It was only a matter of time before the last barricades of proper cricket came tumbling down. In the West Country in the summer of 1995, seven public schools formed their own 55-overs league, marking a significant move away from the traditional game in the schools. The league produced some bright, positive cricket too, with masters reporting a greater sense of involvement within teams and increased enthusiasm for the game.
"There was a real buzz about the place when we had an overs game," Ray Codd, head of games at King's College in Taunton, said. This was bad news for those who believe that overs cricket will poison tender minds just as surely as it has ruined professional techniques.
Five months earlier, in late spring, Codd had sat in the Long Room at Lord's, underneath the portrait of W. G. Grace and alongside 140 other cricket masters and school representatives listening to a lament delivered by Dr Tim Woods of Trent College at a forum organised by MCC. Dr Woods warned that cricket was losing credibility in the schools because the timed game produced too many dull draws. Cricket was therefore regarded as boring by many teenagers, who were turning to sports offering more instant excitement. The game, he added, had to become brighter and sharper to capture the more demanding imaginations of the young.
Dr Woods advocated matches of 110 overs, split 60-50 in favour of the side batting first, as a way of eliminating stalemate and stimulating competition. The idea triggered a lively discussion about the pros and cons of limited-overs cricket for schools. On the one hand: bad batting habits, defensive bowling and unambitious field placing - the formulaic cricket which had ruined many of the leagues in Yorkshire and Lancashire. On the other hand: improved standards of fielding, better running between the wickets and more aggressive batting. The arguments on both sides were largely adapted from the county game. The real message of the evening, though, was more fundamental.
The assembled cricket masters - consciences clicking, excuses whirring - stood accused of the professional vice of elevating the result above the game, of deliberately playing not to lose. Some, privately, defended their negative attitudes on the grounds that, like football managers, they would be dismissed if their teams lost too often; success at sport is one of the best ways for schools to attract publicity in a competitive market. Others scoured their souls and found no guilt. "Me? Negative? Ah yes, but we were 20 for four and the wicket was poor and, goodness, did we bat that long? Well, we were playing Harrow and the previous year they'd batted on after tea ..." Feuds are surprisingly commonplace in schools cricket.
David Walsh, of Tonbridge School, who chaired the meeting, said that it did not matter whether the game was limited-overs or timed, attitude was all-important. "Challenge your cricketers," he said. "Give them a sense of enjoyment and adventure." He saw no harm in having a balance of fixtures, some limited-overs, some timed, which would satisfy the twin - and often conflicting - aims of attracting the young to cricket, boys and girls, while developing the best of them into potential Test cricketers.
The idea of the West Country league arose after King's, Taunton, toured Western Australia. The league was not quite as limited as it seemed. Imaginative use of bonus points encouraged sides not to defend too quickly and a match could end in a draw, the side batting first automatically earning eight points for a "winning" draw, their opponents four points for a "losing" draw. Bonus points were awarded in the first innings for every 25 runs scored over 125 up to a maximum of four, and for the third wicket and every two thereafter. An outright win was worth 16 points. The seven schools (King's, Taunton were joined by Millfield, Clifton, Blundell's Taunton School, Sherborne and King's School, Bruton) played each other at six different levels: three senior, Under-16, Under-15 and Under-14. All except the first team played 40 overs a side.
One game, in particular, brought out the best of overs cricket. At 98 for five at lunch after 34 overs against Sherborne, Clifton had no option but to force the pace in the afternoon; they made 212 and won the match by 60 runs. "Based on previous experience, I could have envisaged a dull draw," wrote Mike Nurton, the Sherborne cricket master. "The match was an endorsement of limited-overs cricket at school level."
Overs cricket, though, has a habit of starting brightly only to stagnate as tactics become more sophisticated. Cricket masters and coaches must know where to draw the line, or Eton will soon be strolling out to play Harrow at Lord's dressed in light blue pyjamas and sponsored by a brewery.
Andrew Longmore is a sports feature writer on The Times.
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