By Chris Aspin

The Lancashire League celebrates its centenary

When east Lancashire was full of cotton mills, you could sometimes see tall black chimneys from the old wooden scorebox in the top corner Church cricket ground. I counted them once, during the local holiday week. On other days, sharp-eyed spectators could discern about a dozen through the sooty haze, and it would surprise me if as many as that now rise above Accrington, Great Harwood and the distant brickfields of Clayton-le-Moors. The smoking mills, familiar for so long to spectators at Lancashire League matches, have gone. The Pennine air is refreshingly clean this centenary year though it will probably be too sharp at times for the overseas professionals who have followed in the steps of Learie Constantine, Ray Lindwall, Everton Weekes, Clive Lloyd, Dennis Lillee, Viv Richards and a host of other immortals in order to play in what is widely regarded as the world's foremost league. The fourteen clubs have always insisted on keeping the game for local players - overseas amateurs regularly offer their services in vain - and has been rewarded with the loyal, often passionate, support of a numerous following. The aggregate attendance at the seven games on a Sunday usually exceeds that at Old Trafford.

There have been many times when I have wondered why cricket ever took root in these parts. Snow has more than once prevented play, and the sight and feel of cold Lancashire rain falling from a pewter sky is almost enough to put people off the game for ever. But on a sunny afternoon, with noble hills providing the backcloth to a keenly contested game involving two world-class professionals, there are few better cricketing occasions. Though Lancashire League clubs are often criticised for paying large fees for Test stars, few are likely to abandon a tradition which began with men like McDonald, Headley and Constantine during the inter-war years, and which now provides amateurs with a rare chance to pit their skills against the world's best. Long before the League was formed in 1892, clubs regularly engaged English professionals with first-class and Test experience. And for important matches they occasionally included three or four paid men, causing resentment among opponents who could afford only one or two. The control of professionalism was one of the stated aims of the Lancashire League. Two pros were allowed in the early years, but since 1900 the number has been one.

Many of the older clubs can trace their roots to the enthusiasm for cricket which was fired at public schools attended by the sons of mill owners and professional men. The Blackburn club, East Lancashire, is unusual in having been started by officers of the town's volunteer corps, and its stars included A. N. (Monkey) Hornby, the Lancashire and England player, who was a member of one of the county's oldest cotton families. Most of these players were batsmen. Professionals were engaged to coach and to bowl, with working men occasionally helping out in the nets. Some of the enthusiasts became good enough to be included in the teams, and by the time the League was formed, artisans were well represented both on the field and in the committee rooms.

Mills worked till noon on Saturdays well into this century; and to enable spectators to see a full match, wickets were pitched at two o'clock. Today, the starting time is 1.45 p.m., but since limited-overs cricket came in twenty years ago, there has been no fixed finishing time. As many games are now played on Sundays as on Saturdays, Sponsorship has become increasingly important, though bar takings and the renting of rooms provide most of the income. The current League sponsor is the Marsden Building Society, which took over in 1991 from the Matthew Brown brewery.

If I could choose one match from the thousands which have been played during the past 100 years, it would be that between Rawtenstall and Nelson in 1931. It brought into conflict the great Sidney Barnes, aged 59, but still a bowler without equal, and the young Learie Constantine, the cricketing phenomenon, who was the greatest single attraction any league has known. "Connie", as everyone called him, often said that the 96 he scored in front of a vast crowd that afternoon was the best innings he ever played. The duel with Barnes, who took seven for 68, was cricket at the very highest level and was remembered vividly long after the result of the match was forgotten. Nelson won by 72 runs. Constantine was professional for Nelson from 1929 to 1937, and in those nine seasons he gained seven championship medals. Against Accrington in 1934 he took all ten wickets for 10 runs.

Looking over the club records, one sees that bowlers had their best years in the early decades of the competition. One would certainly have liked to watch Sam Moss, the Manchester shoemaker, who burst into league cricket in the 1890s. In his first game as professional for Haslingden in 1896, he took five wickets in eight balls - all bowled - and for Bacup four years later he finished with 143 wickets at 8.2. Publicans throughout the district put up glass cases to display the stumps he broke, and those who saw Moss were in no doubt that they had never come across anyone faster. Nowadays batsmen have the upper hand, and the recent policy of rearranging games hit by the weather has helped them to score more runs than ever before. The Australian, Peter Sleep, professional for Rishton, and the Rawtenstall amateur, Peter Wood, both achieved Lancashire League aggregate records last season.

Over the years, the Lancashire League has provided Lancashire and England with many fine players. Eddie Paynter, who worked in the brick-fields at Clayton-le-Moors and who played for Enfield at both the start and the end of his career, was one of the best known. After his performances for England during the Australian tour of 1932-33, the League presented him with a pair of silver candlesticks. Accrington have the distinction of nurturing David Lloyd and Graeme Fowler, two other left-handers who have played for their country, and many League players have gone to other counties. In 1939, five Bacup-born players were in the first-class game.

Nelson have won the Lancashire League championship eighteen times; East Lancashire and Burnley thirteen times each. During the past decade, Haslingden have gained most of the honours, winning the championship in six of the last nine seasons and being runners-up twice. The knockout competition for the Worsley Cup, started in 1919, has been won thirteen times by East Lancashire. To mark its centenary, the League has arranged a varied programme of events. MCC and Lancashire are sending sides to Play Lancashire League elevens: and on July 9 the Pakistani tourists will be at Haslingden to take on the League Cricket Conference.

© John Wisden & Co