Double setback highlights the challenges for club cricket in Norfolk
- Credit: Nick Butcher
The demise of two well-established Norfolk Alliance sides has cast a long shadow over the opening weeks of the local cricket season.
Saham Toney and Vauxhall Mallards A both opted to pull out of the league because of a lack of players, prompting a pained response from chairman Peter Thomas, a man who has been a stalwart of the Norfolk game for getting on for 50 years.
"Losing Saham Toney just before the start of the current season was a blow and now to lose Vauxhall Mallards A on top of that saddens me deeply," he said.
Both clubs are now running with one team rather than two, with the challenge of getting 22 players together on a Saturday afternoon proving too tough a challenge.
Saham Toney have dropped down to the Norfolk League to replace their seconds while Mallards' first team are now competing in the East Anglian Premier League without any back-up.
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On top of teams calling it a day there has also been a worrying rise in fixtures being decided by concessions in recent years - while plenty of games go ahead each weekend with fewer than 11 per side. A couple of teams battled away with just eight players last Saturday - better than giving the opposition a walk-over but hardly ideal.
It's not all doom and gloom - plenty of clubs can still field three or even four teams, with healthy youth set-ups providing a pathway to the adult game for youngsters of both sexes.
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All the Alliance fixtures went ahead as planned at the weekend while only two Norfolk League fixtures were lost. That meant 88 games of competitive cricket took place across the county, involving well over 1,700 players.
But the future of the longer form of the game remains far from secure, with shorter fixes now available in the form of T20 cricket and the new 100-ball format, which made its bow locally recently.
"Cricket is facing similar challenges to those of other mass participation team sports," said Tim Porter, secretary of the Norfolk League. "There are changing social dynamics, increased weekend work demands, increased cost, reduced availability, reduced volunteers and cross-over between football and cricket, with football being almost 52 weeks a year at youth level.
"Many of the current challenges have been recognised by the Norfolk League. In recent years a number of initiatives have taken place to meet the ECB's mantra of 'getting the game on', including absorbing the West Norfolk League, flexible rain rules with simple bonus points and regionalisation within a graduated pyramid structure to reduce travelling.
"The introduction of player loans with the full support and agreement of member clubs has been a significant step forward. This has enabled many matches to go ahead which otherwise would have been cancelled. This season in the first four weeks alone 22 players have gone on loan to other clubs."
Norfolk's Sunday cricket scene has also constricted in recent years, with Mid Norfolk Sunday League secretary Colin King admitting: "I cannot hide the fact that we have suffered from clubs folding or not having sufficient players to fulfil fixtures.
"At our peak in 2007 we boasted 10 divisions and 80 clubs. Today we have five divisions and 39 clubs.
"I can think of diverse array of clubs that are no longer playing cricket, like Burston, Great Hockham, City Works, Winchesters, Pilling Park, Quebec, Shipdham, Wicklewood, Worstead, Redgrave & Bressingham, Mulbarton, Hellesdon, Littleport, Gressenhall, Fosters, Chapelfield, Workers, Fincham & Stradsett, Bunwell and Bacton.
"We were the first to recognise the need for regionalisation and introduced this in 2001.
"I also see that the younger generation of players relate sport to the football model. In other words two hours on a Saturday afternoon. The only form of cricket that comes anywhere near this is T20 while our league has launched a 100-ball initiative with some significant success."
The hope is that a short version of the game will attract more youngsters to the sport - and no-one could accuse clubs of resting on their laurels when it comes to a long term strategy for ensuring people will continue to play cricket.
Hundreds of youngsters get a taste of the game every year in All Stars sessions hosted at venues across the county while there are plenty of clubs with flourishing junior sections. The hope is that they will provide the next generation of club cricketers, although it remains to been seen how many of them will want to play a game that can last six hours or more.