The Club Cricket Conference XI programme, like league cricket up and down the country, has been decimated by a pandemic that few saw coming. The CCC XI played just three matches this season, two of which were under-25 fixtures, which is a source of enormous frustration, not just for those players who would ordinarily have been involved but also for those clubs who take such pride in their players receiving selectorial recognition in the original instance.
In addition, the extensive women’s cricket programme put together by the CCC has been entirely wiped out, in a summer that has hit this crucial element of the English game particularly hard.
The lack of representative cricket is entirely understandable given the widespread disruption, not just to recreational and grassroots sport, but to daily life at large. And the hope is that the 2021 review of the season will provide a far more upbeat assessment of what, players and administrators fervently wish, is a full summer of cricket.
Ordinarily, the CCC XI’s fixture list would include annual matches against the Second XI sides of Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Essex and Middlesex, with the duration of the games dependent on the needs of the counties at that time. The match against Essex for instance, is often a three-day affair scheduled when the county is involved in 50 over white ball cricket, with the CCC fixture providing game time for those players who specialise in the longer format. Last year’s match saw Essex play a fully contracted side, including the likes of Ravi Bopara, Varun Chopra and Aaron Beard.
After a hugely disrupted year of cricket, Simon Prodger, the managing director of the National Cricket Conference, believes that it’s essential that the programme resumes as quickly as safety allows.
“The timescales that were available to counties, in terms of getting squads together for both the Bob Willis Trophy and the T20 Blast meant that trying to get additional games in was almost impossible this year,” he says.
“The CCC has been around since 1915, it’s the oldest association of cricket clubs in the world, so you would have to go back to the either the First or Second World War to find a season that you could draw a parallel with.
“Representative cricket has been a real focus for us and the pathway has been extremely successful in the recent past.
“Right here, right now, we’ve seen a number of people who have come through in county cricket who have recently been playing for the Conference, people like Dan Moriarty at Surrey, for example.”
The left-arm spinner has been a revelation across all formats for Surrey this season but not too long ago he was playing for the Club Cricket Conference in matches against the British Police, Royal Navy, Midlands Club Cricket Conference and the Army, as well as a host of fixtures against county second XI side. Indeed, he was first given a trial by Essex having played for the representative side against them while still playing for Aston Rowant CC.
It’s an illustration of the stepping stone the CCC XI can provide. Earlier this year, the newsletter also looked at how representative cricket had also given another left-arm spinner, Kent’s Imran Qayyum, the break he needed to make it into the professional ranks at Canterbury.
The pair will meet each other in the quarter finals of the T20 Blast at the Oval on Thursday, providing a fascinating sideshow as both counties eye a place in the last four next weekend.
The work of the CCC, though, extends far beyond the XI that bears its name – and Prodger is keen to emphasise the organisations desire to return to something approaching normality as soon as is practical in 2021.
“An awful lot of our players have come through the clubs to the Conference and then found their way into the Unicorns, the Minor Counties and also the professional game,” says Prodger. “We’re very proud but the really important thing for our programme is that it satisfies young aspirants as well as very good club cricketers who only want to play amateur cricket but still want to test themselves.
“We can’t only focus on providing a pathway to professional cricket, we have to justify ourselves by providing a high level of cricket that club cricketers can enjoy whether they’re aspiring professionals or not.”
One area of the game that has enjoyed a significant shift towards professionalism in recent years is the women’s game. It has also one that has been hardest hit by the pandemic, with the CCC’s women’s programme having been wiped out in 2020.
After enjoying considerable growth in recent years, that has been a huge blow. As is the stalled opportunity to hand cricketers from the South Asian and African Caribbean community opportunities at the top end of the game that might otherwise have been missed.
“There obviously haven’t been any games this season and you have to say that women’s cricket has been impacted hugely by the pandemic at recreational level,” he says.
“Trying to get representative fixtures isn’t easy, partly as a result of the changing shape of the women’s game. This year should have been one of the biggest in the history of the sport from a domestic standpoint.
“Trying to identify how representative cricket fitted into the new structure was going to be a challenge in the original instance and it’s something we’re going to have to look at in the close season in conjunction with the ECB.
“We have also been very focused on providing opportunities for players from BAME communities in both our men’s and women’s programmes. In many instances, players from these communities have found it challenging to access pathways at junior age group levels, often because of cost. Our programme provides a late gateway into the elite or higher levels of the sport.”
Quite what happens over the next 12 months is anyone’s guess but after a year like no other, the club game has once again found itself front and centre of the sport in this country, which is no bad thing.
“If we enter the 2021 season with restrictions in place then we might have to go backwards before we go forwards in terms of participation,” says Prodger. “Who knows where we’re going to be.”
The CCC, though, as it has proved this year, is ready to lead from the front.