this summer, tickets for which range from £10 for U16s to £55-£80 for adults.
You can take your partner
Actually going to a county match used to be something only for nerds or the elderly.
Stands were populated by specs-wearing 13-year-olds filling in large scorebooks between bites of jam sandwiches, or else 73-year-olds dozing in the sun.
Both of these species still exist, but around 10 years ago the cricketing authorities realised they needed to bridge the 60 year gulf in between. So, they invented T20. Twenty20 – to give it its full name – is short-form cricket of just 20 overs a side. It encourages spectacular, big-hitting action but its main attraction is that it guarantees a result within two or three hours, rather than four days in the longer form county championship.
Some of the gimmicks can start to look a little bit desperate – pitchside jacuzzis, booze and cheerleaders is not a mix to suit all tastes – but there is no doubting the vibrancy of the atmosphere at T20 matches.
It’s a lively night out – something the cricket authorities are looking to build on in 2014 with 70% of the NatWest T20 Blast matches to be played on Friday evenings.
Tickets to watch Kent play in that tournament cost from £5 for juniors to £20-£30 for adults.
Yorkshire offer a deal to see all seven of their home matches for just £70.
Or you can take your granddad
If T20 isn’t your thing, then old schoolers can still take in the four-day LV= County Championship.
It’s an altogether more sedate experience than the wham-bam T20 format. The pace is slower and the PA announcer will sound a good deal calmer. There will also be plenty of room for you to put your tea flask and tartan rug on the empty seats around you.
Crowds have been dwindling for years for what is a day-time, week-day ritual. But then some bright spark recently thought, ‘hey . . . maybe everyone’s at work!”
For this season, most matches have now been moved to start on a Sunday. Brilliant detective work… Send that man to Crimewatch.
The third format on offer in this streamlined new season is the 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup – a sort of halfway house between ‘Blast’ and snooze.
A junior can watch Derbyshire in the county championship for £4. Adults pay £13.
You can bet the farm
Cricket and betting have had a long and not entirely glorious association.
The good news is that if you fancy a flutter then cricket, with its mountains of stats built into the framework of the game, offers the opportunity to gamble on almost anything. (Remember, if you're having a flutter, then always gamble within your means. For the facts, visit gambleaware - responsibility ed)
The down side has been the periodic match-fixing and spot-fixing (where small details are played out to order) that have damaged the sport’s reputation and credibility.
There are more betting sites devoted to cricket than you can shake a bat at, but beware those that suggest the number of shakes has been worked out beforehand.
We need to squawk about Kevin
Plenty have had their say on Kevin Pietersen since he was dumped by England, including the publicity-shy pair of Piers Morgan and David Cameron.
But the 2014 season actually offers a rarity – the chance to see Pietersen play cricket for Surrey.
That’s the theory, anyway. Although, how it will actually work out with the so-called dumb-slog millionaire also having signed to play in both the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the Delhi Daredevils and the Caribbean Premier League, remains to be seen.
"I can't wait to play in front of the magnificent Caribbean fans who create a truly unique and thrilling atmosphere," chirped Pietersen, after saying much the same about Indian fans as well as those in Surrey.
But in between all the flights and trips to the bank, any chance to watch Pietersen bat – and see his extraordinary blend of effortless style and explosive power – is still worth taking.
Whilst England’s men wilted in Australia over the winter, the England women’s team enjoyed their days in the sun by successfully retaining the Ashes.
It has guaranteed them a pay rise from the authorities, which now recognise that the women’s game has barely tapped potential with over 60,000 players in the UK.
England’s women – who play mostly one day cricket - will host India and South Africa this summer.