No money, dwindling interest and a bleak future: how English club cricket found itself in a battle for survival

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Nobody really knows when Thixendale Cricket Club was formed. The best estimate is around 1950, the summer when those “two little friends of mine” Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine were bowling England to defeat.

Nestled in the tiny hamlet that gives the club its name, it has served generations of players in the idyllic Yorkshire Wolds but its future is now uncertain.

Despite the construction of a new timber pavilion five years ago, which at the cost of £64,000 replaced the old caravan used for a changing room, Thixendale CC folded halfway through last season joining the hundreds of other village and club teams disappearing from England’s summer game.

This week the England and Wales Cricket Board was forced to release early the findings of a survey of recreational cricketers which revealed that the number of players aged between 14 and 65 dropped from 908,000 in 2013 to 844,000 last summer, and five percent of matches were forfeited because at least one team was unable to pull together 11 players.

In reality nobody knows how many people play cricket. There are lots of leagues below the radar not associated with organised cricket. But in the absence of reliable figures the ECB took responses from 37,500 adult and over-14 youth players to their own survey and combined them with analysis of 1.2 million league scoreboards on their website to work out there are 247,000 players who play regularly. Another 405,000 are deemed 'occasional’ players who turn out between three and 11 times a season and 192,000 ‘cameo’ players playing out once or twice a summer, probably when begged to by desperate clubs like Thixendale CC.

In July they gave up trying to field a regular XI after weeks of only being able to rustle up five or six players. It has taken a campaign to find new members, helped by publicity in the local paper, the York Press, to throw Thixendale a lifeline. They now they have enough people to commit to one more crack at postponing for another year pensioning off a club ready to celebrate its 65th birthday.

Adrian Brader is the club groundsman, tending the pitch on land his father started working as a tenement farmer in 1953, and has seen the club lose its place at the centre of village life.

“When I was a kid it was a night out or afternoon treat to go and watch the cricket match,” he said. “There was nothing else to do. Now everybody goes out more, family life has become more important because people are busier during the week. Wives possibly have more say and it is hard to get people to give up the time. It is difficult. You go through the same people every time and have five or six who will always turn up week in week out but others will always say they have better things to do. We are not the only club in this position. Others are struggling, too.”

A quick Google search reveals plenty of stories from local papers of cricket clubs, some with long histories like Thixendale, that are folding as the sport faces challenges from modern life to keep players interested.

The problem facing the ECB is that every league, every village and every club has its own unique issues. “In some ways the figures show the changes we knew were already happening and we now have to plan for change to happen sooner rather than later,” Paul Bedford, the ECB’s head of non‑first-class cricket, said.

“Times have changed, we know that. In the past if it rained people stayed in the bar and turned up the next week. Now if people lose the habit of playing they are hard to get back. We are looking at what we can do with clubs to encourage play when it rains, like better covering, to help keep players interested along with many other initiatives, some already trialled.”

Close geographically to Thixendale but a world away in terms of cricket is the Lancashire League, which once could rival county cricket for crowds and star overseas players. Now many clubs are faced with big debts and the days of signing overseas stars such as Allan Donald (Rishton), Learie Constantine (Nelson) and a young Shane Warne (Accrington) are long gone.

“It is in the league’s rules that you have to sign an overseas player but you have to pay them a salary of over £5,000 for the summer, an air fare, you can’t get car insurance for the summer for less than £1,500 and then you have their accommodation costs. Overall it is about £10,000 which could easily pay for three level three coaches doing 100 sessions a year with the kids,” Michael Brown, the chairman of Burnley Cricket Club, said.

But it is brewery debt that is crippling Lancashire League clubs, according to Brown, who says Burnley owed more than £70,000 to Thwaites when he took over the chairmanship in 2011. Gone are the days when Lancashire League clubs would have gates to rival county cricket but the costs of running a club have spiralled.

“Umpires fees are £37 each so there is £74 before you start, a match ball costs £40 [of which two are used in league cricket] and you have to pay scorers and other costs, and that is just for one team on a weekend,” said Brown. “It you are fielding five or six teams that is a lot of money.”

But Burnley are lucky. Brown, who played for Hampshire, Middlesex and Surrey, was able to call on their most famous former player, James Anderson, to help out. One cricket dinner later with Anderson and the debt was reduced and has now been restructured to a more manageable level.

Others are struggling. At 184 years old, Colne Cricket Club is the oldest club in the Lancashire League but faces closure if it does not raise £100,000 over the next year to pay off debts.

The issue for many teams at all levels is the length of cricket matches played. Persuading players to give up their weekends to play 110 overs on a Saturday and then turn out on Sundays is proving impossible. In London the old Evening Standard Challenge Trophy, which ended with a final at the Oval, has been abandoned for 2015 after more than half of first‑round ties this year were forfeited by teams unable to pull together a side. “The length of cricket being played is a turn-off for the participants involved,” Simon Prodger, managing director of the National Cricket Conference, said. “There is a real debate around that now.”

At Hampstead Cricket Club, situated in one of the most affluent areas of Britain, it is proving hard to put out teams on a Sunday. “I would say Saturday league cricket is still pretty healthy,” Nick Brown, Hampstead’s head of cricket, said. “But Sunday cricket is completely different. It has become a non‑event in terms of being competitive and we are a big club.”

Most clubs report a thriving junior section and Prodger reckons it is the income from these which is keeping most of them afloat. The difficulty is keeping players involved in the game once they make the step from junior to adult cricket. The ECB has introduced a national Twenty20 Cup for under‑19s in a bid to persuade youngsters to stick with the sport. It was something trialled in the Middlesex League last year and was popular at Hampstead.

“Playing in coloured clothing is the elixir of life to these young lads and we have to be open to playing Twenty20 with a pink ball if it works.” Brown said.

The ECB is promising more money for club cricket, new programmes to promote it within the South Asian community that props up many clubs already, and a drive to persuade league committees often made up of men far older than those playing the game now that Twenty20 could be the answer. It may not be enough to save clubs like Thixendale. source: telegraph.co.uk

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