By Richard Edwards
21 May 2020
The importance of the nation’s playing fields has rarely been a matter of more serious consideration – and a research paper published last week by the Grounds Management Association (GMA) illustrated just how much cricket could suffer unless urgent action is taken.
The GMA whitepaper suggested that more than half of all cricketers could be impacted over the next decade if grass pitches aren’t better maintained. Those worst impacted, the organisation opined, would be women, girls and junior players, many of whom are already finding availability of facilities a pressing concern.
Perhaps most stark in a paper littered with eye-opening revelations was the GMA’s belief that as many as half a million more cricketers could play the game if local authority grass pitches receive the care and attention they deserve. In a summer currently devoid of cricket, this need is highlighted still further.
In an exclusive interview with Club Cricket Conference, Geoff Webb, CEO of the GMA, said a change of attitude was needed to ensure that the issue was tackled for the long-term good of the game.
“Funding has always been the issue when it comes to local authority provision," says Webb. "Outside of swimming, there’s no statutory responsibility on local authorities for its parks, its gardens or its recreational provisioning.
“That has been a long-standing debate way before the pandemic hit us but the pandemic has accelerated the issue. After years of austerity and public cut-backs, it’s now going to be even more incumbent on volunteers to come into play where local authorities simply can’t manage the grounds for whatever reason.
“You can’t say that every local authority acts in the same way. We see three main categories. You get those local authorities who heavily invest in their sports facilities because of the essential nature of the community ethic; you get others who will look to tender their facilities out to contractors who come in and manage those facilities; and then you get others who could be at the closure end because there is pressure on their budgets or their priorities elsewhere are just so great that they have to make tough decisions.”
The danger, when this crisis has finally played out, is that the decimated public purse will lead to more local authorities falling into the latter category.
“Across the country, councils experience a negative financial return on the overheads of preparing of their grounds as against the rent they can accrue from them,” says Simon Prodger. “It costs a lot less to prepare a football pitch or a rugby pitch than it does to prepare a wicket and an outfield,” says Simon Prodger.
“There are 2700 cricket grounds that are owned and managed by local authorities in this country – that’s a huge percentage of the overall number of facilities available to cricket clubs.
“That puts the potential scale of this issue into perspective.”
The ECB have engaged with all local authorities through the GMA in a bid to mitigate the issues that could arise when recreational cricket is given the go-ahead to restart. It’s thought that most local authorities would require two to three weeks to prepare match-ready pitches.
Between now and then, there will be plenty of debate within those public bodies over how funds should be spent.
“What we’re trying to say is if you cut every resources that’s out there you’ll never bring anything back at all,” says Webb.
“Sport can have a huge impact on the community. And as our report says, it's worth £39bn to the UK economy – a lot of that money comes from local community sport.
“You take the health aspect of that as well and it’s clear just how important this is. If you improve existing facilities, you could get almost 1.4m children playing rugby or football, and just under 500,000 playing cricket.
“If you can turn thought process around to enable sport to be played by looking at how you maintain natural turf pitches – and there are 51,000 pitches in England alone – you’re talking about a huge increase in the number of matches that could be played.
“It’s very much how you manage, what you manage and when you manage – we need to make people realise that grass can do a whole lot more. There’s a lot more potential in it – it’s a community asset that needs to be kept.”
It’s also one that needs to be treasured. Particularly when club cricketers of all ages are finally able to return to action.
“Preparing a little and often has been very useful during the lockdown and if you look at social media, there have been some fantastic looking photos of pristine looking village cricket pitches – pitches that are just waiting to be played on,” says Webb.