MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER: THE FUTURE OF CRICKET IN THE LOCAL LEAGUES
This article was written by Paul following the NMCL AGM on November 25th, 2014. At that meeting Martin Kay outlined the progress and contributions that he and John Barrow have made on behalf of the NMCL clubs in recent discusions about the future of our league and a wider restructuring of amateur cricket in Lancashire and Greater Manchester. Much has been written elsewhere already following discussions at club and league level, and links are provided at the foot of this article for those seeking background knowledge of the discussions.
Opinions provided in this piece are Paul's, but most reflect wider-held views both within the TSJCC committee and across the NMCL clubs in general.
It will come as little surprise to anyone that knows me that in recent years I have kind of fallen out of love with playing cricket. Partly because of persistent injuries, partly out of frustration with the unending, unrewarding system which sees a majority of the 1st XI clubs in the NMCL playing meaningless cricket with no chance to progress or develop.
Ironically, the past 6 years have seen our fabulous club develop out of all recognition off the field - who would have thought in 2007 that we would now be looking at a two-tier pavilion, forty thousand pounds worth of outdoor training facilities, a ladies side with county and international players, and a thriving committee pushing through developments left, right and centre? As club secretary throughout much of this change, it has given me immense pride and satisfaction in my club, and has helped us establish an infrastructure and stability that will secure our long term future.
But problems remain on matchdays. Increasingly, clubs in our league are struggling to find players or scorers, we see the same faces year in and year out as there's little to no chance of any club being promoted into Division 1 (unless by virtue of a 1st XI entering the league) and similarly no threat of relegation. Good players remain and good cricket does happen, but there's a huge player turnover, especially at certain clubs, true talents disappear after a year or two, and there remain huge mismatches throughout the season - sometimes entire teams disappear on holidays at the same ttime, others choose to blood youngsters or change their sides around when there's nothing left to play for - and for some clubs the season is dead and buried 6 weeks in.
In 2013 we had the welcome appearance of Irlam, a good club with excellent facilities and an exciting crop of youngsters very akin to the group we developed at Totts in the 1990s, when we were arguably at our strongest, certainly in my 25 years at the club. Yet how long will those kids stay around when they see that their marvellous efforts in winning the league in 2014 effectively mean very little come next April (however great it is to win something, surely they want to progress and compete at an ever-higher standard?). In those same 25 years, title-winning and competitive clubs such as Stacksteads, Edenfield, Brooksbottom, Swinton Meths and Glodwick have departed for pastures new, while High View, Swinton, Robinsons and Westleigh have sadly vanished entirely, lost to the system through a lack of players and any opportunity to develop. Rochdale Catholic Club have won umpteen league titles, but have they truly progressed in any way in those two decades - and, more pertinently, do they have any ambition to do so?
So whose fault is this torpor, and what can be done to preserve / enhance / strengthen our game? Does cricket appeal to the younger generation, brought up on the new diet of 20/20 and what our Kieran loves to call "bish bash bosh" 'batsmanship'? My first response is that my own frustrations are most definitely not with the NMCL itself. Since 1988 I have thoroughly enjoyed competing in a league with history and tradition, and one which has produced a wide array of players whose abilities would grace clubs many leagues above us in the existing system. We have always faired better than expected in representative matches against supposedly stronger leagues, handing out many "shocks" along the way, while our clubs have even pulled off great results in the lancashire knockout competitions (again, the 1990s and early 200s saw some real triumphs for NMCL sides). He won't want me to, but I single ourt Martin Kay, our league chairman, as a shining beacon for the league; he has done an amazing job to preserve the integrity and structure of our league at a time when others are struggling - or even, in the case of the Manchester and District Cricket Association - folding entirely.
So I was much heartened to learn of Martin and John Barrow's involvement in discussions to progress cricket not just in the NMCL but across the areas as a whole. It's again no secret that we have talked many times within the club (both formally as a committee and as individuals) about how best to position ourselves towards the future - is the NMCL likely to survive in its current form for much longer, with a handful of senior clubs and filled with 2nd and 3rd XIs of clubs from other leagues? The loss of Robbies and Westleigh has shone a very strong spotlight on the remaining clubs and their respective ambitions and potential for growth. We have looked very hard at other opportunities to move forwards, and our development of juniors, links with the LCB and the ladies side, and of course our continued drive to improve our facilities means that off the field we have great ambition, one which has yet to be transmitted to the playing side, despite the very pleasing progress and title-winning form of our 2nd XI this season. Can we attract the players we need to progress if we remain positioned as we are? It seems unlikely.
I'm 42 now and I'd like a new challenge for the handfuls of games I'm able to play each year. The thought of a new structure of cricket in Greater Manchester, where clubs can progress through a much better defined structure, offers me hope that my club can attract better players and move forwards as much on the field as we have off it. That is in no way a detriment to teams and opponents we currently face - I'm sure almost every player at almost every club has a similar desire to progress (with or without the sea-change that could happen should all leagues merge together). Would I be happy if we kept the status quo, and we remained in the NMCL ad infinitum with no progression or development? Probably not - but given the wide range of talks being held both between individual leagues prior to now and between leagues as a whole going forward, I don't see this being a possibility. I remain personally convinced that a big change is coming, whether that means inter-league competitions, 20/20 tournaments, and the retention of existing structures, or a wholsale move to a new way of structuring our clubs.
Of course not everyone will like it. There's been talk of a loss of history and tradition should leagues be merged, but progress almost invariably means change. Is it a bad thing to draw a line under a competition with decades of history and start afresh? In my view, no. Others will have very different opinions, but to me changing something doesn't have to involve loss. We will continue to celebrate the long and proud history of our club, the NMCL, the CLL, the Bolton League, the Lancashire County League et al should all these competitions eventually become one unified whole. I have much respect for those club officials and players who proudly guard their club's heritage but I say again that making a change does not have to mean forgetting the past or the events that have brought us to this pivotal position. Of course there are numerous issues that must be fully articulated and discussed before any changes can happen - professionals, junior cricket, 2nd and 3rd XIs, travelling times and distances, the format of matches, how clubs can compete equally, coaching and development, support structures, and the 101 other things I'm sure you're already thinking about. But as Martin has said, nothing is set in stone and nothing has been decided - the future is very much ours to shape.
We stand on the edge of what could be the biggest revolution in local league cricket in a century. I, for one, can't wait to see what happens next. I stand fully behind the NMCL, my club and Martin and John as they explore the avenues for progress. If you want to know more about the talks that have led us to this point, speak to the ever-approachable Martin Kay, and look at the articles linked below. They're well worth a read.
Doc P can be contacted via email@example.com
League cricket in Greater Manchester set for massive shake up - MEN, November 24, 2014
A crisis that defines the age - David Hopps / Cricinfo, November 2014
Follow Martin Kay on Twitter - @flashingbat
Follow TSJCC on Twitter - @tottysports