This weekend Lord’s will host cricket’s National Village Final, but the sound of leather on willow is fast disappearing from the English countryside. Richard Edwards reports.
On Sunday, two villages from opposite ends of the country will meet at Lords in the final of one of cricket’s most enduring end-of-season celebrations. Away from the rarefied surroundings of St John’s Wood, however, there is precious little reason for English club cricket to throw a party.
Falling participation numbers, the closing down of some of the country’s longest-running cricket leagues and a slimming down of clubs that used to represent the very heart of their communities has left the club game in this country facing an almost unprecedented crisis.
More and more cricketers are deciding that their weekend afternoons could be better spent elsewhere, with many tiring of the distances they have to travel as a result of a Premier League structure, introduced in 1997 and designed to bridge the gap between the club game and professional cricket.
As it is, that gap is now wider than ever and, as a result, the humble cricket club, for so long the heart of the English town and village they represent is not only changing, but in some cases disappearing all together.
“There are clubs that are folding – that’s undeniably true,” says Simon Prodger, the managing director of the National Cricket Conference. “There are also a lot of clubs that are shrinking.”
By shrinking, he means that clubs that once routinely put out four sides for a Saturday league programme and two sides for the Sunday friendly matches that traditionally formed the bedrock of village cricket, are now running a just a couple of sides on one day. As a result, the Sunday friendly in grave danger of becoming a thing of the past.
Mark Wilkie, captain of Sessay Cricket Club in Thirsk, who will take on Kent’s Sibton Park in this week’s final says they are one of the lucky sides.
“We’ve haven’t really had problems with recruiting and keeping players. Those in the first team have been together for 15 or 20 years and have come through the ranks. But it’s not the same for a lot of other clubs.
“In this day and age there seem to be more distractions for people so it’s probably not as strong as it once was. For the quarter finals of the village knockout we went to Carew in Wales, which was a seven-hour journey just to get there. We played on the Saturday and then got on the bus and drove down, we got back at about 3am on the Sunday. We get a fair bit of earache off our wives and girlfriends, but the fact that we’ve got to the final hopefully makes all the weekends we didn’t see them worthwhile.”
At Sibton Park though things are not so rosy and their captain, Steven Rowe, says that conversations in the pavilion that nestles alongside one of the county’s most stunning grounds routinely turn to the battle to get young cricketers to commit to the sport.
“It’s something that comes up time and again, teams are struggling to get youngsters to come and play every Saturday,” he says. “We would once have a busy schedule of matches on a Sunday but if it wasn’t for the National Village matches I’m not sure we would be playing any at all. A lot of the younger guys are just interested in Twenty20 and don’t want to give up a day playing the longer form of the game.”
His comments chime with the most recent findings on participation by the ECB, the governing body of English cricket. Figures released in November 2014 found that the number of players aged between 14 and 65 had dropped from 908,000 in 2013 to 844,000 the following year.
More worryingly was the fall in the number of players willing to play every weekend through the season, with just 247,000 termed as ‘core’ players who played at least 12 weeks of a 26 week summer league campaign.
“Our main concern and our work alongside the ECB really involves finding cricket at recreational level that is meaningful to the current generation and is going to engage more players more consistently and stop this drainage of player participation,” says Prodger. “This isn’t simply a reflection of cricket in the modern era, it’s a reflection of society. You can’t judge things against what used to happen 20 years ago, we’ve got to adjust our game to the life and times of what’s prevalent now.”
Like Sessay York’s Woodhouse Grange is one of the clubs bucking the trend. The record four time winners of the National Village Cup, were unable to defend their title this year after being promoted to the Yorkshire Premier League, but are thriving as a result of their success in a competition that was first held back in 1972.
“You hear about clubs disbanding junior sections but I would say our club is in as good a position as it has ever been in,” says club chairman, John Stroughair. “We run four adult teams on a Saturday but I don’t think we’re typical. “Do I fear for the future? I suppose I do because there are some teams that are struggling to keep a second team going let alone a youth section. On the one hand it looks like the Yorkshire League is thriving but that’s not the case elsewhere.”
The success of the likes of Joe Root, the England star who began his career at nearby Sheffield Collegiate, and Jonny Bairstow ensures that cricket remains hugely popular in the county. The team’s back-to-back triumphs in Division One of the County Championship should ensure that continues. Away from Yorkshire that has given English cricket the likes of Geoffrey Boycott, Sir Len Hutton and 2005 Ashes winning captain, Michael Vaughan, though, as the amount of cricket played on the village green continues to fall, some clubs are inevitably feeling the pinch.
“More and more clubs are struggling to fulfil their Sunday fixture cards,” says Prodger. “A lot of these village clubs have every expensive overheads - the assets are not getting sweated and nor are they getting bar revenues on a regular basis.
“It is getting harder and harder for clubs to function financially. There are dynamics at play which threaten the fabric of club cricket.”
As an Australian who has lived in Kent for a decade, Rowe can bring an outsiders perspective to one of English cricket’s most pressing issues but he struggles to answer the question of what English cricket needs to do to lure back its lost generation of cricketers.
“It’s a difficult one for me because I’ve grown up in Australia and my dad played cricket, my brother played to a high level and for us, cricket was something you always did,” says the Sibton Park opening bowler. “There was never a question about what else you could do during the summer. I think the future is about offering players greater opportunity to play the kind of cricket they want to play.”
Sunday’s fixture at Lords offers a glorious window into English cricket’s past. Club cricket’s future looks a great deal more uncertain.
The Cricketer’s Davidstow Village Cup Final takes place this Sunday at Lord’s