Chris Stride, who plays for Sheffield University Staff CC and the Forty Club (YNE), examines the enduring appeal of cricket friendlies and their many benefits, including for league clubs.
That’s not proper cricket!”
“I only play league games”
“Friendly cricket? What’s that? Cricket is war!”
These are just a few of the comments I’ve seen when seeking friendly fixtures in Yorkshire. They’d probably be surprised at the amount of friendly, or non-league cricket played in the UK, albeit much more commonly in the south.
This regional disparity reflects the amateur/professional divide in association football pre-1900 and between the rugby codes pre-1990s. In the home counties, many teams opted out of leagues and played friendly matches on Saturdays up until the late 1980s.
Even now weekly Sunday friendly cricket is still a regular feature of club fixture lists in the midlands and southern England. Kent even has a sizeable network of teams playing Wednesday afternoon friendlies!
However friendly cricket is anathema in Yorkshire and Lancashire, where tradition dictates a full fixture list of league and cup matches. In the 2010s, regular Sunday afternoon friendly cricket in Yorkshire was played by a mere handful of teams, few enough that I can name most of them.
Little Valley and Hebden Bridge fly the flag in Calderdale; St George’s Church and Cambridge Methodists in north Leeds. There are a handful of long-standing jazz hat teams: most famously Yorkshire Gentlemen, but also wandering clubs – The Romany, the Druids and The Hawks.
The Forty Club play midweek friendlies against schools and club opposition. And three clubs in Sheffield; Hallam CC, Firvale CC and my club, Sheffield University Staff and Postgraduate CC (SUSCC), all of whom travel south into Notts or Derbyshire for most of our friendly fixtures.
Why do we at SUSCC play friendlies rather than join a Sunday league, or just make do with the Sunday cups offered by our Saturday league?
It’s largely due to the strong participation-first ethos of our club. Our friendly fixtures are the perfect environment for introducing new players, who come to us in varying shapes and forms.
They could be overseas students who often talented but have not experienced formal cricket before; genuine beginners to the game or others returning to the sport after not having played for a few years (or decades).
We want to offer cricket to all our members, and hence play plenty of matches where these players can fit in without feeling the pressure of letting the team down, and can be given the opportunity to bat and bowl.
Advantages for clubs playing in leagues
But we gain other benefits too, that would apply to clubs which place competitive cricket higher on their agenda.
Our Saturday League team specialist bowlers who fancy a rare bat; or Saturday batters who fancy a bowl often get the opportunity to do just that on a Sunday, and hence improve their skills: Likewise a wannabe captain can be given their first taste of skippering.
By fielding a team that is often a mix of Saturday Firsts, Seconds and regular Sunday-only players, we’ve found that friendly cricket brings the whole club together, and makes it feel like a single, shared enterprise rather than a set of separate teams.
Some high-standard cricketers primarily want to play cricket for the sake of the game, its skills and camaraderie, not the outcome, and we’ve found them gravitating to SUSCC, thus boosting our club membership and playing strength.
Stunning grounds and junior development
Arranging friendly fixtures has also given us the chance to play at some stunning venues – Chatsworth House, Welbeck Abbey and Escrick Park for instance – and at the grounds of some bigger clubs who we would never get to compete against on a Saturday.
A final reason for friendly fixtures relates to junior development. SUSCC don’t have a junior section, but many of our opposition clubs in Sunday friendlies do, and they use these matches as an opportunity to give youngsters their first taste of adult cricket – essentially as an intermediate step on the pathway from junior cricket to senior league teams.
In the next few years, with the first ‘allstars’ and ‘dynamos’ cohorts reaching the age where senior cricket is a possibility, providing this type of opportunity will become even more important, especially for clubs where the lack of a second ground makes fielding a Saturday Third or Fourth XI an impossibility.
Moving all but the most talented youngsters straight into Saturday league teams in which they might not get to do much in a game can be counterproductive – 40 overs in the field and batting at 9, 10 or 11 will have the less committed choosing other ways to spend their Saturday afternoons.
In friendly cricket, young players can more easily be given a regular bat and bowl. Cricketing parents, some long retired, some still very able players, can most easily be coaxed back into the game through the opportunity to play alongside their children thus providing another potential stream of members.
Given these advantages, why do so few clubs in Yorkshire play Sunday friendlies?
Even as a native southerner, I don’t believe it’s purely a matter of the stubborn adherence to tradition associated with my adopted county. In fact, chatting with officials from other clubs when I began fixture sec’ing for SUSCC, several were interested in arranging such matches but didn’t know how to go about it.
In a region where almost all cricket is league cricket, the role of the fixture secretary has often been reduced to rubber stamping a pre-arranged list, and finding opposition for a friendly made to feel much harder than it is.
Over the border in Derbyshire, one attempt to solve this perceived difficulty has been the creation of so-called development leagues, played on Sundays. Two such leagues have been set up and both have been successful in attracting teams.
However, whilst a positive move in terms of creating more cricket and opportunities to play, my feeling is that once you get a league structure, however laudable the initial aims, over time it is inevitable that some teams being to prioritise winning it, and hence the original purpose is stymied.
The irony is that social media and the internet more generally have actually made a fixture secretary’s job much easier in terms of arranging genuine friendlies, and such development leagues are convenient but not really necessary.
There’s no great mystery to the task – you need to contact other clubs, ask for a game, and work out a suitable date.
That said, whilst opposition contacts are easily available via play-cricket or league handbooks, sending round emails pleading for friendlies can be tedious.
Yorkshire Friendly Cricket Fixture Bureau
The lack of any friendly ‘fixture bureau’ for Yorkshire was a clear hindrance to developing a wider network of clubs playing friendly cricket – so I set one up in late 2019. This was fortuitous timing in that the 2020 ‘COVID season’ resulted in leagues cancelled or truncated, and friendlies were suddenly the only option for many clubs!
The group now has over 500 members and gradually more and more clubs are starting to arrange games.
Encouragingly, clubs who are already members of Sunday leagues or cups have been looking to fill their blank weeks with friendly fixtures, or play extra games at the start and end of season.
So, I would encourage the naysayers to give it a go for their club.
You can find our group on Facebook – Yorkshire Friendly Cricket Fixture Bureau – just join up and post the dates for which you are looking for games.
Get the game on!
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