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The Club Debate: Club cricket’s unsolvable disputes – how many do you recognise?

Rich Evans by Rich Evans
@Rich_Wisden 7 minute read

What are the most common complaints in grassroots cricket which clubs struggle to address, season after season? Rich Evans reports for Wisden Cricket Monthly.

The post-season committee meeting is a forum for essential discussion, but even some of the best ideas often fall into inaction. While the freshers air their proposals, the battle-hardened acknowledge that some time-worn arguments are largely irreconcilable. While the club must modernise and strive for inclusivity, it can’t please everybody.

As captain and committee member I’ve been privy to such discussions for over a decade. In that time, the club has swelled from two Saturday teams and one colts team to four Saturday sides and one of the largest junior cricket factories in our county. Along the way I’ve seen many quietly positive changes, as well as a few, very vocal negatives. It’s an ongoing battle between fault-finders and workhorses for the soul of a cricket club, all of us hamsters on the wheel.

As part of ECB Clubmark obligations, our club chairman emailed a player survey to 280 members and associates. Thirty replied, anonymously; 21 identified as players, 15 as junior parents and three as non-playing members (some fell into more than one category). Our satisfaction score was healthy, but of course it’s a medium that invites criticism. What are the most common gripes voiced by members of a cricket club, and why is there rarely a catch-all solution?

Selection problems

“Why should he walk back into the first team?” ~ “We should have a chairman of selectors”  ~ “Why is he taking my best players?”

Team selection is a hotbed of politics and fragile egos. While captains should respect their place in the food chain, the process is marred by self-interest, not helped by certain players or captains disregarding the need for fluidity between teams. A clear junior pathway is imperative, but club stalwarts must continue to feel valued too, while fringe players being pinballed around from one XI to the next must be handled with care. Some rue the role of the ‘fill-in’ – someone who’s out of his depth and unlikely to bat or bowl – yet one skipper will blast another for taking his best player. Limited but dutiful players may resent the more talented but less committed being prioritised in an awkward battle between loyalty and performance.

“Players get drafted in last minute because they’re a quality first-XI player, but if he hasn’t played or trained for four weeks someone will say he should be proving his form in the twos,” says Phil Mist, chairman of Bicester & North Oxford CC. “But if you’re playing for 25 points and your club’s existence hinges on the outcome, you’re not going to do anything that puts your club at risk.” His conclusion is damning but he’s not alone: “Team selection is an absolute nightmare. There are no good systems – they’re all appalling, difficult to establish, impossible to get people to agree to, and the lower XI skippers will always be put out at the last minute when they’re robbed of their best players after dropouts.”

No net gains: the decline of training

“Why is attendance at nets not pushed?” ~ “No one’s spot in a team is affected by the net attendance”

Some regular netters question the continued inclusion in match-day line-ups of those who fail to practise, expecting their efforts to be rewarded instead. “At Harpenden CC training is irrelevant to selection,” says Nick Reeves, vice-captain of the second XI. “The captains of the first and second teams live in London, so there is no reason to train other than personal development. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth-team captains have not trained once. Is that right? There needs to be more emphasis on training.” At my club, several players face an hour’s commute from the city, exacerbated by the fact that several of them live a fair trek from the ground. For these reasons, most of my team rarely train, so allowing it to sway selection seems unworkable.

Pup talk: managing junior pathways

“My kid needs more opportunities to play” 

Many parents are naturally one-eyed when it comes to their children and oblivious of the step up between a colt’s A and B team, or junior and senior cricket. They see other, perhaps more talented kids get opportunities and demand parity. Even in a reputable junior set-up, complaints are often conveyed by those detached from the game and the senior section of the club.

“The pathway for the kids from junior cricket to adult cricket seems only applicable for those kids in the A team,” said one survey respondent. “The kids in the B team, who have paid for the whole season, are yet to be selected. The problem is with adult cricket and the reluctance to give kids a chance.”

My club’s chairman retorted: “Most of the under 15 B side are not ready for league cricket. If the numbers stack up, a fifth XI or maybe a Sunday development XI could be the answer – if we can find a captain and organiser. Some junior parents who are less engaged with the club tend to see themselves as customers rather than members and will have less loyalty.”

