In sight of its century, village cricket team folds amid turmoil

The Fifth Test starts at The Oval today but for one village cricket team the game is over. A victim of political correctness or fair play? John Woodcock reports.

Their cultural differences suggested they would never make team-mates, and so it proved.

At one end of the wicket was Robert Pearcy, a no-nonsense retired Yorkshire farmer with no instinct for political correctness. At the other, Iranian-born Haleh Afshar, a feminist and professor of Middle Eastern politics at York University.

They were the driving forces of rival sides which reflected the changing nature of a former rural community now dominated by a university campus. Caught in the middle was the village cricket club. A former club, as from a few days ago.

With its centenary approaching, it has been forced to fold as a consequence of the strife which has swirled around it in recent years. The two factions blame each other for what has happened but the result is that Heslington Cricket Club has resigned from the York and District Senior Cricket League.

It still had six third division fixtures to play this season but, as players and supporters drifted away, disillusioned, it was struggling to raise a full team and facing fines it couldn't afford to pay.

For Mr Pearcy, who was born in the village, it represents a personal loss. He is 74 and was president of the club with which he had been associated for about 60 years.

In the end, he says, the club's stalwarts could not compete against opponents who were articulate, well-organised and knew how to play politics in the wider field. He alleges the beginning of the end was when a group led by Professor Afshar, and assisted by student votes, took control of the sports field management committee and exploited the ground's charitable status.

The professor denies being anti-cricket and replies that the club's old guard failed to respond to Heslington's social changes resulting from the impact of the expanding university. Her main concern, she insists, was to protect the children's play area on the 3.5-acre field when the cricketers and others were pressing to resite it – for safety reasons, they say.

The resulting turmoil led not only to a ban on Sunday matches and the closure of the club's bar, and with it a valuable source of income. For one couple the dispute contributed to the collapse of their marriage.

The Yorkshire Post has seen letters written by the husband, a York graduate with a degree in political science, who at first was sympathetic to the challenge to the club. Later he changed sides and says he tried to persuade his wife to "disengage" from the saga and end her support for the "feminist extremists, bullies and trouble-makers".

He refers to an "aura of evil" and, in a plea to a former vice-chancellor of the university to intervene, quoted philosopher Imman-uel Kant on the principles governing human relations.

In the case of his wife it was all to no avail, he wrote. "Along with other personal reasons we have decided in an amicable, friendly and supportive way to sell our house and divorce after 40 years of marriage".

There was other trouble. In 1997 the pitch was vandalised. The culprits were never caught but there is no suggestion it had anything to do with anyone at the university.

Such resentment seems far removed from tea in the pavilion and Heslington's Saturday afternoon league fixtures against the likes of Bubwith, Clifton Alliance, Woodhouse Grange and Pickering's Second X1.

But Mr Pearcy warns that what happened to his club could befall others, especially as Chancellor Gordon Brown is encouraging sports clubs to claim rate relief by becoming charities. Such status, claims Mr Pearcy, can be costly in other ways and helped to doom Heslington CC.

"When the professor and her friends took over the management committee, they exploited the club's charitable status. Everything had been run amicably and sensibly for more than 30 years but then it became a bureaucratic nightmare because there are clearly defined rules governing such status. They invited the Charity Commissioners to meetings. The upshot was we had to give up our bar and paid-for drinks and apply the regulations to the letter. It had a knock-on effect. Those coaching our young players began losing heart because of all the pettiness. Much of our support drifted away to the point where we didn't have enough players.

"We took legal advice and spent a lot of money fighting our corner but the university people knew how to play the system. Eventually, cricket had no chance – 92 years of history counted for nothing."

Prof Afshar, who was among the university's first students before joining its academic elite, blames a "generational" gulf in part for the club's rifts.

"My husband played cricket and I have nothing personal against the game," she said yesterday. "And it certainly wasn't a one-woman show. A lot of mothers, myself included, were concerned that the cricketers wanted the sports field for themselves. Everyone in the village had a say but for some it was difficult to accept that women were playing a leading role. It became a male-female issue and also reflected cultural changes. The nature of the village has changed through the university's growth. People have moved in and they make demands, among them that children as well as cricketers have rights."

john.woodcock@ypn.co.uk