November 9, 2015

The slow withering of English club cricket

The ECB's drive to improve recreational cricket may have imposed unrealistic expectations on many clubs

Fewer kids are taking to the sport, and competition among clubs to attract the few that do is intense © Getty Images

Gloves, bat and helmet snatched from the dressing room, your spikes would pitter-patter past a full-sized snooker table, through a door and down the shallow steps of a viewing gallery with three long rows of leather-backed seats, then a left turn to the top of a grand, wide old staircase that folded back on itself before disgorging the batsman onto a ballroom floor, which you crossed on a rubber mat before another door threw you down a dozen or so concrete steps, flanked by rows of wooden-slatted concrete benches, then finally into the arena.

This was the Great Chell Cricket Club, nestled in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent, the Lord's of the Potteries, its opulence incongruous with the surroundings. Once upon a time, such a walk would end with the batsman facing Wes Hall or Roy Gilchrist. I only made it once - the result, a 42-ball duck in a 48-run opening stand. The club folded the following year. The ground is now a school.

Great Chell were one of the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League's 12 founder members in 1963, and of the four Potteries teams, two more have gone the same way. Sneyd, alma mater of former England batsman David Stanley Steele, lay in the shadow of a grassed-over slag heap and disappeared not long after Chell, while Norton - in the early 1960s, the club of Frank Worrell, Garry Sobers and Jim Laker - last year merged with a smaller club on the city's periphery.

There is an opportunity for real community engagement in the resuscitation of the dormant grounds, allowing the simple pleasure of playing cricket and devoting yourself to a club

The slow obsolescence of inner-city clubs is a depressingly common tale up and down the land, the way of things, it seems - history blindly beavering away. Those familiar causes include: proliferating leisure options for kids, which affects participation numbers; cricket's high "barrier to entry", particularly after seven years of austerity economics; and a waning volunteer culture in a society that grows increasingly self-centred and atomised. In addition, there are top-down political decisions regarding school curricula and playing fields, as well as administrative decisions by the ECB, particularly the lack of free-to-air TV coverage and, consequently, the game's ever weaker roots in the public imagination. The net result is a slow withering of cricket in clubs and state schools alike. It has become remote and elitist.

One often reads how, under the stewardship of Giles Clarke, the ECB's revenues increased and the team rose to No. 1 in the world. The causal relation between these is to be demonstrated. Clarke's gambit - conditioned by the trickle-down ideology, which the former Somerset chairman subsequently applied to the world game with the Big Three carve-up - is that a successful England team would equal a thriving recreational culture, simply through the identification with success. There's one major problem with this: how can people identify if they cannot see?

Of course, the ECB cannot be held responsible for the fate of Great Chell, yet might it not be the case that the drive to improve recreational cricket - starting with the Raising the Standard review that created the Premier Leagues - has also had unforeseen negative effects? Sure, pitches and facilities have got better at the top of the pyramid, and coaching structures have become more cohesive. However, with most bureaucratic structures the tendency is for ever more facets of the culture being administered to be subjected to time-consuming box-ticking, sucked into a one-size-fits-all logic, and English recreational cricket has been no different.

The quest for ECB ClubMark accreditation has overstretched many clubs, particularly regarding the provision of junior cricket - an admirable enough aim in the abstract, of course, yet not always possible to sustain under the conditions outlined above. Clubs far from the inner cities are feeling the pinch. With fewer kids playing the sport, and the competition to attract them becoming ever more intense, particularly if there are several other more established clubs nearby, perfectly healthy clubs can find themselves punished.

In recognition of such issues, the ClubMark criteria is set to be amended from next season onwards*. "We encourage clubs to join the ClubMark scheme so they can strengthen their connections with the local community, improve facilities and coaching, and meet national standards around child safeguarding," said an ECB spokesman.

"During 2016 ClubMark will be open to all ECB-affiliated clubs, not just those with junior sections, and we will be making changes to the scheme to make it easier for clubs to join. We will also continue to support and invest in the wider recreational game which encompasses cricket at every level."

For the time being, however, problems exist. A club in the lower echelons of the North Staffs league - a club with good facilities that has never played in the Premier League and probably only has a vague ambition to do so - was recently demoted for not fielding the required number of junior teams across the various age groups. It's not hard to imagine how this penalty (and glass ceiling) might disillusion the hardcore of senior players, leading to an exodus among those keen to play at a standard commensurate with their abilities, and, ultimately, to the dissolution of the club: an abandoned rural cricket ground to match those in the city.

The quest for ECB Clubmark accreditation has overstretched many clubs, particularly in regard to junior cricket © Getty Images

Norton, meanwhile, were forced into a merger because they were unable to field a second team, which under league rules disbars them from participating. Yet with a little more flexibility both these clubs could be encouraged to keep going within the current limits of their resources - Norton by allowing clubs with one team to continue (which would mean a straight ladder of all 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th XIs rather than parallel A and B sections); Oulton by limiting the junior-team criteria to the Premier League alone. They could have hunkered down and recuperated.

The cultivation of the grass roots needs to tread a fine line between disincentivising complacency at failing clubs and overbearing bureaucratism that strangles others, setting them unrealistic targets.

Of course, you could argue that it's all a matter of "natural selection": if the ecosystem cannot support so many clubs, then there will be inevitable extinctions. But the evolutionary parallel doesn't really stand up, not least because in cricket's ecosystem clubs are forever going outside themselves - with sugar daddies injecting money into clubs, inducing youngsters to bulk out junior sections with offers of free kit, or older players with payments - whereas an animal has to survive on its native wit and resources. You cannot buy your way to becoming an apex predator.

Given ECB ClubMark's express focus on "knowing your club and its community", there's a certain bitter irony in the fact that the Potteries' now-defunct grounds lie in areas with the largest concentration of first- and second-generation Asian immigrants, those in whom the cricketing flame burns brightest, many of whom can be found all nights of the week using the artificial nets in nearby public parks. It is perverse to have grounds lying idle on their doorsteps, in danger of becoming supermarket car parks.

With vision and a bit of give and take, there is an opportunity for real community engagement in the resuscitation of the dormant grounds, allowing the simple pleasure of playing cricket and devoting yourself to a club - one with an imagination-stirring entrance to the arena, perhaps - to melt away some of the "otherness" on which those opposed to multiculturalism and integration feed. If there's any better use for cricket than this, then I am yet to see it.

*1.30pm, November 11, 2015: this story was updated with a response from the ECB

Scott Oliver tweets here