Village cricket may be down but it's not out

telegraph.co.uk 13 days ago

The sight of a cricket match on your local green on a Sunday is fast becoming a rarity, but some clubs have bucked the trend with new blood

‘If one or two people have the energy and will to keep it going, that may be all it takes’
‘If one or two people have the energy and will to keep it going, that may be all it takes’

Cricket entered my life one Sunday afternoon when I was four, and has been a permanent fixture ever since. It was on the playing field of the Essex village where I grew up and it was a perfect, still, warm English day; watching cricket is what such days were made for.

The aesthetic, the rhythm, and the spectacle of the game captivated me. I recall being struck by the men in brilliant-white clothes, the redness of the ball, the almost polished greenness of the field. There was a hypnotic sensation as men ran in first from one end, then from the other, against a backdrop of silent concentration and contemplation. I picked it all up quite quickly and became utterly absorbed. And then came moments of excitement as a ball was clattered for four, or six, or as stumps went flying. Few addictions have started so easily, and lasted so long.

The village later expanded, with enough new residents to keep its team going – I’ve since moved away but the club is still strong – and yet many other villages have been less fortunate. 

The game originated centuries ago – just how many centuries one cannot be sure – and was played by farm workers on similar fields in rural England. For years, it was the nation’s summer sport of choice. By 2008, the estimated number playing cricket was 428,000; but by 2020 it had fallen by almost a third, to 294,000. Since then the pandemic has taken a further toll: many clubs are in trouble, and some may go under. 

That fate has befallen numerous village clubs, and popular town clubs that would field several XIs on a Saturday or Sunday now field fewer. The opportunity to watch a few overs and retreat into an adjoining pub (another endangered species in the countryside) may soon be consigned to the past.

There are any number of causes of this decline. ‘The main reason is that young people can’t afford to live in places like this,’ says Peter Bourne, president of Newenden Cricket Club in Kent, on the border with Sussex. ‘Houses here are too expensive.’ The average house in Newenden is more than £400,000, according to Rightmove, beyond the reach of the agricultural workers who typically made up the core of the local population until as recently as the 1970s. 

Picture-postcard villages attract retired people who have made enough money to live in such places, as well as commuters who, by the weekend, are too exhausted to play. As for children (Newenden has so few it has had no primary school since 1930), many of them have little or no contact with cricket, as it is barely shown on free-to-air television, nor is it played in most state schools. And then there are computer games, social media, the expense of kit… 

The sound of leather on willow can still be heard in the Kent village of Newenden
The sound of leather on willow can still be heard in the Kent village of Newenden

Casey Walker, vice-captain of the club at Preston in Hertfordshire, was lucky. ‘I’ve just turned 35,’ he says, ‘and I’ve been playing for the club for 25 years. I was at school in Hitchin and there were two PE masters who played for Preston. That’s how I got involved.’ 

Preston is a remarkable club in a remarkable village. The place is little more than a hamlet but the club has 80 playing members, a number of social members, and runs four XIs. Its continued success, while other clubs around the country struggle, is partly a result of its strong connection with the community, via the village pub, the Red Lion, which is its bar and main sponsor. 

‘Each Tuesday night we have an outdoor practice and then the captains of the teams meet in a room at the pub and pick the sides for the following weekend,’ says Mark Waters, the club chairman. The pub is owned by the community and several club members are or have been directors. It is the beating heart of the village.   

Preston play every weekend. ‘There’s loads of competition around here,’ explains Walker, ‘but we are the highest-ranked side in North Hertfordshire and in our area’ – a tremendous achievement for such a small village. The feat is also rooted in ‘voluntarism’ – as Waters tells me, everyone pulls his weight, whether helping prepare the ground, supervising nets for juniors or just organising logistics. 

‘It’s very much a family club with close ties to the village,’ adds Walker. ‘Whether it’s a first or seconds match at weekends there are always 30 or 40 people who come to support.’ 

Newenden’s line-up: ‘It’s less villagey than it used to be… but we win most games’
Newenden’s line-up: ‘It’s less villagey than it used to be… but we win most games’

Max Anderson, the captain, is 30, an engineer and a Preston native. A left-arm spinner and ‘solid number 11 batsman’ he first played for the club aged 12: ‘I was hooked as a kid by watching cricket on television. It was a big deal to be able to do that.’ The junior section is strong but he worries about whether there will be enough interested young people for the club in the future. The pandemic has also had an adverse effect. ‘We’ve seen more young people going into individual sports, with running and cycling becoming more popular,’ Walker says. 

