Today new writer Will Wright reminds us how important it is for developing cricketers to play club cricket against adults. English cricket would be lost without our amateur game.
The first call up I received to my local club’s second XI came as a fresh faced 16 year old. A balmy July morning and a dry summer ensured optimal batting conditions, which meant upon winning the toss I was thrust into the line of fire to open the batting. After a few nervy moments early on, a couple of boundaries settled the nerves and soon enough I was into my flow. Some friendly bowling and a scorched outfield helped me rattle along in the early overs, bringing up my half century just before drinks with a lofted straight six off the spinner.
Needless to say, I was delighted with how events were unfolding, trying in vain to conceal the grin that was spreading across my face as I sheepishly acknowledged the applause from my teammates. Soon after I was out, losing my shape horribly in a botched attempt to recreate my maximum from the previous over. Despite the unsightly end to my innings, I departed with a great deal of satisfaction over this first foray into second team cricket, basking in the warm reception of my onlooking teammates as I sauntered towards the dressing room.
This proved to be short lived, however, as I turned the corner and entered our dingy, damp changing room. My self-congratulatory mood was instantly shattered by the presence of our comically ominous and unsmiling 6-foot 7 opening bowler, who flashed a disgruntled scowl in my direction. ‘What the f*ck did you do that for you daft bastard’.
That a flashy fifty does not win you universal approval, let alone a game, is one of many lessons I learnt in those first years of graduating from age group cricket. These are lessons that many youngsters will not have the chance to learn this summer as the enforced cricketing hiatus continues. However, this is not a predicament that can be entirely attributed to Coronavirus. Forty percent of young players drop out of the game by the age of 19 in the UK.
This loss is devastating on so many levels, not least the fact that giving up on the game at such an early age deprives youngsters the chance to marry their energy and enthusiasm with the gnarly cricketing knowhow and experience that can be passed down by older, and not always grumpier, players.
While youth cricket progresses in a relatively linear fashion, bowlers get faster, batsmen hit harder, the adult game exposes you to a kaleidoscopic range of techniques and approaches to the game. You enter imagining you will face up to a battery of snarling fast bowlers steaming in and tickling your rib cage, but quickly realise the reality of a rotund middle aged dobbler delivering with metronomic accuracy is a far more terrifying prospect.
If your preconceived notion of an effective run scorer was a stroke maker replete with flowing cover drives and cultured back foot game, then you are in for a shock when the oppositions crabby number three unfurls an array of hacks and nurdles to blunt your attack.
Faced with this assortment of adversaries, not to mention the array of conditions club grounds are likely to present you with, the focus shifts from technical ability to mental agility and resilience, to finding a method that consistently works. If the age group set up focuses on instilling a faith in the creed of technique, club cricket provides a bracing shot of blasphemy.
However, the value of playing the adult game extends beyond just cricketing benefits. In no other sport are so many generations thrust together in the same team. For players with sufficient appetite for the game, the lower physical demands of cricket can allow for a career stretching out into their fifties or even sixties. This allows a vast amount of cricket knowledge to be spread through club teams, and it also enables cross-generational bonding that is rare in other aspects of modern society.
This is compounded by the sheer volume of time cricket requires you to spend with your teammates. Small talk may see you through 90 minutes of Sunday league football, but its not going to cut it for 50 overs of watching on from the boundary. Having that extra time to get to know your teammates attitudes to life can be as educative as being on the receiving end of their forthright cricket advice. This is why cricket can build friendships that transcend those normally forged in a sporting environment, and also explains why breakdowns in these relationships can be all the more spectacular.
Being able to communicate with and relate to older generations is an invaluable skill, and one that has never been more relevant than in our current state of political and cultural division. It would clearly be a stretch to suggest that club cricket could be the balm that we need to soothe wounded intergenerational relationships, but the social benefits of cricket are nevertheless often overlooked.
Cricket needs more young players to make the step up to the adult game; it would be a calamity if the cessation of club cricket meant a whole year group missed out on the eye opening and sometimes bewildering step up to the adult game this summer.