Club Cricket Conference

Thursday, 26th May 2022

The Cream of Devon

By Richards Edwards

25 March 2022

From Sidmouth’s Fort Field ground you can hear the soothing sound – in summer at least – of waves lapping against the shore in this stunning corner of Devon. Over the past two years, though, the club itself has managed to do far more than simply keep its head above water. 

As they prepare for the 2022 season, the Sidmouth chairman, Saj Patidar, is finally looking forward to a restriction-free campaign and one where Covid protocols finally fade into the background, leaving a club that was formed as far back as 1823, to get on with doing what it does best.

“We’ve been quite lucky, but we do have a good step-up,” he says. “We had a players’ meeting last week, which was probably the earliest we’ve ever had one, and for the first time in a long time, you’re starting to get the feeling back that comes at this time of year.

“The cricket season is coming, and people are excited. I think that’s such a healthy thing after everything that has happened since 2020.

“The lack of access to changing rooms, shower facilities and everything in between were highly detrimental to the amateur game. It had an impact. 

“My concern isn’t for the bigger clubs but the smaller clubs around the county. I saw it at first hand. I played a couple of third XI for the club last season and some of the clubs we played were really feeling it. You could see the damage that the pandemic had done.”

Sidmouth itself has had its moments in the sun in recent years, with England off-spinner Dom Bess having come through the club’s youth ranks. His three cousins still play for the club when time allows. Alex Barrow, another former Somerset player, is also a household name in this part of the world. 

While membership numbers have remained stable in the club’s adult section, the figures are booming at youth level, with the introduction of the All Stars programme swelling the size of the club’s offering from under-9s upwards.

But while the club is moving on an upwards trajectory, Patidar, does have concerns over the way the club game is managed from on high. And openly questions what he sees as the ECBs attempts to professionalise the amateur game.

“We had a committee meeting where we discussed the need to renew our Clubmark and I asked them, why should we bother? he says. After a while it became clear that the only reason was to enable us to play Premier League cricket. That’s what it has come to – this is the state of cricket in this country.

The ECB have tried to professionalise the amateur game and it’s crazy. All they have done is create an absolute bombshell. There are certain elements that absolutely should be required, such as safe hands, I get that. But, generally, there’s over-governance of the game at the local level and it’s completely unnecessary.

“The ECB continually impinge on how the game is played at the local level. We don’t get anything back from all of this stuff. There was a carrot at the start, a financial incentive to play Premier League cricket, something like £750 or £1000 but that’s gone now. 

“We’ve got a Clubmark file that’s probably four or five inches thick. This isn’t just a problem for cricket, it’s a huge issue for all sports - amateur sport has been over-governed by local bodies.

“Amateur sport in this country is run by armies of volunteers, everything is done by volunteers – but what happens when these guys get older and retire? The younger generation have showed that they’re reluctant to step-up and I can see real problems across all sports in the not-too-distant future. 

“I’m very lucky that we’ve got a 14-member committee but when we’re jumping through hoops for the ECB, you have to remember that these guys have got other things to worry about, all the other stuff that goes with running a cricket club, the bar, the ground, the juniors. The workload, which falls on a small group of people, is huge.”

Looking at the wider picture in Devon, Patidar believes that cricket in the West Country at large, and in Devon in particular, is in a position to thrive. He believes the regionalisation of the league system beneath the top three divisions has played a large role in that. As has Devon’s close-ties with neighbouring Somerset.

“Somerset have a really healthy relationship with the county and also the clubs too,” he says. “The number of players to come through that link is fantastic. Do I sometimes think that we’re forgotten about in this part of the world? Maybe, but I think we just get on with it down here. 

“Devon is a big county and the Devon League do a damn good job. The regionalisation below the B Division has worked really well too, with the splitting of the leagues beneath the top three leagues into East and West playing a key role in ensuring that club cricket remains in a healthy state.

“I think Sidmouth, and a lot of other clubs in Devon, are going into this season with a real sense of optimism.”