Across Britain, in towns and villages alike, the number of cricket clubs has plummeted: entries into the Village Cup have dropped from 800 to 300.
The aristocracy lives by numbers, as cricketers do. The 7th Earl of Shaftesbury was the famous Victorian social reformer, commemorated by the statue of Eros. Cricket has been played regularly at the ancestral home, St Giles House in Dorset, since at least the time of the 9th Earl. And it continues now by kind permission of the 12th.
The setting, like the game, appears timeless. As the Wimborne St Giles team arrived on a midsummer's evening for their fixture against the neighbouring village of Witchampton, there was a sense that they were enacting a ritual that had changed little since their forefathers' time. It is of course an illusion. The very trees surrounding the pitch are new, replacements for those demolished by the 1987 hurricane. The Shaftesbury dynasty has endured the most traumatic of decades and is only now starting to rebuild its reputation and its fortune. Even village cricket has changed beyond all recognition.
Outwardly, few places in England have changed less than this one. It is an estate village: hardly a single house would look out of place in a TV dramatisation of a Thomas Hardy novel. It still has its pub, shop and school, as well as its cricket team. But the estate employs only a handful now, and families come and go.
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I brought to the ground something unusual: a picture of the Wimborne St Giles team of 1972. It appeared in The Sunday Times when one of the paper's cricket writers, Norman Harris, came down to report the team's efforts in the early rounds of the first national Village Cricket Cup. But most of the players could offer only mild curiosity rather than gasps of recognition. One man remembered them all: Norman Shepard, then the team's long-haired fast bowler, who looked, as Harris put it, like "the rider of the fastest motorcycle in the village". Now he is 64, has breathing difficulties, and is long retired from cricket, though the Shepards are still farming here, as they have done since the Earls of Shaftesbury were upstarts; none of his three sons has taken to the game.
We went through the faces on the picture together: three had died; one might have done; all the rest had moved away, including Norman's own brother. In 1972 Wimborne St Giles played friendly weekend fixtures against regular opponents, arranged, year after year, by the assiduous team secretary, Jack Hibberd. That inaugural village cup was a novelty: a rare chance to play truly competitive cricket against new opposition, and they reached the Dorset final before going out.
But the game was just starting to change. Across Britain, in towns and villages alike, the number of cricket clubs has plummeted: entries into the Village Cup have dropped from 800 to 300; membership of the more urban Club Cricket Conference has gone from 2,000 to 900. This is in part an obvious sign of a game in trouble. But it is also caused by social change - and the drop is not wholly to the displeasure of the cricketing authorities.
Above all, old-fashioned village cricket, where what mattered most were beer and fellowship and summer sun and a lingering sense of eternal youth, has gone out of fashion. No more do the likes of Jack Hibberd bustle round the pub and press-gang any half-sober male into making up the numbers, or enlist a kid to field somewhere quiet, bat No. 11 and perhaps save the game. Over the past four decades organised leagues have taken over, overwhelmingly. Most clubs have gone one way or the other: they have become large, serious units with multiple teams and junior sections and girls' teams and coaches. Or they have quietly disappeared.
"It's got so bloody competitive," said Norman Shepard sadly. "When I was playing cricket, when somebody dropped a catch, you just laughed about it, made a joke. In the Leagues you're a criminal, nobody will speak to you." This is not quite my own memory of dropping catches, but the point is fair enough. Anecdotal evidence from all over Britain is that cricket - the game in which by ancient tradition no one argued with an umpire - has become aggressive, abusive, disputatious, nasty and rather joyless. This is not an accident: it is largely what cricket wanted. And the survival of village cricket in places like Wimborne St Giles is an increasing rarity, almost a miracle.
Crudely put, the thinking was that there were too many people playing cricket. Or as Micky Stewart, the former manager of the England team, more politely puts it: "The number of talented players was too thinly spread."
