By Richard Edwards
28th February 2022
Club cricket was already creaking before the pandemic. Covid has merely made those faults lines more visible.
That’s the view from East Anglian Premier League club, Mildenhall, which has bucked the trend and actually seen its membership grow considerably as a result of its proactivity over the past two years. Lou Handy, the president of the Suffolk-based side, tells the Club Cricket Conference newsletter, that it’s not a picture being repeated everywhere – and that the
pandemic could ultimately spark a widespread consolidation of clubs across his own region and beyond.
“The fault lines were already there, you can’t ignore that fact,” says Hardy. “But I think everything that has happened since early 2020 has accentuated everything – the cracks have opened up even more widely.”
The East Anglian Premier League comprises Mildenhall’s own county, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and North Essex. In terms of geographical spread, it’s reach is as broad as any in the country. Mildenhall themselves still consider themselves a small club in financial terms, although their performances on the field suggest that they’re not too far off joining the likes of Swardeston, the winners of the ECB Vitality Club T20 title in 2019, in the upper echelons of East Anglian cricket.
“We came third last year, which is our joint highest finish,” he says. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re one of the teams who would expect to be in the top half of that league. We put five sides out every weekend, going from the highest level, which is obviously the Premier League, to Division Nine in the Two Counties (the feeder league to the EAPL).
“The fifth team arrived relatively recently, in 2019, while our fourth team arrived 11 years ago. We used to have one pitch and a football pitch. We converted the football pitch into the cricket pitch and our chairman also became our groundsman as well. Now we’re looking for another ground because five teams into two pitches obviously doesn’t go.
“Are other teams expanding? I would say we’re a good anomaly. It’s common knowledge that a number of teams are struggling. Burwell and Exning, for example, pulled out of the league in January because they couldn’t get a team of sufficient quality. So, the Premier League will be a league of 11 teams this year, rather than 12. There are clubs that are struggling.”
It’s doubtless a picture reflected elsewhere in the country, but Hardy believes that the clubs who took a more positive attitude during the Covid crisis have left themselves in a better position than those who bunkered down, closed the shutters and just looked to ride out the storm.
“We looked to do whatever we could when the pandemic first hit,” he says. “Whether that was arranging coaching, or friendlies, we just wanted to keep people engaged. A number of clubs didn’t do that. What you’re seeing is that the clubs that made the effort are now attracting the players, and the ones that didn’t - the ones that thought they would just get through the season and then carry on again as normal – are finding that people have either drifted from the game or have gone and played their cricket elsewhere.
“For me, grassroots cricket is in a pretty perilous state. There are clubs that aren’t far off a situation where they lose two or three players and the club no longer exists. A lot of people here have put in a lot of time and effort to ensure that we could continue to get as many cricketers playing the game as possible. I think people looked at that and thought, yes, here’s a club that’s trying to make the best of a bad position.”
Mildenhall’s band of volunteers have clearly had a huge impact, with the club bouncing back strongly on and off the pitch. As Hardy alludes to throughout our conversation, though, others are experiencing a very different scenario as club cricket returns to something approaching normality after the tumult.
“Even before the pandemic, even without Covid, some of the smaller clubs were struggling,” he says. “Tom Westley played his club cricket at Weston Colville which, as a local club, was very well respected. But they don’t exist anymore. When those
sorts of club stop existing then you know things are tough.
“It’s very sad and you rarely see a club come back. Once it’s packed up, how do you get it going again? From our point of view, we’re trying to make Mildenhall an attractive place for anyone with Premier League aspirations to beginner, or entry-level. At the moment we’re doing that but you always have to be vigilant, you always have to make sure people are engaged and enjoying themselves.
“As we’ve seen it doesn’t take long for a situation to unravel – one minute you’re riding the wave and the next you’re under the water.”