By Richard Edwards
9 November 2020
The normal season may have gone the way of the Dodo this summer, but cricket clubs up and down the country did, and continue to have, an impact on those playing at the very highest level.
Take Ashington Cricket Club as an example. Anyone braving a bitterly cold Tuesday morning in the North East this week, would have been treated to the sight of Mark Wood tearing in and sending down his 90mph plus bullets in the club's net as part of his preparation for the T20 and ODI series in significantly warmer climes in South Africa later this month.
“It was freezing,” Wood said. “But I felt good.”
Wood is a man who has always been in touch with his roots. In August 2019, he returned to the club to allow the club’s youngsters the chance to get up close and personal with the World Cup trophy he played such a large part in England winning against New Zealand at Lords earlier in the summer.
Back in 2017, Wood attempted to make a comeback from injury for the club, only for the Northumberland Tyneside senior league to decline his application to be registered. No doubt to the relief of the opening batsmen of Ashington’s next opponents.
It’s not just Wood who has been thankful for the help of his club during a year like no other.
Just ask James Bracey.
The Gloucestershire batsman and wicket-keeper made an immediate impact in England colours this summer, scoring a beautifully crafted 85 against the likes of Jimmy Anderson for Jos Buttler’s team in the first action of the summer.
At the time, he was unarguably the most watched batsman in world cricket, with thousands tuning into the ECB’s feed in a desperate bid to actually watch some live sport. He may have scored his runs in silence but, back in Bristol and his hometown club of Winterbourne, there was nothing but respect for a player who has always been a big noise in the West Country.
And he’s in no doubt of the impact that the club game has had on his development, particularly given his relatively late entry into the first class game.
“I played a lot of club cricket growing up,” he says. “I wouldn’t just dip in and out, which is something you sometimes have to do when you’re on a professional schedule. I would be playing week-in, week-out, every Saturday. I got a lot of cricket under my belt and scored a large volume of runs, which really put me in the best possible shape to go and do the same for Gloucestershire when the chance came.”
When the Bristol boy wasn’t scoring runs, he was a popular figure on the Gloucestershire football circuit too, as a referee. Hardly a job for the fainthearted, but a demonstration of Bracey’s ability to be unfazed by any situation – something that has been abundantly clear since he made his first class debut in 2016 at the age of 19.
“A lot of players in the modern era get wrapped in cotton wool and have to rest – I just wanted to bat, score runs and put my name forward,” he says. “That was the best thing for me and I think that’s what made me stand out.
“Club cricket is still hugely important. There were a lot of county cricketers coming back and playing for their clubs last season and that can only be a good thing. For those young lads who are in that position at 17 or 18, it stands out if you’re scoring runs against the likes of Jack Leach and Benny Howell – it’s going to expose you to players at the highest level a lot more quickly.
“Next year, with the club season being a bit more standard, hopefully we’ll see that again. We’ll see how the club game is just a brilliant way of bringing players through.”
Bracey is a demonstration of that fact, and after shining for England in that intra-squad match, he’s far closer to gaining international recognition than he was at the start of the season. His rise also shows that it’s possible to get to the top without going through the traditional route taken by many players.
Winterbourne and Bristol Cricket Club have both played a crucial role in his development. They, and he, will hope that there’s plenty more to come.