ANDREW RADD: Berrill believes a collective force is the way to satisfy demands at the Dolben

The first edition of Wisden I was ever bought – for my tenth birthday – told the story of Surrey winning the 1971 County Championship under the shrewd captaincy of Mickey Stewart.

Friday, 26th April 2019, 10:04 am
Updated Friday, 26th April 2019, 10:08 am
Andrew Radd

It must have come as a huge relief to Oval habitués. After claiming the title eight years in a row between 1952 and 1958 the brown hatters went through the whole of the Swinging Sixties without much of a sniff.

The outcome of last summer’s NCL Premier Division campaign would have felt equally satisfying to supporters of Finedon Dolben.

When Chris Goode led them to the silverware in 2011 it was the club’s third ‘Prem’ triumph on the trot and their 10th in the space of 13 seasons.

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Finedon Dolben celebrate claiming the 2018 NCL Premier Division title

But the chip shop boys then saw the trophy delivered to Peterborough (three times), Rushden and Old Northamptonians (twice) before the old order was restored.

And Finedon skipper Callum Berrill – now Northamptonshire CCC’s Strategy and Community Officer, who’ll take charge again as the title defence begins at home to Wollaston on Saturday – admits that expectations at Avenue Road are always high.

“There is a fair bit of pressure associated with Finedon,” he told me.

“It’s a high-achieving club and prides itself on wanting to win trophies, although that’s no different to any other Premier side. Everyone would love to be champions and play their best cricket to do so.

“Ahead of last season I explained that it was all about enjoying the day’s cricket and having the freedom to express yourself. It’s an amateur game and I wanted the players to relax and perform to their potential.”

At a time when some clubs are prepared to splosh the dosh to secure a player capable of logging 1,200 runs or 70 wickets as a kind of ‘short-cut’ to league success (or survival), the stats from last summer in the NCL yearbook are perhaps instructive.

Just two Finedon bowlers – Drew Brierley and Jack Chopping – feature in the top 15 of the averages, while only Brierley, Berrill and Sean Davis appear among the top 20 batsmen.

And yet Finedon won 14 matches, two more than their nearest rivals, and took the division by a clear 25-point margin.

“I used to say to our players when we were up against some of the other stronger sides in the division – ‘we are a team.’

“As long as we all focus on our own individual roles then the outcome will be there, barring a very special performance from the opposition.

“For example, Rob White’s 81 off 136 balls (for ONs in a low-scoring game at Billing Road last May) was the slowest I’ve ever seen him bat, and they won by two wickets in the last over. So there it took an exceptional innings from an ex-pro to beat us.”

Berrill maintains – and rightly I suspect – that the age-old arguments about whether the overall standard of our Saturday afternoon cricket in Northamptonshire has risen or fallen are largely academic because the landscape has altered so much.

“Certainly there are some very different challenges facing clubs now – like getting the same team out week in, week out.

“In fact the whole dynamic of club cricket has changed. Before, it was a big pride thing – you played for your town, your village or your area, and you played every week.

“That was what you did on a Saturday and it wasn’t questioned.

“To say that one competition is better or worse than another is not necessarily accepting what league cricket is all about – it’s about adapting to every different scenario.

“A lot of high-performance players come down into our league and struggle. It might be a fast bowler used to county cricket who bowls a particular length and his slip fielders are simply not used to catching a ball coming at that speed, so a few chances go down.”

The playing format has changed too, of course.

‘Win-lose’ cricket is now the norm throughout the NCL with the draw option clinging on for dear life in the higher divisions.

Enthusiasm for the apparently inexorable move towards ODI-style cricket throughout seems to be largely a generational thing.

“Anyone like myself who’d only ever played cricket with a draw was probably slightly hesitant about going to straight win-lose,” Berrill explains.

“But if you ask the younger guys, they’re all for it. And I think last year was a good introduction.

“Did it create a larger discrepancy between the stronger and weaker teams as was feared by many people? I’m not entirely sure. But I ultimately think the league is heading towards entirely win-lose because if that’s what the younger cricketers want we have to give it to them. They’re the future of the game.”

One thing about the local cricket scene that never changes is the souped-up rumour mill which grinds more quickly than ever in the weeks leading up to the start of a new season.

There has been one notable refinement, though, since my own involvement began about 35 years ago.

It used to be “who’s moving to where?” at the league pre-season EGM. Now it tends to be “who’s moving to where, for how much?”

“It’s sad,” Berrill reckons. “Personally I believe that if you’re an amateur cricketer and you then take money your day has changed.

“It becomes a mercenary experience, not just something for fun any more. That’s not why you started playing cricket as a youngster.

“If you’re a professional you ought to be paid – that’s the definition. But I think paying amateurs has a lot to answer for, not least in terms of player behaviour.

“If some of these guys drop a catch or a decision goes against them it can cost them money. And that distorts the gentlemanly aspects of the sport – the spirit of the game disappears from their mind because it’s all about the cash. I think it then loses its value as club cricket.”

It’s the kind of opinion you would expect from a dinosaur like me – not necessarily from a 27-year-old active cricketer.

Except, perhaps, one who cares.