Decision day looms large for future of Norfolk cricket
PUBLISHED: 06:00 16 January 2020
Norfolk cricket clubs will vote on whether to have a new 'One League' structure as NEAL Widdows explains why its adoption is vital for the game in our county
Cricket clubs in Norfolk will vote today on whether to effectively merge the Norfolk Cricket Alliance and Norfolk Cricket League into a single league structure, a decision which will have a profound impact on the future of club cricket in Norfolk.
This is why I feel compelled to write this article to share my support for 'One League' and why I believe its implementation is essential to both preserving and enhancing the future of club cricket in Norfolk.
It's 16 years since I first started playing club cricket, when Norfolk had not one but three leagues, all of which were full to the brim. I remember popping up to our ground one weekday evening during the glorious Ashes summer of 2005, to be met with a swarm of children who had been inspired to try the game.
Fast forward to the present, and things are very different. Playing and volunteering numbers have dropped considerably, and only the biggest clubs with ample resources and qualified coaches by the dozen avoid the struggle to attract youngsters to their club, finding the volunteers to coach them and provide them with matches, or to run their club full stop.
A number of clubs no longer exist, the most notable being Vauxhall Mallards, former winners of the East Anglian Premier League. Numerous second and third teams have fallen by the wayside too, with my club Dereham being no exception, having had to fold our third XI due to a lack of players. The pleas for loans and players to avoid concessions grow by the week.
The evidence in front of our eyes shows that the current system is broken, particularly when you note that the standard of the top two or three divisions of the Norfolk Cricket League (the feeder league of the current structure) now outstrips that of the bottom two or three divisions of the Norfolk Cricket Alliance. Sandringham have gone two seasons unbeaten since entering the Alliance. Martham have climbed from division five to division two in just three years.
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This scenario has occurred no doubt as a result of on-field performance being disregarded at the expense of outdated entry requirements, which fail to acknowledge or understand the current landscape of club cricket not just in Norfolk, but across the whole country.
Relegation exists in theory, but never occurs in practice. The result is a competitive imbalance, that not only demotivates clubs coming up from the lower tier who wind up playing a poorer standard than the previous season, but those clubs trying to get out of Division Six who are unable to compete with the promoted sides.
Despite all this, there is reluctance in some circles to embrace One League despite the flaws of the current system. As players, administrators and volunteers, how can we acknowledge these failings, and then continue to endorse the status quo? Surely that makes us part of the problem?
Some people running our leagues seem determined to discourage change, and it is this reluctance to adapt, innovate and to take chances that has left us in this mess. Clubs are crying out for more flexibility on criteria, predominantly on youth options, and for their commitment to the ECB All Stars initiative and women's cricket to be recognised. Yet those out of touch with modern club cricket insist that cricket can only exist in hardball format, alienating a significant proportion of cricket's future. Cricket is for everyone, from the serious to the more casual, social players. It is time we acknowledged that.
The proposals for One League may not be perfect but let's remember, they are proposals. When clubs vote, the only question they should be asking themselves is: "Do we agree with the concept of one league?" If the answer is yes, then there is only one way you can vote. The rules, constitution and structure can be changed any time between now and the league's proposed introduction in 2021. It is for clubs to engage with that process and to steer the league in their desired direction.
Sussex recently merged four leagues together in 2018 and have 335 teams now playing under a single structure. If they can do it, so can Norfolk. In fact, we already have. The West Norfolk League merged with the Norfolk League several years ago, with clubs having full say on its makeup.
And think of the benefits. Reduced administration pressure for clubs previously participating in two leagues. An extended loan system that benefits more clubs than just those in the Norfolk Cricket League. Reduced travelling time and costs courtesy of regionalisation. Faster movement within the pyramid to the appropriate playing level for your club. Reduced costs and increased sponsorship thanks to the league's additional bargaining power with more members.
That is why I would urge anyone to vote for One League today, and to take a bold step towards changing Norfolk cricket for the better. There is a quote from a friend in my high school leavers book which has stuck with me throughout my life: "The only failure in life is the failure to try". For the sake of Norfolk cricket's future, we must try.