In the first of a summer-long series, Rich Evans will be addressing some of the key issues affecting grassroots cricket. This month, match format, duration and start-time are up for debate: club cricket doesn’t know what version of the game it should be playing and when it should be playing it
Match format and start times are two of the biggest debates surrounding English club cricket today. How much weekend time can the modern club cricketer really devote to the game and what’s the best format? Is it 50/50, 40/40 or a classic timed game with a modern twist? Do we allocate enough room for T20? Do we start too early or too late? Travel up and down the UK and you’ll find varying formats, rules, structures and start times. Turn up to your league AGM or pre-season captains’ meeting and start time and duration are never far from the agenda. Cricket and social change have never been cosy bedfellows but grassroots cricket is cripplingly unsure of itself.
The ECB controls the higher echelons of the recreational game yet grassroots cricket is predominantly self-governed, which breeds inconsistency. The ECB controls many of the premier leagues but the chunkier parts of the pyramid are out of reach. The national playing survey in 2014 proved the fragility of club cricket as participation numbers dropped 64,000 in a single year, with more than five per cent of games conceded because at least one of the teams was unable to field an XI. Sure, a soggy summer, the football World Cup, consoles and a lack of cricket on free-to-air TV were blamed, but the most sobering reality is that the demands of time made on club cricketers may be incompatible with contemporary society. Work often encroaches on weekends and some players cannot justify playing cricket all day when they have a partner and kids at home.
It’s widely accepted that the further down the grassroots pyramid you go the shorter the game should be, which bridges the gap between junior and senior cricket and makes cricket more accessible to the young, the maturing and the time-poor. In the Hampshire Cricket League, the County Division 1 plays 50-overs, the other county divisions play 45, and regional leagues 1, 2 and 3 play 42. In the Kent Cricket League, 46 overs-a-side games are played in the Premier League, Championship West, and Championship East divisions, while all other divisions play 40/40.
“People are disappearing from the game at 30,” says Burnley CC president Michael Brown. “It’s happening around the world. People’s life priorities have shifted. Your cricket now has to cater to the family man. In the past, my dad played Saturday and Sunday and my mum looked after me and my brother – but that’s gone. There’s a lot of people my age who’ve got a lot to offer cricket but it’s too much of a commitment. Every decision I make in my role with Burnley is how do we try to bring more children into the club and how do I keep the maturing guys playing for as long as possible.”
There’s a feeling on the circuit that timed games are losing their appeal. Limited-overs matches eliminate bore draws and allow the best team to win; dogged stalwarts aren’t allowed to block out the final 25 overs as the fielding side lose the will to live. More bowlers are given opportunities while fielding restrictions add another element. But is there room for both? “The key is to provide a variety of playing options,” says Dan Feist, head of cricket operations in Essex. “Across Essex we are fortunate that the 20-plus leagues in the county do this and work together to support clubs, players and officials, and provide the right format to encourage people to play. It is important that leagues continue to talk to the players and clubs to provide the format they so wish to enjoy. Timed cricket isn’t for everyone but it’s still enjoyed by a large number of players, and we need the flexibility to encourage getting the game on.”
Brown is a big believer in the 40-over format; he sees it as critical in retaining the thirtysomethings. “If you take 20 overs out of the game and play 40/40, I think it’s a natural extension from T20,” says the former Middlesex, Hampshire and Surrey batsman. “I think you’ll find more mature players staying in the game. They’re the ones that teach cricket and run sports clubs. League clubs are run by volunteers but if you lose people at the age of 30 then that’s the ticking time bomb. If they don’t have boys then they don’t tend to come back. A 40/40 game is certainly more palatable for someone like myself who is 37 with a young daughter.”
As well as the duration of the contest, travel time also has to be taken into consideration. Some leagues are breaking up geographically to reduce the commute. The ECB Yorkshire Premier League unveiled north and south divisions in 2016 for the first time since the league’s inception in 1936, as well as a revised playing format and a new pyramid system that allowed relegation and promotion. The league’s previous 110-over format was replaced by a straight 50 overs-a-side contest, incorporating the Duckworth-Lewis method and leg-side wides. “Travel was also a major concern for a number of clubs,” says Rob Richtering, general secretary of Yorkshire Premier League North. “My own club, Scarborough, now has a reduction in travel of about 50 per cent. I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback.” This year a potential merger was proposed between the Lancashire League and the Northern League but Brown’s Burnley were one of a handful of clubs to reject the motion due to increased travel time.
Start time also generates debate, with most 50 over games typically starting at 12.30pm or 1pm. Matches can start up to an hour earlier than the designated 1pm start time in the Kent Regional Cricket League if it is mutually agreeable. This was proposed but not carried in the Hampshire Cricket League. The Yorkshire Premier League currently start their games at midday but there was a proposal to switch to 12.30pm and, as ever, says Richtering, “start times were well discussed at the AGM along with the number of overs a bowler can bowl.” Both the Middlesex Cricket League and Shepherd Neame Essex League have moved from a 1pm start to a 12.30pm start this season, which seems to be emerging as the most popular start time for the 50-over stuff.
Brown has his own blueprint for reviving grassroots cricket. “All club cricket should be win or lose. If you play 40/40 and only have 20 minutes for a break then you’ve got five hours of cricket plus tea. You could do 2pm to 7.30pm. I could have the morning at home, leave home at 12.30-45pm and I’m only out for half the day. Play one 40-over league game in the weekend with the option of additional cups, which may be a Friday evening or Sunday afternoon T20. Don’t play both days in a weekend.” The message is clear: cater to busy lifestyles or club cricket itself may run out of time.
What’s your favourite match format, duration and start-time? Tell us below.