Anyone questioning the health of club cricket following the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic could do worse than spend some time speaking to Stephen Brenkley, the former cricket correspondent of the Independent and the current president of Barnard Castle Cricket Club of the North Yorkshire and South Durham Cricket League (NYSDL).
This weekend, at Wantage Road, ‘Barney’, as the club is universally known, will take on Tunbridge Wells in the final of the ECB Twenty20 competition.
And this particular corner of the north west will empty as a result, with hundreds expected to make the trip south to Northampton.
The whole town gathering for a game of cricket is hardly a one-off, though, as Brenkley explains.
“On a Saturday afternoon, we’ll have 300 people up at the ground, lining the boundary,” he says. “And by the end of the match we might have as many as 500, enjoying a drink at the bar. The ground really is the centre of the town.”
They’re the kind of figures that bring to mind the glory days of league cricket in this part of the world, although if Barney win at the weekend it won’t be the first time that the town has been in the headlines over the past 18 months.
“Barney, you’ll now of heard of because Dominic Cummings famously visited us last year,” says Brenkley, who has recently written ‘Small Town, Big Dreams – The Life and Times of Barnard Castle Cricket Club’.
“We were thrust into the stratosphere by his visit but I think this news is bigger in town, than even his visit actually. The fact that we are in the National Club Twenty20 final has really captured the imagination.
Which team comes out on top when they clash with Tunbridge Wells, we’ll have to wait and see. Of greater significance, perhaps, is that after the uncertainty and heartache of the past 18 months, the focus is once again on the cricket and not Covid protocols and the battle for the recreational game to survive.
At present, Barnard Castle is doing far more than that.
That said, Brenkley admits that the feelgood factor permeating this particular part of the cricket world won’t be felt elsewhere.
“I’m more optimistic here than I would be in some places,” he says. “Both from a club point of view and a league point of view.
“The North Yorkshire and South Durham League is a vibrant pioneering league. When the ECB announced the Hundred competition two or three years ago, the NYSD League was the first in the country to say ‘right, we are going to play this Hundred ball cricket’, and we introduced a new cup.
“We had already, for six or seven years, been playing something called 15’s - which was 15 six ball overs and had been hugely successful. We play a lot of cup cricket up north because we have such long summer evenings here. We can play a lot of evening cricket.
“We’ve also got a special Twenty20 competition and it’s that which Barney are champions of.
“Of course, the league has suffered during the pandemic but through careful stewardship, our president, Chris West (also a director at the National Cricket Conference), who not only talks a good game but also walks a very good game – hes quite simply the best cricket administrator locally or nationally that I’ve come across, he’s wonderful – and because of him the NYSD has made some fantastic advances.
“Barnard Castle is symbolic of that, really. At club level, it’s bloody hard to keep to going, particularly when your bar is shut because that source of income is cut off, but I have to say that the ECB has helped a little bit with the grants and loans that they have offered. I think the NYSD is in a pretty good place.”
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. The fact is that the NYSD has played more cricket during this turbulent period than any other league in the country.
And even though Barney are in the final of a short format competition, Brenkley remains confident that league cricket in its current form can survive. Although perhaps not indefinitely.
“For the time being I’m confident,” he says. “In the end – and I don’t know when that end point will be – almost all cricket will be Twenty20. At club level, the players, and they’re the ones that are important here, they are still keen to have 50 over matches on a Saturday, with win, lose or draw in the pot.
“We put that point to them quite regularly and they keep coming back and saying that. That’s a healthy sign. We do recognise that there’s a place for all forms of cricket. For the time being I’m reasonably sanguine about the future of league cricket in the broader sense.
“However, if leagues don’t have short form competitions, then they will perish.”
This weekend, as Barney empties, the players, supporters and inhabitants of this small market town, will very much be focusing on a format that is now very much English crickets dominant force. For both Barnard Castle and Tunbridge Wells - two prestigious clubs from opposite ends of the country - the battle will commence. And the debate on the long-term future of the sport will be put on hold.