Club Cricket Conference

Thursday, 7th July 2022

Lancashire League moving with the times…..

When it comes to club cricket, the Lancashire League is among the most iconic in the world. The roll-call of greats who have performed in the competition is lengthy, including the likes of Viv Richards, Steve Waugh and Shane Warne. 

The modern schedule dictates that players of that calibre are no longer available for stints in a league known and renowned around the globe. Besides, over the past two years the league has had plenty of other concerns to worry about, not least the survival of an institution dating all the way back to 1892.   

“It would have been easy to throw the towel in,” says Mike Bibby, the league’s chairman. “The cricket was cancelled, the league had closed down until the pandemic was gone, it would have been  so easy. But we battled through. 

“Initially there were no spectators, then were risk assessments that just went on and on. The lack of communication from the ECB was very, very poor. They would issue a statement they had got from the government and then change their mind two days later. 

That information was then cascaded to clubs, sometimes just a day or two before a game and clubs simply didn’t have time to react.  

“They eventually got their act together but it was very, very difficult at the start.”  

Regardless of the stresses and strains placed on the recreational game by the pandemic, this has been a time of rapid evolution for league cricket across the country. And nowhere have the winds of change been more keenly felt than in the north west. 

“I had been umpiring and had also been chairman of a local football league, which is also quite big in the county,” says Bibby. 

“Someone asked me if I fancied moving over the cricket side of administration and it opened my eyes. Nothing was happening. There was a danger that every league was going to bypass us. We were sat there with the member clubs just saying ‘we’re alright, to hell with everybody else’. 

“I managed, with the help of one or two others, to look at expansion. First of all, we got three new clubs in and the year after we brought another seven in, who were previously members of the Central Lancs League, which became the Pennine League. 

We’re now at 24, with promotion and relegation. Everyone’s thinking has been totally transformed and the league is so competitive it’s unbelievable. 

More change is afoot as well. 

“In 2023, our senior league Division One will become an ECB Premier League – thats how much we have moved in ten years,” he says. “Over here, there has been a big change in attitude, particularly in Lancashire, from the county club and what was the Lancashire Cricket Board and now the Lancashire Development Foundation.  

“They’ve managed to get involved with all the leagues – the aim now is for five Premier League within the county. By 2023 there will only be two leagues (in Lancashire) which aren’t part of the premier pyramid, which will be the Bolton League and Ribblesdale League. We’re looking at a way of incorporating the Ribblesdale League under us.  

“The Bolton League, I believe, are talking to the Greater Manchester League, with a view to doing the same.”  

By any county’s standards, the volume of cricket within Lancastrian borders is extraordinary, which is part of its almost unique attraction, particularly to generations of overseas stars who have grown up listening to stories of the Lancashire League’s remarkable history and the huge crowds it attracted in its heyday. 

The days of packed houses at the likes of Rishton, Accrington, Lowerhouse and Nelson are no more, but that’s not to say that attendances not seen at any other sport away from football aren’t uncommon.  

“There are still some very good professionals coming and playing in Lancashire but cricket at the top level means that the very players are now playing almost 12 months of the year now,” says Bibby.  

“The players haven’t got the time to come and I don’t think any club could now afford them anyway. What we’re seeing now, is the introduction of county players who have come to the end of their time. Quite a few of them have sub-prod in the league and now one or two have taken up a full-time professional engagement as well. 

“Most of them seem to have a job in the private schools in the area as well.  

“The crowds have disappeared in comparison to the sizes you used to see in the 40s, 50s and early 60s but we do get big crowds for some of the T20 games. If you’ve got a local derby, between say Lowerhouse and Burnley – that’s a huge game – for the Worsley Cup final three years ago, there were over 6000 people there.  

“Last season, Clitheroe played Lowerhouse in the Worsley Cup final again, and there were 2,500 spectators too. That’s a hell of a lot of people in modern day cricket. At first XI level, you would still get a couple of hundred people.” 

There remains an ongoing debate over whether playing on a Saturday or Sunday would impact the size of crowds coming through the gate. Historically, the Lancashire League have always played on a Sunday, while the other leagues in the area generally play on a Saturday. At the moment, the league is run on the basis that a third of the games get played on a Saturday, with the others being completed on a Sunday. 

And teas? 

“Oh teas,” laughs Bibby. “I’m not sure we’ve ever talked so much about teas! We have no proposal from any club or the executive to stop providing teas. Of course, we haven’t been providing for two years but the whole idea of teas is fast disappearing. Most of the clubs employ outside caterers, not just for the players but also for the spectators and the umpires. It’s not sandwiches, it’s homemade pies and chips. A lot of the clubs are doing that now.”  

In a changing world, yet more food for thought.