Club Cricket Conference

Thursday, 15th November 2018

Herts plough lone furrow as play-offs perplex

Personal View: Charles Randall

19 October 2018 

The chairman of the Club Cricket Conference is still fuming, and I don't blame him.

Robbie Book, a life-long player and member of Totteridge-Millhillians CC,  saw his club win the Hertfordshire Premier League for the first time this summer. Except apparently they were not champions, even though most people would say they were. And Wisden Cricketers Almanack will show they finished top when it publishes the 2018 league tables.

The reason for Book's dissatisfaction - and one should not quote him verbatim in a family website - was that Hertfordshire introduced top-four play-offs back in 2014 to 'decide' the champions, and Totteridge on their home pitch did not win the final. Therefore they supposedly did not become Herts champions for the first time as deserved.

Their defeat was the second inflicted on a Herts League table-topping club. That meant Welwyn Garden City were proclaimed 'champions' for the third time in succession, having actually won the league only once.

The idea of a play-off final was hatched from the demise of the county knockout cup. This 45-over competition had suffered from one-sided games and walkovers, but at least the final stood as a showpiece finale on an autumn Sunday to round off the season.

A Hertfordshire League panel decided that a Saturday league play-off final would revive that end-of-season climax. To this day it is still the only play-off system in UK cricket to decide the champions of a Premier League; so it is not an idea that has exactly spread like wild fire.

Play-offs have been very much part of the two rugby codes and hockey, but the reason for that is fairness. Clubs lose players to international teams through the season while fulfilling their league commitments. The chance to win the title at full strength through the knockout system compensates for that.

In the case of rugby, the play-off final will draw a big crowd to bolster bank balances, and the community accepts that the league table is mostly a sideshow to jostle for the best knockout draw, as with hockey. Nobody grumbled when Saracens beat Exeter in the 2018 rugby union premiership final, even though Saracens had finished second in the table well behind Exeter.

None of this applies to the Hertfordshire Premier League, unaffected by representative call-ups. The play-off  concept asked the cricket community to swallow the notion that a fourth-placed team could finish as genuine champions. Indeed, Welwyn Garden City became 'champions' from third place in 2016 and 2018. Except that few people would seriously regard them as champions.

By all accounts the final at Totteridge was superbly hosted, and spectators enjoyed a well fought match that WGC won with ease in the end by seven wickets, thanks to 126 off 92 balls by Alex Chalker.

Steve Selwood, the Totteridge director of cricket, did not share Book's view of injustice. He thought the play-off system was a good idea and gave the season a "knife-edge" finish. No doubt his opinion was shared by Owais Shah and his Welwyn Garden City team-mates.

It looks as though Hertfordshire will go it alone for the foreseeable future. Barry Hellewell, the league secretary, said: "There is no appetite for change. The players wanted something different, and they got it."

Another drawback is that the final takes place two weeks after the end of the league season, but unlike a cup competition on Sundays, this cannot be changed. The fixture secretary cannot confirm fixtures on those two Saturdays, and the groundsman cannot be sure if his pitch is certain to be used or not until final league positions are known.

In 2014 the new play-offs made an awkward start. Harpenden, in third place, reached the final and lost against Radlett, who had finished 54 points ahead of them in first place.

in 2015 the notion became even more ridiculous. Bishop's Stortford, in fourth place, were asked to believe they could be regarded as possible champions when they travelled to table-topping Radlett for the semi-final, having finished 141 points behind.

Wikipedia's admirable archive lists every club's finishing place, and the top four are juggled  according to play-off success without indication. To an outsider this would be misleading because it wold be assumed the numbers refer to league table positions. No play-offs are  mentioned.

So in 2016 Bishop's Stortford tied for first place thrillingly with Radlett on equal points in the league, but dropped to runners-up on total wins and then fell another place to third after the play-offs. The whole idea is not equitable, and Book would agree whole-heartedly.

The 2018 league competition proved to be an exciting one, with Totteridge pipping North Mymms at the top. The champions owed much to opener Ben Howgego's 989 runs at 70.6, including three centuries, and spinner Iresh Saxena headed the division's wicket takers with 43. Adam Rossington, when released from Northamptonshire duty, scored pugnacious runs as a genuine Millhillian, and Jonathan Miles, the Cumbria left-hander, provided good support for Howgego. Owais Shah enjoyed a vintage season for Welwyn Garden City, hitting 1,063 runs at 81.7, the league's leading aggregate, and he weighed in with useful wickets.

Little went right for Totteridge in the play-off final. They should have made far more than 208, but they lost Miles to a run-out when he had hit 42 off 35 balls, and the dangerous Rossington was stumped off the Australian left-arm spinner Matthew Grant for 37 off 36 balls. Grant took 3-29 off his 10 overs. In reply Welwyn Garden City knocked off the runs in only 32.2 overs, thanks to Chalker's fine hundred.

Radlett went into freefall when they lost their in-form captain Kabir Toor. The former Middlesex all-rounder suffered to a serious head injury when he was attacked in the street while walking through Covent Garden. He missed the last five matches of the season, though his team recovered to fifth place probably pleased to have avoided the play-offs.

Toor made a full recovery,  but was frustrated to have his season ended after reaching 770 runs at 64.1. His batting skill might have taken him past Shah's total, and his leg-spin accounted for 33 league wickets in an impressive season. This year saw the emergence of Mike Atherton's son Josh.as a batting and off-spin force at Radlett.

Will Jones, from the Watford club West Herts, cemented his reputation as the best seam-bowler in Hertfordshire with 42 league wickets. In August, Jones opened the bowling for the MCC against the Club Cricket Conference at Lord's and was rested when his analysis read 7-7-0-2. CCC never really recovered from that start and lost by seven wickets.