The logic was that in Australia, cricket was a game for a gifted, competitive minority; England had lots of cricketers but they played for fun; Australia usually beat England and at that point were mashing them. Ergo the English system needed to change. Since then it has. And when the 2013 Ashes series starts in Nottingham next Wednesday England will be hot favourites to win the series, for the third time running.
In the 1980s English cricket's governing body, the old Test and County Cricket Board, had a tiny office and a staff of six. Its successor body, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), now lists a dozen directors, heads and managers in the Marketing & Communications Department alone. Its coaches introduce schools to softball unisex versions of cricket that don't involve bashed heads or long hours standing in the field.
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But soon the board might employ more people than ever watch the game, never mind play it. Their coaches have been paid for by the funding from Sky TV, which has had a monopoly of the rights since 2006, the year after 23 million people in the UK watched something of the climactic final Ashes Test. With the game behind a paywall on a specialist channel, and casual viewers effectively barred, these figures have plummeted way below old levels.
The ECB machine regularly produces upbeat figures about how many schoolchildren their travelling salesmen have introduced to the game. But kids used to discover cricket naturally: it was all around them and, until 2005, on their TV screens. Now one hardly ever sees English children - outside the Asian community - playing informally on a park, beach or patch of green, certainly not without a doting parent helping things along. The modern, successful, highly paid England team is a coalition of public schoolboys, South African imports and members of cricketing families who grew up larking about on the boundary half-watching their dads. None of them played in an alley, the way Indian children do. The game has shrunk and there are benefits: it is richer and more competitive. The question is whether they outweigh the loss of the old values and the disappearance of the most English of all sports from the centre of national life.
Some clubs have not just survived but flourished. Potterne is a large village, just outside Devizes in Wiltshire, almost a suburb. But the phrase "just outside" is crucial. It has a population below 5,000 and is "surrounded by open country", which renders its cricket team eligible to compete under the exceedingly complex rules of the 42nd Village Cup.
The team had reached the Dorset/Wiltshire group final, the last 32 nationally; not all that impressive - only 14 teams in the two counties entered. Wimborne St Giles certainly don't bother. But if every parish and hamlet had joined in, Potterne would have been unperturbed. They are the epitome of the new cricket.
Their ground is small and sloping and tucked away down a narrow lane, as a village ground should be. The precious square used to be protected from grazing cattle by an electric fence. "Our warm-up consisted of getting out the wheelbarrow and spade and getting rid of the cowpats and molehills from the outfield." remembers Fred Kerley, the club chairman. There was also a second electric fence round the outfield which had to be switched off before every game. However, the switch was in the pavilion and sometimes it would be mysteriously flicked back on as an opposing fielder ran towards it.
That kind of japery has gone now. Potterne run four Saturday teams, a Sunday team, four boys' teams ranging down to under-nines, and two girls' teams, all under the care of 15 qualified coaches and a child welfare officer, just in case. Their first team was at last count top of a division so high up the ECB's league pyramid that they were above not just the town club in Devizes but also Swindon (population: 200,000). And their old rivals and today's opponents, Goatacre, are in the division above that. Representing a village without a pub, they travel to places like Cheltenham and Taunton, which are not just big but distant.
Goatacre have been to Lord's and won the Village Cup twice, in 1988 and 1990. Nowadays, such triumphs are usually surrounded by controversy, with the winners being derided as too good. "The standard is ridiculously high," says journalist Charles Randall, an expert on club cricket. "I've seen quite a few finals and it's quite shocking how good these players are. No blacksmiths any more."
So the rules of this competition keep being tightened to bring down the quality. Indeed, Potterne were victims of a controversial edict when their captain, Neil Clark, was banned from this fixture because he had played a match for Wiltshire - although his case was seemingly not covered by the existing rules. Clark's teammates were contemplating retaliation because they believed a Goatacre man had been paid for playing in Australia. Several others on both sides were out because they were foreign imports (Potterne attracted much attention when they first hired two itinerant Zimbabweans), too new to the club, or had played to too high a standard. Goatacre were without their own captain, Brad Dawson, through another sign of the times: he was suspended for arguing with an umpire.
