The parlous state of Sunday club cricket in Northamptonshire has been a recurring theme of this column over its 27 years…and counting.
If I bang on about this (and yes, I do) it’s simply because I was lucky enough to play and enjoy it for a couple of decades.
For the most part, there were no points or pots at stake.
But – and this is the tricky bit to convince the rising generation of cricketers about – it was still competitive. Even a little feisty at times.
An occasionally nasty fast bowler of my close acquaintance was delighted to see a chap arrive at the crease one afternoon (Newport Pagnell comes to mind, but I may be wrong) wearing an old-fashioned hooped cap.
It looked temptingly like a target – and, sure enough, the quickie in question soon scored a bullseye.
No damage done, thankfully, but our hero couldn’t resist a Sid Waddell-ish cry of “One-hundred-and-eighty!”
Then there was that lovely stumping by Paul Hughes after we hatched a plan to dispose of an obstinate opposing batsman (from Houghton-on-the-Hill, was it?) by bringing the field right up and tossing the ball high enough to give him a cricked neck.
Sadly, full Sunday fixture lists are a thing of the past for most.
This season, nine NCL clubs (Barton Seagrave, Finedon, Isham, Loddington & Mawsley, Oundle, Peterborough, S&L Corby, Thrapston and Weldon) will be involved in the Rutland & District League.
For the bulk of the remainder it seems to be an ongoing struggle generating enough interest among the playing membership for regular Sunday cricket.
And even if that’s not an issue in a particular club, they still have to find opponents.
Interesting, then, that the NCL is looking to bring Sundays back into play – for the Hevey Twenty Cup.
In 2017, teams will have the option (by mutual agreement) of scheduling their ties on a Sunday rather than the traditional Tuesday evening.
Looking further ahead, tournament organiser Ian Allen has floated the idea of making it a predominantly Sunday competition with a ‘league’ format to give clubs more T20 cricket ahead of the usual finals day.
There would also be separate tournaments for clubs in different sections of the league – an ‘Elite’ competition for the Premier Division (to determine Northamptonshire’s representative for ECB’s NatWest Club T20), the ‘Cup’ for Divisions One and Two and the ‘Plate’ for the rest.
“We intend to discuss this with the clubs over the coming season with a view to making the changes for next year,” Allen explains.
“This would give clubs the chance to work around other commitments such as the Rutland League.
“I genuinely believe there will be traction from clubs to implement this for 2018, given the greater exposure of T20 cricket – and of course Northamptonshire’s success in it!
“Locally, the growth in the Under-19s competition over the past two seasons is surely evidence of an appetite for this brand of cricket.
“And it’s wonderful to see the County Ground brimming with supporters both new and old when the Steelbacks play. The evening matches are a real social occasion.”
This proposed format would address two long-standing problems with the county’s KO Cup competition, which has been going (in its various incarnations) since 1971.
Firstly, the difficulties with getting players and officials to the ground for an early-evening fixture – especially in these days of more-or-less permanent traffic congestion across Northamptonshire.
How we laughed (or maybe not) when Isham were drawn away to Charlton, the other side of Brackley, for a 6.15pm start back when South Northants League teams competed.
For this season, the NCL has decided to limit evening ties in the preliminary and first rounds to 16 overs a side – one consequence of which, with a maximum of three overs per bowler, will be the need to find a sixth trundler.
Secondly, the proposal to ‘stream’ the competition would eliminate the prospect of a team from the lower divisions being drawn against a leading ‘Prem’ side, leaving them to choose between scratching (with possible consequences for their participation the following season) or likely humiliation.
I seem to recall the notion of a ‘Junior’ and ‘Senior’ Cup – along the lines of local football – being floated at least a quarter-of-a-century ago in response to a few blatant mismatches, and it has a good deal of merit.
“The current knockout format gives clubs limited opportunities to participate in a structured competition,” adds Allen.
“The number of matches played is dictated by the team’s success.
“The lower-ranked clubs, while enjoying the challenge of an FA Cup-style competition and the potential of a ‘cup upset’, may in reality get to play only one or two matches.
“It’s also a good thing, surely, for the top teams in the NCL to play enough T20 cricket against quality opposition to prepare the eventual winners of our competition to represent Northamptonshire on the national stage.”
The plan would see the initial stages of the tournament condensed into a period of four or five weeks mid-season with fixtures starting at 2pm on Sunday.
Clearly, this will be attractive to some clubs – not least as a possible way of keeping youngsters and their parents at the ground following age-group matches on a Sunday morning.
But it’s almost impossible to see how a club that wants to offer regular Sunday cricket – and to that end joins a league like the Rutland – could ‘clear’ a month from their fixtures to accommodate the NCL T20.
Oundle and Peterborough have, between them, secured the Northamptonshire KO title six times in the last seven years, their stranglehold broken by Old Northamptonians last summer.
Both play in Rutland Division One which entails 18 league matches between April 23 and September 17, plus the well-established
and popular John Wilcox Cup.
Precious little slack in the system there.
Ultimately, of course, the will of the majority will prevail – and admittedly the prospect of more cricket grounds in Northamptonshire buzzing with activity on a Sunday afternoon is a happy one.
But would there be a ‘full house’ of participating clubs? I suspect not.