By Richard Edwards
14 December 2020
It looks as though it will be a case of evolution rather than revolution in club cricket in 2021 – although many of the lessons learnt during this extraordinary summer look set to be put to good use.
In a week that saw the first vaccine administered, the fervent hope of all those involved in the club game is that next season will have more in common with 2019 than 2020. But with winter practice set to be severely hampered by the pandemic, it’s still likely that disruption to recreational sport will continue into the spring.
Regardless, having spoken to senior figures in leagues up and down the country, it appears that the club game is ready for whatever is thrown at it.
Some leagues – most notably Devon and Cornwall – are continuing with a business as usual approach. There will, they told the CCC newsletter, be no dramatic change in approach, despite the upheaval of the past nine months.
Other leagues are making more subtle changes to the way they operate, particularly lower down the league pyramid, with greater flexibility being introduced when it comes to scheduling.
“Where we are thinking of change is at third team level,” says Keir Hopley, chairman of the rules and registration committee, at the Middlesex County Cricket League. “We want to produce some flexibility for clubs to play on Sundays if they want to.
“Some clubs have to hire grounds for their third teams, because there’s only a handful of our clubs who have two grounds. If both clubs agree that they want to play on Sunday, they can play on the Sunday immediately after the Saturday when the game was due to take place. The only proviso being that the league has to be notified of any changes before the start of the season.”
This change is a proposal that members of the league will be asked to vote on in the run-up to Christmas, meaning that nothing is currently set in stone. It’s clear, though, that extending the weekend for league cricket is an eminently sensible move given the strain that is likely to be put on local authority grounds over the next 12 months. It’s one of a series of tweaks by the Middlesex league, with clubs playing below a certain level also set to be given the option of playing on artificial pitches, the expectation being that the pandemic might lead to an increase in non-grass surfaces in a bid by councils to keep maintenance costs as low as possible in the future.
The flexible weekend-long approach is one that has been used in Devon for a number of years.
In the north west, there are plans afoot to ensure that cup matches are decided on the day, with the Duckworth Lewis System (DLS) being used if enough overs have been bowled and a bowl-out taking place if that’s not possible. Previously, teams had ten days to replay an unfinished or cancelled fixture but after piloting the one-day finish out of necessity in 2020, Chris West, president of the North Yorkshire & South Durham Cricket League, has said that it will now continue. Having played half a league season this summer, he is optimistic about the future.
“By 2021 we are extremely hopeful that there will be a full season, of sorts,” he says. “We didn’t have promotion or relegation this year, we felt it was unfair to have that over such a truncated season, with players unavailable and matches likely to be called off as a result of the pandemic.
“But we are keen that we don’t go two years without promotion or relegation. We’re going to set some sort of benchmark, so if you complete two thirds of match-days during the season, then promotion and relegation will apply.”
Other leagues will doubtless look to follow suit.
At the height of the crisis, when it appeared unlikely that any club cricket would take place at all, there were plenty willing to write the obituary of afternoon cricket, particularly in the lower reaches of the game. It would, some opined, hasten the introduction of Twenty20 cricket below first and second team level.
On the south coast, though, the opposite appears to have happened.
“We thought there was a desire to play less overs in the divisions, a lot of players said it would be great to stick with 40 overs and not go back to 50,” says Steve Vear, general secretary and vice chairman of the Southern Premier League.
“But we put that forward at the AGM in November and it wasn’t supported, to our absolute amazement. We honestly thought that the shorter game and the shorter days for people to go and do other things with their life, would work well. But that obviously isn’t the case.
“I would think at the start of the 2021 season, we will still be working with the previous Covid precautions. We’ve got some scenario planning going on and we know what we’ll be doing if Covid is still an issue and also what we’ll do if it isn’t. It’s very important that we lead in the way that people would expect Premier League’s to do so.”
That’s one of the recurring themes around the club season in 2020, with the leadership shown by recreational cricket acting as a shining beacon for other sports to aspire to.
The hope will be that 2021 offers significant respite from the problems of the past 12 months – but if they persist, then club cricket is ready to stand up and be counted once again.