To attract new players, some first team players have visited secondary schools to coach students, alongside PE teachers. They have also looked into starting a women’s team but so far there has been insufficient interest. 

Another unfortunate effect of Covid, Anderson tells me, is that the league has forbidden communal teas, usually made by wives, mothers and girlfriends. ‘There used to be a competition for who could make the best tea,’ he says ruefully. ‘You now have to bring your own packed lunch.’

Even so, it is a close-knit club, partly because ‘we all roll our sleeves up’, says Anderson. The club’s sponsors, mostly local businesses, help with ground improvements but also with accommodating overseas players – common in major- league cricket for decades but hitherto rare in village clubs. They have even helped some of them find temporary jobs. 

Unlike many other clubs, Preston doesn’t rely on a bank of retired players to run everything – another reason for its continued success. ‘We run ourselves,’ says Waters. ‘We are all active players, and although it takes up a lot of time, we take great pride in the club. We all know where the lawnmowers are kept, and we all cut the grass.’

To keep the team atmosphere through the winter they arrange activities, such as golf days and hikes, and a ‘Toga Night’ at the pub; a few years ago they even went to an ice-cricket tournament in Estonia. ‘People like to play for a club where they are made to feel welcome. We don’t stop just because the season stops. We are all godfathers to each other’s children and we all go on holiday together.

‘This is a really happy club.’

Newenden may play up to 30 fixtures a season, including league matches, friendlies and T20s
Newenden may play up to 30 fixtures a season, including league matches, friendlies and T20s

On a wet spring day in Newenden, a group of local cricketers sit in the offices of Peter Bourne’s landscaping company; among them are Bourne, his son Jonathan, who works in the business and is a batsman for the club, Garry Smith, a prolific medium-pacer, and Åke Nilson, a management consultant. Nilson, from Sweden, has taken to cricket, though as a supporter and not a player. His wife is the club secretary. 

Newenden’s ground is alongside the road from Tenterden to Hastings; on the other side of it is the White Hart pub, a focal point for players and spectators, and on the far side the ground is bordered by the River Rother. ‘Because the ground is a little small,’ Jonathan tells me, ‘we have a local rule that to hit a six you must hit the ball in, or over, the river.’

As at Preston, Newenden has a strong family atmosphere. ‘Newenden had its core local families when I started playing,’ Bourne tells me, ‘and men would play, and then their sons, and their sons.’ Those who play tend to stay for a long time. Smith, who is 47, has played for the club for 35 years. ‘He is our leading wicket-taker,’ Jonathan tells me. Things in Newenden started to change around the turn of the century, as property prices rose. ‘We had to recruit from outside – but if you can’t get that family atmosphere going, if you have a lot of single guys who just want to come and play cricket, and don’t bring wives or girlfriends and get them involved, then you don’t have that sense of community.’ 

Nilson, a local historian, discloses that Newenden has a seminal part in cricket’s history – allegedly. ‘Our club logo says we were founded in 1301,’ he says. ‘If you look in Wisden you will see a reference to Edward II, who was Prince of Wales in 1301, playing “creag” at Newenden. It is claimed that that was the forerunner of cricket, and that this is the first written evidence of cricket. But of course it’s probably almost entirely rubbish, because it is another 200 years before you find any other reference to it.’ The club does, however, have scorebooks going back almost 150 years.

Peter Bourne played in the XI at Tonbridge School and first played for Newenden as a schoolboy. ‘When I was younger, the pub was effectively part of the cricket ground, and we were in and out of it all day during a game.’ Smith recalls sitting on the ground roller on a Sunday afternoon, and started to play in 1986, when he was 10. 

Newenden’s Garry Smith has played for the club for 35 years
Newenden’s Garry Smith has played for the club for 35 years

They raised some of the money to build the pavilion by hosting the club’s first day/night match, played using the lights that illuminate motorway roadworks; the Lottery Fund contributed, in return for which the club agreed to offer women’s cricket: but as at Preston, the demand remains insufficient. The club has stayed in good order, but there were what Smith calls ‘dry periods’ a decade or so ago. 

‘The transition between your generation and my generation,’ Jonathan says to his father, ‘was not always smooth. Drumming up an XI could be tricky. The old core families left, or their sons went to university.’ Bourne senior says that ‘it’s all about people, and we have a tremendously enthusiastic captain at the moment, and that makes all the difference.’ The club is a social network, with people bringing along members of their families, and friends from school, reviving the dynamic. 

