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The Club Debate: When a village cricket league is overthrown

Rich Evans by Rich Evans
@Rich_Wisden 8 minute read

Rich Evans traces a controversial series of events that has led to the disbandment of The Tees Herts & Essex Cricket League.

A clash of cricketing cultures has torn a league apart in the Home Counties, with the 26-year-old Tees Herts & Essex Cricket League (HECL) recently dissolved and replaced by a new village cricket league bidding to reduce travel time and preserve village cricket.

In just a few months, the ambitious start-up has acquired a majority share of clubs formerly under the auspices of HECL – around 30-35, according to sources – and introduced stricter entry criteria, leaving several clubs facing a winter in limbo. Despite a wave of support for the new venture, those in the HECL camp have questioned the new league’s motives, describing it as “regressive” and “distasteful”. WCM caught up with figures on both sides of the fence.

Founded in 1993 by nine clubs in the Bishop Stortford area, with the M11 serving as the ‘spine’ of the league, the HECL underwent a recruitment drive in the late 90s, taking on clubs inside the M25. The expansion peaked five or six years ago, with more than 40 clubs and 60 teams across six divisions. Then dark clouds gathered; the national decline in participation was echoed around the villages, with away-day travel in particular becoming an issue. “There have been grumblings for years about the geography,” says Paul Richardson, who was recently installed as acting chairman of the HECL. “With teams folding, travelling has been made the easy scapegoat.”

Five divisions operated in 2019, comprising traditional one-team village outfits, the lower XIs of Premier League clubs in neighbouring leagues, and clubs recruited inside the M25 during the league’s major growth period. Underlying tensions boiled over at the end the season when David Brown, chairman of Stansted Hall & Elsenham CC, claimed to have around 30 clubs willing to join a breakaway league, insisting members were reluctant to travel to clubs located inside the M25, and that there were other issues, relating to facilities.

Paul Waters, former chairman of the HECL, resigned from the post just days before the breakaway league was publicised, for which his name was used as selling point, according to Andrew Shields, the HECL’s welfare officer. “Those picking up the pieces feel it was a betrayal,” says Shields. “At the last AGM he spoke quite forcibly in favour of protecting the character of village cricket; it was quite evident that an agenda was being driven. He began to present that the most southern-based clubs inside the M25 were somehow lucky to be allowed to play on these beautiful bucolic village grounds.” “I am no longer involved with the HECL, nor have I any interest in any new league other than from a club perspective,” replied Waters when approached for an interview by WCM.

Seen by WCM, Brown sent an email to the HECL committee stating that the league’s problems could be resolved by asking three clubs to leave – Three Caps CC, Ilford Catholic CC and Shields’ club, South Loughton CC. Shields, in his capacity as South Loughton chairman, sent a formal reply, also seen by WCM, to what he described as “arrogant and regressive statements” – to which Brown did not respond.

Brown had historically advocated a regionalised structure, according to Shields. The league had previously been resistant to regionalisation due to the relatively small number of divisions – “It’s very difficult in a six-division league; you’ll get disparity of playing strength and limited movement up and down,” says Shields – but was forced to act. Shields put together a restructuring plan, which aimed to transition from the restriction of the 10-team division but retain the principle of an 18-week competitive season, with smaller divisions and greater flexibility, regionalising at the lower levels whilst preserving a clear pathway for clubs striving to compete at the highest echelons.

At an extraordinary general meeting held at founder member Hockerill CC on October 14, the HECL executive proposed the new league structure, which was “vociferously opposed” by Brown, according to Shields, with the former citing a reluctance among village clubs to play stronger opponents in more urban and suburban settings. “Some of the village clubs need to look at their own facilities before making accusations about others,” said one attendee.

Shields knew the writing was on the wall. “Even if the breakaway league fell apart, there was no way the HECL could have continued due to the sheer amount of animosity,” he said. At the meeting, Brown allegedly circulated a list of clubs who had agreed to form a new league, alongside a list of ‘non-members’ – “most of whom had not been invited in the first place,” claims Shields, who says “this scapegoating was considered deeply distasteful” by some EGM delegates.

The Essex County Cricket Board urged the new league to defer for a year, but the new band voted 25-3 in favour of pressing ahead, as clubs agreed to observe the HECL deadline of October 31 to resign from the existing league. Two days ahead of deadline day, only seven clubs had formally resigned – indecision fuelled in part by the Cambridgeshire League opening its doors to clubs north of the Bishop’s Stortford area – but all 30 clubs switched allegiances, with the HECL effectively becoming defunct overnight.

“Geography is what pushed it over the edge,” says Peter Hobson, chairman of village club Braughing CC, who have opted to join the new league. They were one of a clutch of clubs “sitting on the fence” but were inclined to join the start-up after neighbouring sides jumped ship. “The new proposal was: ‘Let’s make it smaller and reduce travel time’. That was our number one reason for joining. The new league is more open to change; they’re listening to us.”

The new committee have circulated a list of proposals, asking clubs to rank them in order of importance, such as: Does the league require a formal governance committee? Should the standards of teas and player behaviour be improved? Should there be flexibility on start times and number of overs? Braughing are big believers in the latter. “The HECL did a good enough job, but everything had to go to a big committee; you had to have two or three sponsors before a proposal was made,” says Hobson. “Many proposals never got listened to seriously.”

Paul Richardson, who plays for Birchanger CC, says: “The HECL asked for feedback on the regionalisation proposal in the summer; of 40 clubs we had one reply. It suggested a very low appetite for change. Anything was up for discussion, but if you don’t communicate you can’t expect change. People have been swept up by the tide.”

