Time for some more doom-mongering. I have already looked at the eight-team Premier League and its apparent effects, but I realize that for the majority of readers – indeed, the majority of cricketers – that means very little. So this week I’m looking at the overall health of men’s cricket in the NCU. Again, this means a potentially boring and certainly long column. Apologies in advance, but if you care about local cricket, you might want to read on.
We are told that cricket is a growing sport, that cricket is enjoying record-level participation, and that extra teams are popping up here, there, and everywhere. Quite frankly this is bullshit peddled by local officials and employees of Cricket Ireland who are either defending their positions or fishing for sponsors.
CricketEurope’s archives date back to 1991 and, having done some research, I am certain that fewer men’s teams are being fielded, that fewer matches are being played, that such matches are shorter than ever, and that fewer cricketers are playing these matches. Pretentious academics would call this ‘the strange death of NCU cricket’.
Number of teams
First up, here’s an analysis of the number of teams competing in NCU league cricket, year on year since 1991. I have excluded from these tallies all teams that withdrew from their respective leagues: if you don’t finish the season, you don’t count. This graph represents those numbers:
From a high point of 134 senior teams in 1996, and from the relative high point of 119 teams in 2006, there has been a gentle but steady decline in the number of men’s teams. At best 108 teams will finish the 2015 league season and that includes a Downpatrick 3rd XI that has already scratched in four matches. That’s a 19.4% decrease from 1996 and a 10.0% decrease from 2006.
Relative to 1996 there are 21% fewer 2nd XIs, 26% fewer 3rd XIs, and 40% fewer 4th XIs. Even compared with 2006, the numbers do not look good: over the course of the last nine years the NCU has lost 14.8% of its 3rd XIs and 36.8% of its 4th XIs.
Number of matches
Yet not only are fewer teams taking to the pitch, they are taking to the pitch less frequently.
Because of both the falling number of teams and the reduction of several leagues from ten to eight teams, the total number of matches scheduled in the NCU has fallen sharply. In 1996, 1094 league matches were scheduled; by 2006 this had fallen to 920; and this year only 785 matches are in the fixture book. This is a drop of 28.2% from 1996 and 14.7% from 2006.
Number of overs being bowled
But that’s not the height of it. Not only are fewer teams are playing less frequently, but they are also playing less cricket during those matches.
In 2006 all senior matches could be played to 50 overs; now it’s 40 overs for Section Three. In 2006 the top two junior leagues also played 50 overs, now it’s only Junior One. Furthermore, in 2006 all other junior leagues could play a maximum of 45 overs per side; now two of those leagues (Junior Two and Three) play 40, the next three play 35, and the bottom three play 30.
The maximum length of the average match of NCU cricket in 2006 was 47.4 overs and, for the junior leagues, 46.3 overs. Now, in 2015, the maximum length of the average match is down to 40.4 overs and, for junior cricket, the average maximum is 36.1 overs per side. What this all means is a gargantuan reduction in the volume of cricket that can in theory be played.
Assuming the same regulations for 1996, the NCU could have seen 103,860 overs of league cricket in that summer; by 2006 that figure had come down to 87,870 overs; in 2015, the maximum number of overs that can be bowled in the season is 63,820. That’s a fall of 38.6%.
Much of that decline has happened in junior cricket. In 1996 there could have been 67,860 overs of junior league cricket; in 2006, 55,980 overs; this year, the maximum possible is 35,740.
This means that, over the space of 19 years, the amount of junior cricket that could be played in the NCU has fallen by 47%. Even since 2006 there has been a fall of 36.2%.
Who is playing this cricket?
One other consideration could make the whole picture a little gloomier. Because almost every team now plays a maximum of 14 league matches (and the season is 20+ weekends long), it is incredibly rare that a club is forced to put out all of its teams on the same day.
Exacerbating this, clubs have been allowed in recent years to schedule their junior matches on Sundays, thereby allowing unstarred players to feature for more than one team on a weekend. So when a club is putting out three teams, it might in fact be putting out two-and-a-half.
There are fewer teams. They are playing fewer matches. There is less cricket being played during these matches.
I don’t know whether these scenarios repeat in the other Irish unions, but the argument that cricket is ‘growing’ in the NCU cannot be sustained. In fact, it has been steadily declining over the past twenty years.
If anything, this analysis suggests that, despite the protestations of Cricket Ireland and despite the increasing strength of a small number of Premier League clubs, cricket is struggling.
Running summer schools and coaching camps for hundreds of children might boost membership of clubs, but this does not mean there are more cricketers; rather, this is glorified child-minding. Likewise, having a hundred registered adults on the books of a club does not mean much if those hundred cricketers only play a handful of matches each season. And having four or five teams entered into the league system is similarly deceptive: what does it matter if you do not field all of them on the same day?
So why is this happening? I can offer three broad suggestions.
First, the socio-economic progress of Northern Ireland has given more people more ability to do more things, so cricket has been put on the back burner. People have more disposable income, they have more things on which to spend it, and it’s now easier to spend it. Three-week holiday to Spain? Check. Tickets to a festival? Check. A tee time at the K Club? Check.
Second, some people – especially young people – like drinking more than they like playing cricket. Even when you are outstanding at cricket, you will probably have more bad days than good ones. Yet on the sauce, every day is a good day (even if the next day is likely a bad day). Consequently, casual cricketers often cannot be bothered to play 100 overs and deny themselves drink until late in the evening.
Finally, the perceived decline of schools cricket finally has had a delayed effect on the club scene. Cricket is a long, difficult, and often boring sport. Those who play it must spend hours and hours in the company of their team-mates, so it helps to be friends with them. And where best to create friendships within cricket, to create a ‘cricketing culture’ among the young? At school.
Cricket is not alone in facing these problems. Club rugby has been diminished by the advent of the professional game; golf too has reported significant decreases in club memberships. The difference, however, is that cricket is incredibly unpopular compared to rugby and golf; unlike in those two sports, once the surface is scratched there is not much beneath it.
In order to combat these problems, the NCU and its clubs have reduced the size of league sections, reduced the overs of matches, and allowed clubs to schedule fixtures away from Saturdays. Has this arrested the decline of cricket? Has this kept the wavering cricketers interested in the sport? Or has it just led to less cricket being played?