ANDREW RADD: Chris is stepping down after 34 years and he won’t half be missed

Northamptonshire paceman Richard Gleeson has a chance to show what he can do on a wider stage after he was called up by England Lions
Northamptonshire paceman Richard Gleeson has a chance to show what he can do on a wider stage after he was called up by England Lions

Duran Duran were topping the hit parade – as we oldies still call it – when Chris Francis first became involved in the Higham and District Youth League.

Now, with lead singer Simon Le Bon set to become a grandfather, the Rushden man who’s done so much to enable young cricketers to pit their skills against each other is standing down as Hon Sec.

Yes, Chris has done his bit after 34 years – but he won’t half be missed.

And he takes a step back from running the show at a time when the game at large continues to fret about the dreaded P-word, ‘Participation.’

“I feel it’s quite a difficult time for cricket,” he told me, shortly after the league’s recent ‘strategy meeting’ at Short Stocks.

“I think the youth leagues will be alright, because instead of kids coming into the game at 13, 14 or 15 it seems as though they’re now starting younger at 7, 8 and 9. And loads of them!

“But when you come to 15-year-olds the numbers start to drop off, and by the time you get to 17 they drop off even more.

“With the help of the Corby Youth League we have an Under-17s section – and with three of their sides (Kettering, Desborough and Geddington) we have eight teams for this season,” he adds.

“That’s not bad with all the exam commitments and so on.

“But when you compare that to 17 teams for eight-a-side Under-11s, and 13 teams for 11-a-side Under-13s – well, you can see the trend.”

The latest batch of national statistics – covering the period 2016-17 – suggest 13.4 per cent of youngsters aged between 11 and 15 were actively involved in cricket.

That’s a fall of around nine per cent from the same survey four years earlier.

Even if you believe that decline is exaggerated, at least in our part of the world, anyone running a recreational cricket club knows how tough it can be to enthuse and (crucially) retain the rising generations.

Hence the ECB’s All Star Cricket initiative which set a target – at its launch last year – of attracting 50,000 boys and girls to the game.

To those of us ‘born into’ cricket it’s hard to imagine why any child wouldn’t want to play it at every possible opportunity.

But Chris has seen at first-hand how times have changed.

“There are a lot of other things to do now.

“ Some of the kids work, some do other sports.

“I think it always used to be the case – and probably still is to an extent – that at 9, 10 or 11 years old you basically do what your parents want you to do. Then, as you get older, you become a bit more independent.

“It’s something that’s been happening over a long period – not just the last couple of years. It’s been a trend over time.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing. It’s just a combination of factors.”

There’s also – according to Chris – an issue surrounding how clubs treat those young cricketers who DO want to stick with it.

“A lot of clubs think ‘we ought to have a youth section’ but there’s no-one really to run it, so it always seems to be a struggle to find managers and coaches.

“What also tends to happen is there’s a distance between the youth set-up and the adult cricket. I don’t feel a lot of clubs pay enough attention to their youngsters and trying to get them involved at senior level.

“If they are selected – and find themselves having to play 80-plus overs in a match – that’s an alien thing for them to do.

“When I was growing up you’d play in the youth teams, and then if you couldn’t get into the first or second teams on Saturday you would play on a Sunday.

“But obviously that’s not the case now, because Sunday cricket has fallen away.”

True. And that makes it just a teensy bit galling that clubs like mine – which still have Sunday as a senior matchday – face the prospect of having to choose between fulfilling Rutland League fixtures and competing in the NCL T20 competition.

Anyhow – that’s one for another day.

Chris Francis has been at the heart of ‘The Higham’ through its expansion in the 1980s and 90s – and even now he isn’t retiring altogether.

“I’ve said I’m not standing as Secretary at the AGM in a few weeks’ time, although I’m happy to do the fixtures so things run smoothly this year.

“But I’m hoping to be able to gradually bow out!

“The faces change every year. You used to get managers at Under-11s taking their side right through to Under-17s, so you’d see the same people around for seven or eight years.

“That doesn’t happen as much these days. There’s certainly a bigger turnover.”

Fortunately, the administration of this particular youth league has been admirably stable and commendably competent.

Speaking as a parent whose child has enjoyed playing in it – thank you, Chris.

It’s reassuring to realise that the England selectors do listen…sometimes.

In this column a couple of weeks ago, Northamptonshire’s head coach David Ripley revealed that he’d put fast bowler Richard Gleeson’s name forward for an England Lions tour place.

It took an injury to the Sussex paceman George Garton to get our man there – but he’s now in the Caribbean for both the red-ball and white-ball legs of the Lions’ West Indian trip, running through to mid-March.

Fitness permitting, it represents a great opportunity for him to show on a wider stage what he’s been doing in Steelbacks colours for the past couple of summers.

And it’s a particularly pleasing turn of events for a couple of reasons.

First off, it proves that a journey from club cricket to an international tour inside three years isn’t wholly unrealistic.

Secondly, whilst we won’t always agree with the County’s hiring-and-firing decisions, it reflects much credit on those who identified and backed him.

To paraphrase Churchill – in a dark, cold winter it’s warmed the cockles of Northamptonshire hearts.