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The real work that keeps the game alive

Phil Walker by Phil Walker
@Phil_Wisden 5 minute read

Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker on the lifeblood of the game.

We were still a fortnight out from the season but a few were in already, clasping their flasks, watching intently, un-thumbed Who’s Whos by their side. An intrasquad game was taking place, which meant a first view of the new intake. This was Chelmsford, where Essex play their cricket. But it could have been anywhere.

I was sitting alone when a woman came over and introduced herself. She said she read Wisden Cricket Monthly, her husband too, and with England’s Test team flailing in Grenada we had plenty to talk about. She said she’d been waiting for this day for the best part of six months and now it was here: the new season. “The truth is, I can’t imagine life without it.” Since her mother died, she said, her attachment to the cricket club had become the longest existing relationship in her life. “This is my place,” she said, just as it has been since 1979. Eventually she asked me the inevitable question, the one that lurks on the tips of so many tongues. What will happen to all this?

It was a hard one to answer. I said something along the lines that while I was cautiously optimistic, I’d spoken to too many restless CEOs and self-serving chairs – who are, in the main, deeply enthused by free-market economics – to be fooled into thinking that these members’ clubs are always pulling in the same direction; that I’d heard too much disdainful talk from the haves to not fear for the have-nots; and that I’d never quite shaken the line from a very reasonable chief exec at the commencement of The Hundred that he had no qualms with the stone that’s dropped in the pond – what he worried about were the ripples that stone might create.

I then said, quietly, that I didn’t think The Hundred was the work of the devil, and that in my view it sprang up (ham-fistedly, arrogantly, caked in sugar) from a place of real concern for the future popularity of the game in this country, a game which, while profoundly valuable to many, was a total irrelevance to others – before adding hastily that of the many mistakes along the way, disenfranchising its core audience of existing fans was a humungous misstep.

Before we could finish our conversation I was called away (Clare, if you’re reading this, it’s TBC…) but afterwards I couldn’t get it out of my head. She isn’t mad or angry, or trapped in some death-cycle of pointless Twitter debates, or fuelled by contempt for those who make the calls. She is simply a lover of cricket, one who feels a deep connection to a place which, should it be culled one day, reduced to semi-pro status or divested of first-class cricket, would leave an unfillable void in her life.

It was still fresh in my mind when, a few days later, I spoke to a man called Dan Feist. Now Feist is the kind of person who does extremely important work of the kind you never hear about. His titles at Essex are head of cricket operations and cricket operations director, which means he’s responsible for “supporting that journey from picking a bat up to crossing that rope to play for Essex, whether that’s the men’s team, the women’s or disability sides”.

He directs the whole show, connecting the club’s message to local schools and ensuring that those who do get the bug are transitioned into club cricket. In collaboration with various stakeholders – and crucially the playing and coaching staff at Essex – Feist and his team go into schools with a programme designed to broaden the educational experience. “Headteachers aren’t interested in another 10 kids playing cricket so you need a different approach, and part of that story is the success of players from your area who have gone on to play for Essex.”

The players are fully on board, he says, adding that the club is quite fortunate that 14 of the current men’s squad are solely from state schools, so their stories resonate. “What we push through is that cricket’s a very simple game. We had to change the perception of what cricket actually is. Use it as an engagement tool – the social benefits, leadership elements, explain that it’s tactical so maths comes into it, and we’ve massively pushed teacher training, so they’re getting upskilled too.”

As the central first-class county in the region, they work closely with Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire and have players from Bedfordshire too, while the urban hotspots of east London are goldmines. “It used to be about two per cent of girls from east London in our academy, but that’s now shot up to 35 per cent. And always around 60 per cent of our academy boys will have come from inner London.”

In east London there are 18 separate leagues, many springing up at local parks which had lost cricket until recently. In Redbridge alone, there are now more 11-a-side cricket teams than football teams. “The councils aren’t interested in the cricket,” says Feist, “but the fact that anti-social behaviour has dropped massively in these parks keeps everyone interested.”

And here’s what happens at the end of the line: the last six rookie contracts at Essex have been awarded to players from ethnic minority backgrounds.

So who or what else would do this? Without the club, where would those first sparks of awakening come from? Who would provide the reference points, and the endgame? Who would keep pumping the oxygen into these inner-city areas, which were meant to have suffocated years ago? Suppress the club, defund it, and the game in this region would wither and shrivel and eventually die.

It seems to me that with the stakes higher than ever, and the scrap for the playground intensifying, a well-run and joined-up county club can do more valuable and wide-reaching work now than at any other time in its existence. But this is not another paean to the sanctity of the 18-club model. There’s plenty of that elsewhere. This is about the real work that keeps the game alive.

This article appears in the May issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly, which is available to pre-order now.

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