Club Cricket Conference

Friday, 22nd February 2019

Ashes battle follows hard on quirky English summer

By Charles Randall

24 November 2017

The debate about the crossbow bolt subsided and attention soon turned to the Ashes in Australia, but 2017 will be remembered as a quirky cricket summer.

The ECB's crossbow ruling that relegated Middlesex by one point capped an extraordinary season when Chingford CC - or rather Essex - won the Specsavers County Championship by an enormous margin after promotion the previous summer.

Seam-bowler Jamie Porter emerged as the championship's leading wicket-taker with 75 victims and his Chingford team-mate Dan Lawrence scored 761 runs at  an average of 44.76, a young batsman in a strong order featuring Alastair Cook, Nick Browne, Tom Westley and Ravi Bopara. Porter won the Cricket Writers Club award for County Player of the year and Lawrence won the Young Player of the year - a remarkable double for that friendly Essex League club.

Much was made by the media and England selectors of the 'emergence' of  the Lancashire opener Haseeb Hameed. Lawrence, same age at 20 with a similar number of first class innings, has produced the better batting returns so far, averaging 42.89, ahead of Hameed's 37.77. But more revealing is Lawrence's strike rate of 53.56 per 100 balls (three runs an over), which is significantly better than Hameed's 36.81 (two runs an over). Even taking into account that Hameed opens and Lawrence does not yet, the difference in fluency suggests Lawrence has the better prospects.

Armed police arrived at the Oval on the final day of the Championship game between Surrey and Middlesex after a crossbow bolt was fired into the outfield from outside the wall. The ground was evacuated and match abandoned. The incident would have been of passing importance if Middlesex, the 2016 champions, had not been docked two points for slow over-rate and relegated by one point. The sudden cessation of play left them with no opportunity to increase their over-rate average to the requirement, but an ECB panel rejected that argument.

Those two penalty points were the only deductions imposed on any county in the division this summer. One might think the umpires were a little harsh not to make a generous allowance, but many people would disagree.  Whoever would have thought a season could end with a debate about a crossbow bolt?

In Australia recently burnt toast caused a 30-minute hold-up in a Sheffield Shield game at the Allan Border Field in Brisbane. There was nothing dangerous here, except that the fire alarm meant that a stand had to be evacuated of spectators and players after Nathan Lyon left his toast unattended. His New South Wales colleagues resumed and scored the runs required to defeat Queensland.

A fox in the field at Lord's halted play during the T20 Blast match between Middlesex and Hampshire, but Mossley CC, near Congleton, could top that last June when a bullock charged into the field scattering their players for a few minutes, interrupting the Kerridge innings. Mossley lost that Cheshire League Division Five game by 158 runs.

Badgers ripped up large patches of outfield  at Parkhead CC, spoiling their attractive Ecclesall Road South ground in Sheffield. This has happened at a number of club grounds over the years, but in this case the club seriously considered getting players to urinate on the outfield to deter territory marking by badgers during the night.  Apart from scattering chillies or pepper - not feasible over a large area - urine would be one of the few natural deterrents, as the use of chemicals is banned for a protected species. 

A second team county championship game between Yorkshire and Lancashire was halted by snow at Headingley in April. In view of the time of year that was less surprising than the infamous three-dayer in 1976 at Buxton, that remote but magnificent spa town high up in the Peak District. A carpet of snow ruled out the second day of the  championship match between Derbyshire and Lancashire.  That was in June during one of the hottest summers on record, and it happened to be the future England all-rounder Geoff Miller's debut game, perfect material for his post-career after-dinner speeches.

On the final day  the snow had melted on the uncovered pitch, previously a batting paradise. Umpires Dickie Bird and Dusty Rhodes ordered  play to start in bright sunshine.  Derbyshire had to bat twice on a surface soft on top and rock-hard underneath, and it would be hard to imagine a more lethal combination for fast bowling. The England pace man Peter Lever was reluctant to bowl and eventually came on with  medium pacers, taking 5-12 within four overs. Miller recalled that Derbyshire were grateful to be shot out for 42 and 87 without serious injury, losing by an innings and 348 runs.

County cricket at the evocative Park Road ground ended in 1985, and these days Buxton CC compete  at the modest level of Division Six North of the Derbyshire County League after trying out other leagues over the border in past  years. The club, founded in 1853, opened a second ground in 2014 and they aim to form a fourth team to build on a thriving youth section.

Rain, snow, bullock, smoke, crossbow, fox or badger can, and has, stopped games, but for a club to declare inside the first three overs of a match is thankfully very rare. The world media give its verdict in 2017 when Carew CC's captain declared at 18-1 against close rivals Cresselly. The table leaders guaranteed they won the Division One title of the Pembrokeshire League by denying Creselly the chance to pick up bonus points. The storm of fury on social and media was predictable.

The league committee allowed the champions to keep their crown - saying no rules had been broken - but relegated them to Division Two. One might make a corruption case here as a match was lost deliberately or 'thrown'.  At best Carew refused to play and were extremely fortunate to emerge from this disrespectful mess as champions. In 2018 Carew could win back to back titles... but in the wrong order.

Cricket might have a rich tapestry but the club scene has been struggling to attract players. Perhaps this is a trend in the British Isles, with probably a good many clubs in leagues  merging or folding. One suspects this is a worsening problem.

Wentworth CC, 150 years old, with a lovely ground in the Rotherham area, announced that they would fold this winter if they failed to attract new players for the 2018 season in the South Yorkshire Senior League. Despite excellent facilities at their scenic venue at Clayfield Lane and good sponsorship, they suffered during the 2017 season due to an unexpected shortage of players. Recruitment drives did not produce enough newcomers.

Dungannon CC, dating back to at least 1865 in Northern Ireland,  decided to withdraw from the Northern Cricket Union after losing all their Division Three matches in 2017. A shortage of players and helpers put the County Tyrone club's existence in doubt.