Grassroots cricket in Yorkshire may not be struggling as much as England are in Australia, but those at the local level believe change is needed to give it a viable future. Chris Burn reports.
While Joe Root’s England side will be hoping to avoid another chastening defeat as they start the fourth Ashes Test against Australia in front of 90,000 spectators in Melbourne on Boxing Day, those involved in the amateur game in Yorkshire have perhaps even more pressing concerns ahead of the 2018 season.
With stories of sides reluctantly reducing their number of teams, clubs merging and leagues folding becoming increasingly common, the challenge of how to keep grassroots cricket sustainable in the county is one keeping many occupied.
It is very far from being all doom and gloom, with Yorkshire Cricket Board statistics showing more than 100,000 adults played the sport in 2016 and 1,767 junior teams were in operation. Recent research by an online sports retailer suggested that Yorkshire customers buy the most cricket equipment in the country, with both Leeds and Sheffield in the top ten for the most orders per city.
But while many clubs run popular youth teams, it is an increasing challenge for some to field adult sides on a weekly basis - a situation that is leading some to consider whether the way forward is to pursue a similar strategy to that seen at the top of the international and county game; an increasing focus on shorter 20-over matches which last for only a few hours rather than taking up a full day.
Jim Dixon, secretary of Rotherham Town CC, says despite a thriving junior section, the club recently reduced its number of adult sides from three to two because of the struggle to field enough players. “Kids want to play and parents want their kids to get involved. But when kids get to 17 or 18, they go off to university and the clubs lose them.
“It is a struggle to get people to play and quite often you need to move juniors up to fill the gaps in the second team. I know other clubs have very similar problems. The third team was more for the social side of cricket with the old stagers playing in it and a good means of getting juniors to start playing senior cricket. But we had to lose that.”
He says one of the biggest issues is finding people able to commit a full day to playing a match and believes shorter games are the future at local level. “You are expecting people who have been working all week to come out on Saturday and you are talking about an eight-hour time commitment. If you play football, you are finished in a couple of hours. But I have had days when I have had scores rung through to me at 9pm because a cricket match hasn’t finished until 8pm. It is a lot to expect of people.”
Dixon believes introducing more Twenty20-style matches may not only attract more players but also produce more exciting cricket. But he accepts there is likely to be some resistance to the idea. “If you try to implement change with anything there is always resistance and when promotion and relegation was introduced in the Yorkshire leagues there were meetings for a couple of years before it happened. There are always the dissenters. That took a lot of pursuing but it has changed and made the competition better, even though we got relegated so it didn’t help us! Before there was no promotion and relegation to the Yorkshire League, so there was no real excitement towards the end of the season unless you were close to winning it.”
Dixon says in addition to finding enough players, balancing the books is an increasing problem for many clubs with generally few spectators attending games and growing difficulties in attracting sponsorship from companies in the financial climate of the past few years.
Another increasing trend in the game is for clubs to merge in the way Barnsley Cricket Club did with Woolley Miners’ Welfare earlier this year, becoming known as Barnsley Woolley Miners.
Cricket development manager Phillip Chapman says for Barnsley, which previously put out four teams, the move was partly for financial reasons while Woolley’s dwindling number of players had seen it have to disband one of its two sides halfway through the 2016 season. The merged club now has five sides.
Chapman says he believes such mergers will become more commonplace and follow the Australian model for local cricket where there are fewer clubs but they have more teams.
He agrees that there is an issue with keeping players in the game because of the time commitment it requires at a weekend, but believes the answer is earlier start times rather than shorter matches. “On Saturdays, you really need to be finished for 6pm or 7pm so people can still go out and enjoy themselves. But some matches can be done at 8.30pm.
“I don’t think Twenty20 is the fix if you are trying to breed the next Joe Root, the next Test cricketers. The art of batting for long periods is already going - at times you have to bat for your life, that is the art of cricket.”
Terry Bentham, chairman of the South Yorkshire Cricket League, says the competition is in a relatively healthy state and will expand next year with four new sides coming in.
In 2015, the league took in around 20 clubs from the South Yorkshire Cricket Alliance as a result of smaller clubs folding with players drifting away from the game and facilities deteriorating through cuts to councils’ parks and recreation budgets. Bentham says: “The facilities used by clubs in the Alliance weren’t as good as what we would normally expect as a league. But we realised that we had a duty to the game as a whole in South Yorkshire, not just our league.”
The league has also taken in three teams who used to play in the Huddersfield Central League following the collapse of that competition in 2016. There are now eight divisions, seven of which feature 12 sides and one made up of 11 teams.
Bentham says it is difficult to explain why their league has thrived while others have struggled but adds they do try to keep subscription costs low, help with fundraising and emphasise encouraging young people to play.
Bentham says the league is addressing changing social patterns by allowing teams to agree to play shorter games of as little as 30 overs-a-side if both captains agree. “When I played, I used to leave home at 11am and get back at 10pm on the day of a game. What is happening now is young players want to be round the town at 7pm at night. We have got flexibility on the number of overs they play and the time they start. If two clubs want to start early and get finished by 5pm, they can do. We have got to move with the times, things have altered.
“Our registration scheme for players means that if you are two players short and you can drag a couple of people out of the pub to make up the numbers, you can register them on the day.”
Bentham also sees an increasing role for Twenty20-style games. “I think there will be more Twenty20 in future. With our own Twenty20 competition, there were 500 people there watching on the finals day - people like that instant result. That is the way the game is going. Look at India - there aren’t many watching the Test matches but when they have a one-day game, there will be 50,000 there. It is the same with Headingley with the larger crowds for the Twenty20 night matches.”
Bentham says it is difficult balancing act between protecting the traditional values favoured by many of the most committed club cricketers while making the sport more accessible to casual players. “We have got to keep the tradition with the core players in the higher leagues who want to play traditional cricket. But you have also got to consider the teams in Division Z turning up with their friends for an enjoyable afternoon.”
Thousands of children try cricket for first time
More than 37,000 children played cricket for the first time this summer thanks to the England and Wales Cricket Board’s All Stars Cricket initiative.
The programme was aimed at children aged between five and eight, with parents joining in the games.
Matt Dwyer, ECB Director of Participation said: “This is a first but very significant step in our plans to grow the game and get a bat and ball in the hands of more people across England and Wales. It’s really pleasing to see parents being introduced or brought back to the game first through their kids getting involved, then playing, volunteering or supporting their local club.”
To find out more about playing for a local club, visit www.ecb.co.uk/play/find-a-club