By Richard Edwards
24th June 2022
people in English cricket are better placed to comment on the overall health of
the recreational game than Jon Filby, the chair of Sussex Cricket – an
organisation that not only looks after the running of the world’s oldest
professional club, but also the sport as a whole across the county.
In an exclusive interview with the Club Cricket Conference, Filby tells us that while grassroots cricket remains in rude health, there is no room for complacency. And, during a T20 Blast campaign which has seen most counties endure a spectator drop-off of at least 20%, and probably more, he believes greater efforts are required to ensure that cricket retains its attraction, both for those who play the game, and those who love watching it.
“My sense is that, actually, we’re not in a bad place,” he says. “The truth is that there was a Covid bubble in participation in 2020 and 2021. That caused a significant increase in participation numbers in cricket – it was basically the first thing people could do outside in July 2020. Cricket benefited hugely from that and, on the whole, we’ve maintained that.
“In the Sussex Cricket League this year, we had 11 new teams and two new clubs. Four teams have dropped out after, for want of a better phrase, they had over-reached themselves.
“That said, each week we’re seeing other teams and clubs that are struggling – weve had 61 cancellations in the first seven weeks of the season. Clearly that’s a concern, but I don’t think it’s helpful to paint the picture of a game in terminal decline.
If you total up the number of league games played in Sussex this year, then it’s almost exactly the same as it was last year. And whilst undoubtedly clubs were not at the peaks they were at before, it’s not necessarily a bad position.
“In some ways, we’re a victim of our spectacular success in 2020 and 2021. Cricket has never been more popular as the summer sport than it was in those two years – and it’s our job to ensure that continues.”
A key element of that, of course, relates to funding and ensuring that the money required for the upkeep of old facilities and the creation of new ones enables participation levels to continue at their current rate.
The distribution of funds is an age-old debate, not just in English cricket but across British sport. On the south coast, Filby would like to see funds channelled where they’re needed most - and far more quickly.
“We have to ensure that more money comes down from the centre to recreational cricket. We have to stop the bloated centre from spending all the money before it gets out to recreational cricket,” he says.
“There are pavilions across Brighton and Hove and Crawley and villages too that are urgently in need of support and investment - that should be done locally, of course, but it’s incumbent upon us as a game to ensure that the money that is available is spent.
“There was a promise that 30% of the money from the television deal would get to recreational cricket, but I haven’t really seen that happening yet. We’ve got to do better at getting money down to grassroots cricket.”
A further key factor, which is inextricably linked to funding but also presents a generational issue, is that of pitches.
“Groundsmen and the lovely people who used to look after grounds are less available than they used to be,” he says. “I think hybrid grass pitches are really important and a big opportunity for us to look at.
“It has gone a bit quiet as they have been trialled and tested but the signs are, on county cricket grounds where they’re used, and particularly in nets, they do create a robust and excellent playing surface. There’s an opportunity for the game to continue that ongoing development.”
Getting good quality pitches is critical for good quality cricket to be played on them, but the pitch itself is an irrelevance if 11 whites-clad cricketers don’t turn up to play every Saturday.
Although the number of conceded games has become less of a concern since the opening weeks of the season, Filby believes the introduction of a loan system, facilitated by the use of social media and with the backing of the powers that be, could be one answer to concerns over availability.
Tinkering with the length of matches could also help address that issue.
“There’s quite good evidence that players are willing to travel and play for other clubs,” he says. “I think a loan system is a good idea and social media makes that a more viable proposition as well.
“One of the things that we’ve done to increase participation in Sussex is to put in a weekly T20 competition and, again, there’s some evidence that some players are choosing to play in that rather than weekend league cricket. It fits in better. I went to an event run by Sussex Rugby and if you think cricket has got problems, then recreational rugby has got severe issues.
“One of the things they talked about was playing floodlit club rugby on a Friday night. A game of rugby, at the moment, takes out your whole Saturday. If you come home from work, nip down to the rugby club and play a match on a Friday then your whole weekend is free.
“I think we have to pay attention to what’s happening in other sports but one of the main things we do, is surveying the players – we need to keep asking the players what they want.
“We don’t ask the officials, not because we don’t value their opinion, of course we do, but they do tend to support the things that they personally support. At the end of the day, cricket needs to put on cricket that people want to play.
“We do that by asking them what they want to play and responding to that. I don’t think any of these will surprise anyone, but the things that are needed are shorter travel to get to games and slightly shorter games to enable cricket not to take up as much time as might previously have been the case.
“People have less time for cricket than they used to and therefore shorter games help them play more cricket – none of that is rocket science. Those are the things that the players are telling us, and those are the things we’re endeavouring to do in Sussex.”
The sound of leather on willow on grounds dotted beautifully throughout the Sussex countryside, remains one of the defining sounds of summer. Whether it’s league cricket or an un-competitive knock-around is, by-and-large, relatively unimportant. The main thing is, Filby says, that people are out there playing the game in the first place.
“I actually also think League cricket is slightly overblown in its importance,” he says.
“I think people getting together and having a friendly game of cricket might be something that happens a bit more in the future.
“On the whole – and I’m not decrying league cricket because Sussex runs the biggest league in the world, we think – I don’t think league cricket is the be all and end all.
“I think just encouraging people to get out and have a game of cricket and use the facilities that are available all over the country, is something that’s important. We should never lose sight of that.”