Club Cricket Conference

Thursday, 29th October 2020

Vauxhall Mallards have Ollie Stone as last hurrah

By Charles Randall

2 August 2019

The promotion of Ollie Stone, the Warwickshire fast bowler, to England's Ashes fringe has reflected well on Norfolk cricket and on Vauxhall Mallards CC in particular.

So it is bewildering to find that Norwich-based Mallards, prominent in the East Anglian Premier League,  are due to fold at the end of this season through shortage of players.

Stone, 25, learnt his cricket at Mallards. As a local club cricketer through and through, he played nine games for them last year when not required by Warwickshire. He had carved his name in pace representing Norfolk and he made his debut for Northamptonshire at the age of 17. Promotion to England Under-19 and a move to Warwickshire followed.

The Mallards were formed as recently as 1984 with the merger of two clubs, and they won the East Anglian League title five times, but the magic faded after the lease of their Brundalls ground ran out in 2013. The 'Ducks' moved 10 miles to Halvergate east of Norwich, but their new location failed to attract players in the same numbers.

One wonders how the East Anglian League has survived so long in view of  eye-watering travel distances that might add two or three hours of driving to an all-day match. The competition embraces the wide expanse of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and even Essex.

The theory, embraced by the ECB in 1999, that professional cricket could be strengthened by a bigger pool of players from elite club cricket has been discredited, even though the project was worth a try. In accordance with Lord MacLaurin's report Raising The Standard, premier leagues were formed throughout England and Wales.

The semi-pro ethos and 120-over formats led to high standards while crippling a few clubs with over-blown aspirations. Long travel distances added to rising costs, and as the years passed, it became clear that professional counties preferred to recruit from their own academies in any case. The system was fed mainly by county age-group teams and not adults from the club circuit. The initial excitement of  the MacLaurin experiment gave way to a cold blast of reality in some areas.

A steady stream of players from East Anglia have indeed made their way into professional cricket, with the emergence of Ollie Stone a prime example. However, this migration had happened over the years in any case before 1999, as with the Edrich dynasty. The value of the East Anglian League  to professional cricket has not been proven, whereas the demise of Vauxhall Mallards is alarming and club contortions to cope with premier requirements have been unsettling.

Merging Ingham & District CC and Norwich Barleycorns CC, two renowned clubs, to form Norwich CC in 1999 for the premier project, seemed a high price to pay for an 'identity', but Chris Borrett, Norwich's director of cricket, disagrees. "It is important for young players to play at the highest standard they can," he said. "They are used to travelling long distances." He felt there were not enough  clubs in northern and southern parts of the East Anglia area  to form two leagues of high enough standard. Indeed he would like to see the concept expanded even further afield for elite clubs..

Vauxhall Mallards would regard an hour's drive to a match as normal. The journey from Norwich to Cambridge takes about one and a half hours. To Frinton-on-Sea, the current table leaders, travel time approaches four hours for the round trip to Essex.

Arduous travel caused the break-up of the Home Counties League in 2013, with Hertfordshire  resuming their own competition as a premier league in a successful attempt to slow the drop-out rate of players. Yorkshire's re-organisation has produced two leagues, north and south, easing the issue of long distances.

The collapse of Vauxhall Mallards, such an eminent club, is highly regrettable - and shocking - at a time when many smaller clubs seem to struggle up and down the country.

The Home Counties League over the years has embraced Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Wiltshire, Middlesex, Hampshire and, incredibly, even Gloucestershire. There is much to regret from inflicting such lunacy on amateur players, who already have a ready-made pathway in minor county or academy cricket. But East Anglia remains the exception, perhaps typified by the rise of Swardeston, another Norwich club.
Swardeston, having won the National T20 in 2010, took the title again  in 2016 and reached the final of the ECB Club Championship the same year in addition to a fifth successive East Anglian title.

Swardeston's achievement was more remarkable when considering that these Sunday cup ties often clash with Minor County matches, causing competition for the best players. This gives 'major' county clubs an enormous advantage in the ECB national competitions.

The ECB Club Championship has enjoyed 50 years of existence. Of the 100 finalists in that time, only 20 have been based in a minor county, headed by South Northumberland, the leading light in Newcastle with three titles. Shrewsbury (Shropshire) and Wolverhampton (Staffordshire) have won twice.

Fewer Sundays are devoted to the regional rounds of the National Club Twenty20, which might account for more balanced successes. In 11 years the 22 finalists are split 14-8 in  favour of 'major county' clubs. Five finals have been won by clubs from a minor county - twice each in three finals  by those familiar names South Northumberland and Swardeston.