The decline of ‘real village cricket’

Pickwell CC is a very village cricket club based in East Leicestershire. They have a long history with the oldest team photograph dating back to 1911, a string of woodworm infested bats denoting legendary players stats and squad lists of league winning teams from as recently as 2003 hanging proudly on the wall of a worn-down pavilion. However, the club, who won the Grantham League 3 years ago, will not register for a league for the upcoming season due to lack of commitment from players.

 An electric fence surrounds the fresh green grass of Pickwell cricket ground. The pavilion sits slowly rotting at the top of the hill overlooking the ground and rolling hills beyond that. The sightscreens are browning and although the wicket is well looked after it doesn’t often change from the muddy brown colour that resembles a majority of the cow field that doubles as the car park. Across from the rolling hills the top of the church spire spikes out from above the houses, it epitomises the rural village cricket ground.

The future of Pickwell seemed fairly set when four 11 and 12 year-olds rocked up and started playing in 2005. All four played representative cricket for the county and all four came from neighbouring villages less than two miles away. Captains had to turn down players due to the high demand for both Saturday friendlies and Sunday league games. This led to success on and off the pitch, an extension to the pavilion was added in 2005 and a long run in the top positions of the Grantham League Division 1 from 2000. But 9 years on from the youngsters arrival, it is a different story. Only one of the ‘Pickwell Pups’ remains truly committed to the club and currently holds the Club Captain role.

Despite having played the highest standard out of the four lads, Tom Smith has stayed committed to the club throughout. ’It was frustrating when I had realised the lads had gone, we had basically grown up together. Alex left due to the fact he had been pushed down the pecking order in the side and grew frustrated with the lack of opportunities. He decided he’d be better off working than playing cricket as he wasn’t enjoying it anymore. While the other two started playing higher level cricket at university and slowly started playing less for us before stating they could only commit to a few games a season.’ Tom continued to play Saturday friendlies right up until they were discontinued and is enjoying his time in the Premier League of the Leicestershire Everards League as replacement, but he will miss playing weekly for his local team.

Pickwell played friendlies on a Saturday and League games on a Sunday up until 5 years ago when the bulk of players decided they wanted to play a higher standard of cricket in the Everards League on a Saturday, for nearby town’s teams. This cut the number of games down by half and left a lot of social players out of the loop and out of the game. This is certainly seen by long-standing club member Bob Abrams as ‘the beginning of the end’. He went on to say, ‘We had a fantastic group of lads in the late 90′s and early 2000′s. All were aged between 20 and 30 and they all had friends that wanted to play, not to mention they were extremely talented. Half the guys that played then, I had played with their Grandpa’s back in the 19060′s! When the four young lads turned up we thought the future was set, they all had real talent and genuinely loved the game, this club had always been able to attract talent. But the core of the team that won all those trophies 15 years ago started growing up and getting married, having babies and moving out of the village, crazy things to do if you’re committed to village cricket! But real life took over and they worked out cricket came second. There weren’t anymore youngsters coming through.’

Bob told me many fascinating stories from years ago of rivalries, grounds and players, I believe a book of his memoirs would sell in the thousands! I then noticed none of the teams mentioned were in the Grantham League, ‘oh no lad, all the teams we used to play are long gone, I’d say three-quarters of the villages we played the 80′s don’t have teams anymore, it’s a massive shame if you ask me.’

Bob isn’t exaggerating when he said the club manage to attract talent, the most notable of whom finished as Leicestershire’s top wicket-taker last season. ‘Playing for Pickwell was a great way to get into cricket for me’, says Ollie Freckingham who had family members also playing for the side, ‘the lads pushed me to do my best and made it so enjoyable, it was great fun’.

Tom said the ‘Pups’ found it hard to bring in new players, ‘everyone my age learnt cricket at school, or with friends at a local club. Pickwell wouldn’t have the demand, funds or facilities for a junior section, so everyone now plays for clubs in the nearby towns of Melton or Oakham. All four of us played cricket for Thorpe Arnold in Melton and one played Sunday League cricket in Oakham. We grew up with the older guys so playing with them is fun, but all our friends that came and played would prefer to be playing with their friends and families in the town teams.’

Pickwell found themselves in the relegation zone for the last part of the season and were unable to put out a side for any games in September and all but one in August for a last push. This contributed to the six games they conceded out of the 22, a total of 21 games were conceded in the division in the 2013 season. Including the weathers intervention, it left Pickwell fielding a team for just 12 of the 22 games, with a full complement of 11 players for just six of these games.

Players are happy to drive those extra few miles to play on a nicer wicket and a better standard. The world’s evolved and communities are getting wider, it’s now just as easy to go for a beer with a mate who lives ten miles away as it is with the guy at the other end of the village. The rural cricket scene that is one of the longest standing parts of British culture, seems to be surrendering to ageing rural populations and lack of interest in playing fairly non-competitive cricket.

One enigma in the Grantham League however, is Empingham CC. A team just 20 minutes away from Pickwell, Empingham finished second in the league this season and has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years. Freddie Turner won the batting award for them this season and paints a rosy picture of the club, ‘we have a group of guys that are 100% to making the club succeed. Our wicket is better than any I have played on in the Everards League and certainly the best in the Grantham League thanks to our brilliant groundsman, yet still has the rolling country hills in the background. Our captain has brought in many players who have convinced young lads to come and play for the friendly team on Saturday. It’s a buzzing club at the moment.’ I have to say, it sounded very similar to how Bob had described Pickwell back in the late 90′s. Only time will tell if Empingham suffer a similar fate.

There are many different ‘tips and hints’ that cricket captains I have spoken to have for all village captains, which are all, of course, completely contradictory of each other. The best being, ‘join a league, regular and competitive matches will keep everyone interested’, compared to, ‘joining a league is poison, it becomes competitive and unenjoyable, players will wish they stayed at home and put up that shelf that’s been on their to-do list for 18 months’. For Pickwell though, it seems there is no obvious option to stop the team falling into submission.

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