Why Lurgan’s troubles are a warning to cricket clubs across Northern Ireland

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The debate about the current health of local cricket, or otherwise, took another twist on Sunday.

Lurgan, the three-time Irish Cup winners, and winners of the famous Challenge Cup on four occasions in an era when the NCU game was at its very strongest, conceded their Section One match against Muckamore - almost unthinkably the Pollock Park club only had seven available players. The result was effectively another league defeat and their relegation worries intensified.

A mixture of incredulity, sadness and plenty of doomsday-type predictions followed. Lurgan are certain to be relegated to Section One said some, the club itself won’t last the season or certainly won’t start the next, said others.

Where better to find the truth than to talk to Denis Johnston, former player and now club chairman.

As Denis says, the grim reality of what is happening at Pollock Park will be painfully familiar at many cricket clubs across Northern Ireland.

Firstly some of the facts. Lurgan have used 30 players in nine Section One matches so far this season. There are “five or six players who are really committed” but the remainder of the places are being taken up by the other 25, many of whom float in and out, or simply help out when they can, however reluctantly.

Denis said: “I have been in contact with other clubs and people are just seeing it as we are. But we have just suffered slightly more than others this year.

“We have lost a few players, Stephen Chambers going to CIYMS, James McCollum went to Waringstown a few years ago.

“It’s all about unavailability. Anything from other sports, to the Euros, to holidays and exams.”

But the problems at Lurgan, and clubs like Drumaness who sadly folded over the winter, run deeper. At the heart of it, are changes in society itself.

“The length of games is a major problem,” explained Denis. “Sunday is an issue at Lurgan, not just for religious reasons, the guys have already played on Saturday and it’s not the way of today’s world now for people to play Sunday as well.

“I know the NCU are trying to do things but for me the whole culture has changed. Money is a factor at other clubs, they are paying players and if they are not getting paid, they are receiving money in kind, so players will play two days at the weekend but that finance is not available at Lurgan.

“It’s very difficult for the NCU in the culture of today. The length of the game is often an issue and no-one is watching. I remember in the 80s when Lurgan played Waringstown in the cup final and there were 3,000 people there.

“When I was playing you could have got 200 to 300 at games, maybe even 500. Something needs to be done to resurrect the game as a spectacle. Maybe a T20 league, with prize money from a sponsor and hopefully that would attract a family atmosphere. Families do not go to the game the way they used to.

“T20 only lasts three and a half four hours. You could keep 50-over cricket for the elite clubs, there are only four to five clubs now who supply players to the Northern Knights.”

Lurgan’s work to attract younger children to cricket has been long admired courtesy of the Tigers set-up.

But as other clubs continue to find, attracting kids at a young age through the likes of Kwik cricket might be easy enough, but maintaining interest amidst the many other attractions of teenage years is much more tricky.

Denis said: “Cricket is squeezed by other sports. We have lost two or three already this summer to football already, some are back in training with rugby, I would not attract much blame to our administrators, they have got a hard job.

“I still think cricket is a fantastic game, the kids enjoy it, we have had good numbers with Kwik cricket but if you then lose them between 12 and 18 you won’t ever get them back.

“Getting volunteers is also very difficult. We have people in their 60s running the club.”

Denis believes the NCU lost nine teams last year alone, with Drumaness, once a symbol of the health of rural cricket, a perhaps unexpected casualty shortly before the 2016 season started.

“I rang the chairman at Drumaness and sympathised with him and he mentioned similar problems to what we are experiencing,” Denis added.

Denis’ son Stephen, who captained the club in the Premier League, is bullish about the future. Despite the falling player numbers and the high number of cricket clubs in the Craigavon area, he is adamant Lurgan will not follow other clubs and fold.

Denis underlines that the need for action is urgent and as a cricket traditionalist, he reluctantly calls for more shorter cricket matches.

“We need something to make cricket more exciting, the north west is suffering as well with numbers. I don’t have the complete answer but I think a shorter game would make a difference, I know people do not like to hear that, but I would rather people are playing the game in some form than not at all.”