Phil Mist cites the case of a 15-year-old whose father was angered when his son was dropped to the third team. The chairman and skipper’s belief that he needed a few games to rediscover his confidence in adult cricket was justified, culminating in the player’s first century. “Parents think their Johnny is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The step up from junior under 15s to senior cricket is an immense gap in class in some cases, and some just don’t make it.”

Growing pains

“Make sure everyone that wants to play plays” ~ “We should run another league team”

The skipper of our lowest league XI, who sometimes fails to accommodate a handful of players, has proposed that we enter another team in the league even though our ad-hoc friendly fifth XI only convened on one occasion last year. “Without a league team, it just won’t materialise,” he argues. “You need that pressure of fulfilling a league fixture.” But is an excess of three or four players on occasion enough to justify another XI, when there were just as many weeks when we were scrambling around to fill the current XIs? The fluctuating nature of availability makes it a huge leap of faith.

“One of the main problems for the club, and especially the third and fourth XI, is: do we have enough players at any one time?” says Mist. “If you’re the lowest team, you probably need 15 at the start of the week, because by Friday some players higher up may drop out. We have availability problems in late July/August – the holiday season. It is a problem, with no simple answer – other than having 70-80 players, but then most weeks half of them won’t get a game.”

Can’t pay? We’ll take it away!

“We should clamp down on non-payers”

Another one linked to selection, like so many of the game’s headaches, is whether to continue to field players who haven’t paid their subs. The skipper or membership secretary has chased those owing but to no avail: do you omit the offenders from your Saturday squad? While the club will of course be accommodating if the player is facing financial hardship, every year a member of the committee suggests we adopt a tougher stance with non-payers, but what’s the alternative – not having enough players to put out a third or fourth XI, leaving some paid-up members without a game? Some of those calling for a clampdown are also pushing for the instalment of a fifth team. The return of students may allow a tougher stance in the second half of the summer, but by then there are promotion pushes, relegation dogfights and holiday season to contend with.

Social issues

“We should have more social events and family days”

A club is so much more than what happens within the boundary rope – its survival often rests on the effective running of fundraising endeavours, but such social events require volunteers and for players to contribute more time to a cause that already swallows up most of Saturday. Even with organisers installed, buy-in from the membership is far from guaranteed. “It’s the same group of 12 or so people turning up for the pre-season working party every year,” says Mist. “The other 45 don’t, which is depressing. I say to people, ‘Give us an hour a month’ – that’s 12 hours a year – not too difficult is it? If every player did that it’s an enormous amount of time.” Twelve survey responders said they’d like to help our club more; my chairman contacted the anonymous individuals several weeks ago but not one has made themselves known.

***

Monster topics such as availability, time, team selection and junior development are interconnected, routinely discussed every season in dressing rooms, pubs and committee rooms. Members must recognise that many proposals and viewpoints, which seem logical at first, can spark chain reactions. This is where communication from the executive committee is key. And while constructive feedback is crucial, members adopting a consumer stance, demanding value at every turn, is counter-productive, especially when the glue holding the whole organisation together is a bunch of ardent volunteers devoted to managing the largely unmanageable.

Read more club cricket stories

This article first appeared in issue 24 of Wisden Cricket Monthly. Subscribe here. Main illustration by Joe Provis.

Your views on last month’s Club Debate

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Where do we draw the line on player behaviour?

“Harpenden’s director of cricket Peter Frost was right: the Spirit of Cricket needs to be drummed into players’ minds constantly. A fairly strict line has to be drawn on player behaviour, otherwise the club game will lose umpires as football has lost referees. Very bad conduct such as striking an opposition player or an umpire (even worse) should draw a ban of at least a year. There needs to be naming and shaming and no sweeping under the carpet. A big problem is that many players play only league cricket and get so hyped about how they do. If they played friendlies as well it may relax them and they may realise that they should enjoy the game rather than seeing it as life and death.” David Rimmer – via email 

“Unfortunately, there are one or two clubs who don’t have the right tone, sledging under 15s on a Saturday afternoon. Pathetic.” Hampton Wick Royal CC – via Twitter

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