And this is merely a hayseed version of the kind of stuff that goes in the rich pastures of the Home Counties. I heard of one southeastern club coaching 300 youngsters which had failed to unearth a single worthwhile talent; they did, however, make enough in fees from parents to fund an overseas star. I thought Micky Stewart would love this new world. Wrong. "I was told of local clubs paying people �350 per match," he said. "And they call this recreational cricket. I think it's diabolical."
At Potterne, the ground itself looked pristine enough to stage a miniature Test match. "I do the pitch," said Clark before climbing on to Potterne's magnificent heavy roller, "and I'm a batsman. So it's good for batting."
The Cup, played on Sundays, is considered very secondary to the Saturday leagues, at least until the later stages when the players start to sniff the honour of stepping out at Lord's. The previous day Goatacre had been at Chard in Somerset: they met at 9.15am and were not back until 10pm. "And we only had one drink afterwards," moaned one team member. Even at Goatacre's level, most still pay to play.
The players might not mind, but their wives do. Clubs around the country report high dropout rates from players in their mid-to-late twenties who have forgotten their boyhood cricketing ambitions and graduated to the real weekend world of kids and shopping. Thirteen-hour Saturdays can be a route to the divorce courts. In villages, the dropouts start earlier, when the players go to university and never return, there being no jobs at home.
Even the most famous of cricketing rituals has been threatened by change: the supply of willing mums and wives to do the teas has dwindled. Now clubs operate a players' rota. The system still works at Potterne, insists former chairman Ian Wheeler: "Whether a team-member does it himself or gets help from his mother, girlfriend, wife or mistress, or just goes to Greggs ? we still have very good teas."
Potterne's success has fed on itself more than on cucumber sandwiches. A supportive farmer owned the land; the Gaiger family, who helped found the club in 1936, run a building business and have funded regular improvements. As the club grew, it attracted players, and thus their subscriptions, from places with fading clubs, including Devizes. Lately, it has opened its own bar in the smart pavilion, cutting the George & Dragon down the road out of the picture. It is a classic story of post-Thatcherite Britain: success breeds success and failure breeds failure.
Yet strangely the best-known player in the match - perhaps the best-known village cricketer as such in the entire country - is the embodiment of the blacksmith tradition. The Iles family have been as important to Goatacre as the Gaigers at Potterne, and Kevin Iles was the star of Goatacre's triumph in 1988, hitting the highest score then seen in a final, 91 not out. Two years later he smashed his own record, with 123: his century came in 45 minutes including four successive sixes. Everyone at Lord's rose to give him a standing ovation.
He has always loved this competition: "I think I've played every game in the Cup since 1977, except one when a flight got cancelled coming home from Greece." Fred Kerley from Potterne happened to be in earshot as we spoke. "That's poor commitment, Kev," he murmured.
Iles had a brief trial with Hampshire, but they spotted nothing, which was probably their loss; now he's 51, farms a bit, runs a landscape gardening business, and says he has thoroughly enjoyed 40 years of playing for Goatacre.
"Do you still enjoy it?"
"I don't honestly know. I don't like the way it's going with League cricket. It's good at developing players but when old gits like me stop playing, there will be no one who remembers how it used to be. We could play cricket and fall out because we were competitive. But there was a line, and afterwards you got into the bar and it was over. Now, though, it's the football mentality." He also hates and blames the endless reviews of every umpiring decision on Sky.
Iles no longer carries the team. But he came in down the order when the innings was wobbling, held his own with ringcraft rather than power and saw his team through to an edgy four-wicket victory. There was, however, no last hurrah at Lord's: last Sunday Goatacre went out in the next round by a single run even though Iles hit three successive sixes to finish the match.