Jonathan says the club has a pool of ‘40 or 50 members’, but it only puts out one XI, though some weekends they play both Saturdays and Sundays. ‘Until a few years ago all our Saturday matches were friendlies,’ he tells me, ‘timed games, not limited overs. We had a regular fixture list, all the teams knew each other, all the grounds were beautiful and we loved playing on them, and the teas were fantastic.’ 

But then the club moved up a notch. ‘A few years ago we started playing in the local league – some younger players were pretty good cricketers, and the feeling was that they wouldn’t want to play a genteel timed game on a Sunday.’ Smith chips in: ‘It has become more competitive, but we are still having a laugh out there.’ Jonathan  adds: ‘You still get the players who turn up, bat an 11 and field at fine leg, and they play occasionally. That for me is the essence of village cricket. Those guys who give up their Sundays, turn up, run around all day… They are the real heroes.’

A local couple stop to watch the cricket at Newenden
A local couple stop to watch the cricket at Newenden

The club still plays friendly matches on Sundays, ‘so we have something for everybody – and we play T20 – so there’s a nice mix of league, friendly and T20,’ says Jonathan, who is fixtures secretary. In a season, that adds up to about 30 fixtures. ‘Sometimes it is a struggle to get teams if we are playing both days at weekends,’ he adds, ‘but some of our players only play once a season. The younger players need a more competitive edge, however, and many come down from London to play.’ So successful has the club been in the Kent League that it is now in Division 2, which has inevitably changed the atmosphere. ‘It’s less villagey than it used to be,’ Bourne says. ‘There’s a bit more niggle, but we tend to win most games.’

Cricket is of course popular in the north of England too: but there, thanks to the venerable Lancashire and Yorkshire leagues, the formal roots of club cricket tend to be deeper and less susceptible to the economic shocks that have finished so many clubs elsewhere in England. 

A  couple of decades ago Newenden was predominantly 40- to 50-year-olds with their teenage sons. Now an element of that remains, but the league predominates. The club currently has no junior section: most younger cricketers are the children of players or former players. ‘We get very little help from the village in that sense,’ says Bourne. If it weren’t for the ability to recruit through players’ own social networks from outside the area – to appeal to people who don’t live in a fine village to come and play for its beautifully situated club – there would be a problem putting out a side.’

Afternoon tea is a big draw, though a hangover from Covid is that it is still banned by some leagues
Afternoon tea is a big draw, though a hangover from Covid is that it is still banned by some leagues

‘The club is secure,’ Nilson says. ‘It has backers willing to keep it going.’ The club conducts an auction every year, with items donated by sponsors, has a fundraising dinner and a golf day, and its ground is owned by a charitable trust. ‘We have good local sponsors, including local businesses – the Rother Valley Brewery, and the Chapel Down vineyard,’ Jonathan tells me. ‘We have local anonymous donors, such as one who just bought us a new roller, the same as the one they use at Lord’s. We can raise enough money that if we need something done, we can do it ourselves. Our captain is brilliant at raising money.’

‘But I’d hate to leave you with the message that village cricket is booming and in a healthy state, because I don’t think generally it is,’ says Bourne, ‘from what I can see of other clubs who have folded.’ His son adds, ‘It’s all about people. We all have full-time jobs. If one or two people have the energy and will to keep it going, that may be all it takes. Our captain puts a hell of a lot of work in.’ A positive note, though, was that the local league, unlike in Hertfordshire, has agreed it is up to each individual club to decide whether it offers a proper, old-fashioned tea or not. ‘We are one of only three clubs, I think, who are going to provide tea this season,’ says Jonathan. ‘It all gets a bit mad, we have a tea rota, and we have competitive teas, and there is a tea trophy for the best tea each season. The opposition remember you as much for your teas as for your cricket,’ he says, with pride.

‘Those guys who give up their Sundays, turn up, run around all day… They are the real heroes’
‘Those guys who give up their Sundays, turn up, run around all day… They are the real heroes’

The numbers of cricketers and clubs might have shrunk, and the emphasis on winning may have grown; but there are still elements in the village game that echo the past. Those with the stewardship of clubs such as Preston and Newenden cherish the traditions that they continue, and the role of the village cricket club in maintaining a vital part of English culture. George Orwell, reviewing Edmund Blunden’s Cricket Country in 1944, wrote that ‘the test of a true cricketer is that he shall prefer village cricket to good cricket… the informal village game, where everyone plays in braces, where the blacksmith is liable to be called away in mid-innings on an urgent job, and sometimes, about the time the light begins to fail, a ball driven for four kills a rabbit on the boundary.’ 

The teams may be full of City boys now, but the game remains a joy because it is closer to those roots than the uninitiated would ever realise.