When English cricket was at one of its cyclical low ebbs 17 years ago the ECB brought in Lord MacLaurin, the man who turned Tesco into Britain’s biggest retailer, to conduct a root and branch analysis of the game.
His report, ‘Raising the Standard’, caused much controversy but eventually produced significant change to the first class game (two divisions, different formats, etc) and attempted to link it directly to recreational cricket.
The idea was to imitate the Australian model by establishing a direct route from club cricket to the professional game. The vehicle was to be ECB Premier Leagues, where the best club teams in the county, funded with the best facilities, would compete against each other to ‘raise the standard’.
The county clubs would then have a ready pool of top semi-professional players to bring into their second XI, and eventually first XIs.
Sound great? The only problem is it fundamentally missed the point of who recreational cricketers are and what they’re looking for on a Saturday afternoon. Many aren’t looking for a trek across Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon, to play for the entire day and head back again.
They want good competition and good facilities, but also comradeship and community, and most don’t have the faintest inkling that they feature in some county club’s grand plan - and they wouldn’t be interested if they did. Life’s too short and there are plenty of other things to fill their time and ambition.
Several counties have now had to re-examine the structure of their ECB Premier League, including Yorkshire. The Yorkshire League is splitting, with the northern clubs and the Yorkshire Academy understandably opting to play in York & District League.
But the southern clubs, less understandably, are proposing to stay together, and include Lincolnshire clubs Appleby Frodingham (Scunthorpe) and Cleethorpes.
So the journey times will still be as vast and the logistics of managing promotion and relegation to such a widely diverse scatter of clubs quite impossible. Not unsurprisingly they haven’t been finding it easy to get other clubs to join them.
That leaves the South Yorkshire League. Setting aside for the moment their surprise at being left out of this equation (are they too strong? Or are some YL clubs worried about their own survival?), they are instead concentrating on what they do rather well, which is to help support and improve the structure of local cricket.
The last two decades have seen huge challenges to recreational cricket. Where once the Sheffield League had divisions for almost every letter of the alphabet, now there is no Sheffield League at all, no Norton and District League - and the South Yorkshire Alliance, formed only four years ago and designed to fill the vacuum by combining with good clubs from Doncaster and Rotherham, has really struggled to survive.
Last night, an EGM was held to discuss a proposal to merge with the South Yorkshire League. I can only wish them well.
The South Yorkshire League is very well run and has been at the forefront of positive development in the management of the game.
Cricket will survive into the new century and beyond because it’s a game of great depth and fascination that appeals to a tremendously diverse range of people – of all ages and creeds and genders. But it won’t just happen. It needs to be run properly. That’s how you raise the standard.