Richardson and Shields have questioned the new league’s raison d’être, with cricketing ability and club size potential factors. In recent years, the league’s strongest clubs have resided in the south of the league’s catchment, with two-thirds of the 2019 Division One outfits located within the M25. Four of the clubs shunned by the new league were division one clubs: Ilford Catholic CC, who run four league XIs, were league champions in 2018 and regularly provide half of the league’s representative XI; Three Caps CC and South Loughton CC, who both run two Saturday XIs, with the latter running a thriving junior section; and Woodford Wells CC, a Shepherd Neame Essex League club whose fourth XI play in the HECL. All four have been members of the HECL for around 20 years.

“It is a long way to travel to those clubs,” says Hobson. “Some aren’t that pleasant to play at, and some are. But for us the deciding factors were: 1) the number of clubs joining 2) less travel time and 3) the potential for more flexibility on start times and number of overs.”

Shields fears for the smaller clubs, many of which do not run All Stars Cricket or junior sections. “While the breakaway move is viewed by its proponents as protecting traditional village cricket, critics believe it’s a desperate attempt to turn back the clock rather than face up to reality. They’re smallish clubs with no juniors, no development, no ECB Clubmark. They’re clutching at straws. In 10 years’ time they probably won’t exist.” Richardson adds: “There’s more to it than where they are geographically. It’s an idea of going back thirty years … It’s worrying. I’m not convinced the new league will be a success: less teams, less money, similar rules. Doesn’t seem very forward-thinking.”

Hobson, who hopes the new league adopts a modern approach with flexibility at its heart, and whose modest club have an 80-strong junior set-up, adds: “I never saw ‘save our village cricket’ as the slogan, but maybe it’s a factor and one of the reasons we’re supporting it.”

Shields, whose club has just been accepted into the T Rippon League, has a warning for fellow league administrators. “What happens when a league finds its clubs no longer want what they wanted 20 years ago? In this case, expansion and growth then, versus a desire to retrench and look inward now, in a bid to protect some vague village ethos. Most leagues want and encourage growth. This one wants to go backwards to some mythical era.

South Loughton CC will not be joining the new village cricket league

It’s a new dawn for South Loughton CC, who will be joining the T. Rippen Cricket League

“You might think you’re chugging away nicely with only the odd gripe, but underneath there may be a group of clubs or individuals seeking to undermine the entire structure – it’s come tumbling down incredibly quickly. It’s a huge shame that what began as a one-man push for regionalisation has turned into a full-scale breakaway by three-quarters of its clubs.” Brown declined to comment at this point: “Maybe in 12 months’ time.” There’s much work for the new league and those who run it to do during that time. Let’s hope it blossoms and justifies the loyalty shown by its new members.

Closing notes

WCM saw the minutes from a working meeting held by the new village cricket league on November 14, which was due to be officially named on November 22 (with Herts & Essex Border League or Essex & Herts Border League the most likely names). With all but one club responding to a new-member survey, there was broad support for the following:

  • 1pm start time with an end time no later than 7.30pm
  • Two-up/two-down promotion/relegation
  • Win/lose rather than timed games (preference for 40 overs, possibly 45 for Division One)
  • Membership limited to geographical circle
  • Traditional committee structure

After agreeing to try and “ensure the new league is open enough that it never builds up such an excessive balance [as the HECL], as finance is a major issue for many of the clubs”, it was pledged that any financial surplus would be distributed back to member clubs if the league ever ceased to exist. Early indications are that Bob Mills will assume the role of fixture secretary – a post he previously held for the HECL. The new league AGM will be held on February 17.

The HECL confirmed that it officially disbanded after the remaining member clubs voted “unanimously in favour of the resolution to dissolve the league” at its final AGM on November 18. The management committee will discharge all remaining debts and liabilities and donate any remaining assets to charitable causes. “We would like to wish all clubs and players every success as they move on to pastures new and hope that club cricket continues to prosper on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex,” the committee wrote, before signing off with a short poem:

Play the Game

“For when the One Great Scorer
comes to mark against your name,
He writes not that you won or lost,
but how you played the game!”
– Grantland Rice

Read more club cricket stories

This article first appeared in issue 26 of Wisden Cricket Monthly. Main illustration by Joe Provis

Have Your Say

Comment (1)

  1. Benbaker1 2 years ago (Edit)

    Having played in the HECL Coming up 15 years since I was a junior, I have seen the league grow to it’s largest and also shrink back down to its final state and it’s a shame to see it go. However it is important to note that in today’s world people’s time is at a premium and it becomes increasingly hard to put teams out on a regular basis, with more and more clubs relying on people with sporadic availability rather than the play every week types. With this being said travel time and total time taken up to play cricket can heavily effect whether or not a certain member may not not be able to play at the weekend for their club, thus making it’s difficult for clubs to put out sides.
    It’s also worth noting that in the time I have played in the HECL a number of long associated clubs have left the league As it expanded stating travel time and distance as a prominent reason, which makes it clear that expansion for the sake of expansion doesn’t , in the long run Strengthen , what is a recreational league and the overall picture of the state of recreational cricket, and does in fact begin to erode the very thing trying to be kept alive .
    Expansion can and has also lead to discrepancies in the level of Competition with some larger clubs heavily dominating under matched village sides, again effect participation as people don’t wish to turn up and be thrashed each week.
    Speaking from my clubs perspective , if asked “why do you give up your Saturday to play cricket?” The vast majority would say to have fun with some mates oh and play some competitive cricket , the cricket is almost the excuse , after all we aren’t going to be playing a lords for England any time soon. So the idea of a local league attracts , and I’m sure many clubs formally in HECL agree.
    At this point I’d like to note that I have had very good experiences and built good relationships with the clubs in the HECL that have now gone to the T Rippon league and wish them all the best for the future.

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