Despite the lordly surroundings, it was rather different at Wimborne St Giles. The pitch is artificial for easy maintenance; the boundary is simply the start of the long grass, which is very long, although the players have acquired the eyes of a habitually wayward golfer when it comes to guessing where the ball might be. The pavilion is a rustic slum, which the 10th earl, who had other preoccupations, did not wish to rebuild. One might nervously refuse the offer of tea in there, were it on offer. There is nowhere even for the 1972 team picture, though there is enough space above the sodden floor for a noticeboard, listing the officers for the year, not very formally:
This fixture would never be confused with a national cup-tie. Wimborne St Giles no longer play full-length weekend cricket: they play only on Wednesdays, in the Wimborne & District Midweek League, centred on the nearby town of Wimborne Minster: 14 eight-ball overs, starting at 6.30; just 12 when the nights draw in.
This is in itself a quaint survival: evening midweek leagues, which used to be popular among urban works teams, were the precursors of Twenty20. But most have been casualties of economic change, factory closures above all. This one is not to be compared to the pyramid leagues; several of the players were only dimly aware of what division they were in, and where they might be in the table (Division 3 and much higher than usual was the consensus).
Stewart is Stewart Hand, the estate's head forester (and, things being as they are, much else); the captain, Nick Goodlife, works with him, as cattleman-cum-dairyman. The team also has an "experimental archaeo-metallurgist", as of course any team should. "All archaeo-metallurgists like cricket," said the one in question, Jake Keen. But it still has a rustic tinge, which gives Hand regular palpitations: "You dread the phone call with two hours to go. 'My tractor's broken down and I can't get there.' Or 'a cow's gone lame.'"
This time Wimborne St Giles had a full complement, which put them one ahead of Witchampton from the start. The home team's age range ran from 73-plus (John Peacock would admit only to being born before the war) to 17, not normally the recipe for the kind of game that was to follow. No one knew we were on the brink of local history. It came from the 17-year-old.
This was Stewart Hand's younger son, Dom. It was clear he was serious the moment he came out to bat in a helmet, still not standard garb at this level. Then the ball started disappearing into the long grass with a regularity that seemed a bit excessive even for a 14-over match. By the last over, Dom Hand was on 99. Then he scrambled a single.
A harsh umpire might have judged it a leg-bye, but young Dom was not - at that moment, in that village - going to meet a harsh umpire. He fell on the ground in teenage delight. Of this statistic, his teammates were sure: no one had scored a century for Wimborne St Giles in this league since 1986, a decade before this centurion was born. The 10 men of Witchampton hardly knew what hit them. They were bowled out for 38 in reply to 175 for two; Dom's older brother Ollie took six for 16.
It was a merry night in The Bull, although for Dom this was hardly the pinnacle even of his cricketing week. On Saturdays he plays for Bournemouth in the Southern Premier League, a potential stepping-stone towards the cricketing career he craves, perhaps too much for his own good. He has put aside his A-levels to give it his best shot. "I love playing Wednesday nights. There's no pressure," he said. "But I really, really want to play county cricket."
So here was a funny thing: at go-ahead Potterne, I met Kevin Iles, the happy-go-lucky village smiter; at sleepy Wimborne St Giles I met Dom Hand, the ambitious aspirant.
And on such a night his determination was infectious. There have been bad times at St Giles House. It fell into decay in the time of the playboy 10th earl, before he was murdered in the south of France in 2004 by his third wife and her brother. Only six weeks after his father's body was found, his oldest son died of an apparent heart attack. Since then his younger brother, the 12th earl, has been putting things right.
He might, someone mused, consider a new pavilion. And then teams would be willing to come to play full-length matches, and Wimborne St Giles might get a Saturday team together again, and maybe get into a League. And, who knows, they might be playing Bournemouth before long, and maybe reach the village final at Lord's.
Whatever might be wrong with the world and the game, there is nothing like a sweet summer evening, a nice win and a few pints to make anything seem possible.
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Matthew Engel, who covered his first Ashes Test in 1977, will be reporting the 2013 series for the FT.
To read more by Matthew Engel on British institutions go to www.ft.com/engel