Cricket: Revolution in the shires

The traditions of English club cricket have become history this weekend. By Graeme Wright
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The Independent Online
HOLLYWOOD AND Vine is a corner in Los Angeles where dreams are made and just as often lost. Sevenoaks Vine is a cornerstone in the national monument that is English cricket. A centuries-old field of dreams in Kent, and yesterday the club participated in the launch of a new dream, Premier League club cricket. A dream which others elsewhere view more as a nightmare.

It is all part of the radical, some might say revolutionary, plans of the England and Wales Cricket Board to raise the standard of the game nationally and to bridge the gap between first-class and grass-roots cricket; what the ECB refer to as recreational cricket. One stage of the board's vision came to fruition last week when the 38 county cricket board XIs competed for the first time in the opening round of the NatWest Bank Trophy.

Just as integral to ECB thinking is the setting up of Premier League club cricket within county and regional structures. This season, 10 such leagues take the field, all but one of them playing to the board's stipulation that games are of 120 overs duration, which entails a morning rather than an early afternoon start. The exception is the Kent Premier League, which has opted for the virtually untried waters (in this country) of two-day club cricket, their games being spread over two Saturdays. Some Yorkshire League clubs tried two-day games last year, playing Saturday and Sunday, but the time and travel involved raised logistical problems and the experiment has so far come to nothing.

Finding Sevenoaks Vine at the cutting edge of this revolution comes as no surprise. It goes with the proud tradition of a club that has been playing cricket since 1734. The first recorded century was made at the Vine, by John Minshull in 1769, four years before the ground, so typically English in its slope and its setting, was presented to the town of Sevenoaks by the 3rd Duke of Dorset. The club can boast a bat dating from 1755 and its first printed scorecard for a match at the Vine in 1777. Six of the ground's seven oaks were uprooted in the great storm of 1987, but the planting of seven new ones reveals that the club has a healthy tradition of looking forward as well as looking back.

"We're very excited about it," said the chairman of the club's cricket committee, John Hornsby, who also represents the leagues on the Kent Cricket Board. "We're keen that our Premier League does well and that's a top focus as a club. But we're also aware that we have to give all our members, whatever their standard, an opportunity to play the best cricket they can. We run five teams here on a Saturday, for the members paying a full sub of pounds 85 a year down to the youngsters who are making the bridge, say at 15, from boys' cricket to men's cricket."

Shami Iqbal, the club's first-team captain, is equally enthusiastic about the Premier League, and in particular playing two-day cricket. His father, Asif, captained Pakistan and Kent and Shami believes the two-day format will produce "a proper game of cricket instead of limited-overs. It was hard to bowl a side out in 50 overs. Now bowlers have the chance to learn how to take wickets and batsmen to build an innings. At the moment it's too big a transition from club leagues to county cricket and the two-day game will provide a better foundation".

Not all clubs, of course, want to be part of the pyramid structure of league cricket, which involves promotion and relegation, not to mention the high cost of improving and maintaining facilities and the time-consuming burden of administration. They would rather retain their traditional fixture lists of friendly, social matches, something league cricket critics fear is threatened by the advance of more structured cricket.

"We're not trying to dictate what clubs should do," John Hornsby emphasised. "But we find young players like the competition, they like playing the best league cricket. They enjoy some fun cricket, but they really want to see their team at the top of a ladder, and the better players, if they've got ambition, will tend to gravitate to the better clubs where they feel they can get the opportunities to develop."

It is a development that worries Mike Rogers, first-team captain of the Essex Premier League club, Woodford Wells. When it comes to the revolution, you get the feeling he is more prepared to bite the bullet than run with the gun. "In the Premier League in Essex, I sadly foresee a time when three or four of the richest clubs command virtually all the good players, and four or five other sides will progressively go out of business. We're becoming increasingly vulnerable to professionalism without an increase in standards. More and more young players expect to be subsidised and some think they have a market value, which they haven't."

That is if the players are available. Kent's two-day games start at 12.30pm. Getting in 120 overs in the other Premier Leagues means a mid-morning start, which pulls the plug on those working Saturday mornings. Family commitments, too, could prevent players leaving home at eight or nine o'clock, say, every Saturday morning of the summer. And even if they do manage it, there's a knock-on effect, as Ron Lynch, the chairman until last year of the Club Cricket Conference, has noted. "Already we've had examples of players saying that they won't be available on Sunday any more if they're away that length of time on Saturday."

Woodford Wells have noticed this. "We normally put out four sides on Saturday, occasionally five, yet we can't always manage two on Sundays. And we're one of the senior clubs. It's my perception, and I'm not alone, that fewer people are playing now than there were five and ten years ago. We've seen it as a club."

Fewer players means fewer members paying subs to cover the rising costs that Premier League cricket will inevitably incur, despite the pounds 1,000 per club ECB funding to county leagues this year. Kent clubs, because of the two-day experiment, are getting pounds 4,000 each. Some clubs have merged in recent years to reduce costs and increase membership, but the negative side of this is another ground lost to cricket. There is a danger here that in Raising the Standard, as the ECB called their 1997 blueprint, the Board have failed to notice the iceberg.

"I'm not anti-progress," said Mike Rogers, "but I think it's being pushed too far, too fast. And to be honest they're talking sheer nonsense if they think there's going to be a link between club and county second eleven. It strikes me that they're trying to devolve the cost away from the counties and put it on the clubs."

Ron Lynch is equally unhappy. "The club cricketers are the ones who pay to play their cricket, and they pay quite a lot one way and another, and they're being told from above that this is what you've got to do or else you're not part of the Premier League. There's no compromise. You've got these people saying it's all for the good of cricket, but I can't believe that over the years the counties have missed cricketers who are good enough. They are just looking for a panacea and I'm very sceptical for the future under those sort of conditions."

Certainly, what's been missing from the talk of raising standards and bridging gaps is the role that nets should have. Playing rather than practising has been the time- honoured English method. But if the ECB is following the Australian model by introducing structured leagues and two-day club games, it should also take on board the importance of twice-a-week nets in improving Australia's cricketers. After all, it's a culture we are looking at here, not just a system.