Alistair Bushe: Club cricket becoming poor relation next to interpros

The Northern Knights were left kicking their heels at last weekend's T20 festival
The Northern Knights were left kicking their heels at last weekend's T20 festival
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A Saturday in mid-August should be local cricket’s high noon, a day when the stakes are high and nerves frayed at both ends of the NCU Premier League table.

OK, only a collapse by CIYMS could force the title race door ajar for nearest challengers North Down but the battle at the bottom has rarely looked more intriguing, with Muckamore, Instonians and Lisburn all still sweating about their survival prospects.

CIYMS captain Nigel Jones celebrates the club's recent T20 Cup victory. But the league champions still have six matches to play

CIYMS captain Nigel Jones celebrates the club's recent T20 Cup victory. But the league champions still have six matches to play

But instead of an afternoon of late-season tension, the (mostly dry) weekend just past was literally a non-event as far as the NCU’s top flight was concerned.

The sun was shining gloriously for the most part - a welcome change from the pervading August gloom - but players and spectators were left kicking their heels, casting covetous glances down the leagues where matches largely went ahead.

So why was there no cricket? Because for the second time this summer a Saturday was left blank in the top flight fixture calendar to facilitate a T20 interprovincial ‘festival’, the first of which took place in June.

Of course, sod’s law dictated that Friday and Saturday’s T20 festival at Bready involving the Northern Knights, Leinster Lightning, Munster Reds and the North West Warriors was the dampest of squibs, with all of the six scheduled matches washed out without a ball being bowled. No blame attached to the host club, August rainfall has been well above average and conditions at Magheramason were unplayable.

But the abandonments did add to the air of farce hanging over the weekend and added fuel to the fire of those who, with an increasingly disgruntled voice, claim that the game’s administrators are paying lip service to the future of club cricket here.

The decision to leave the two blank weekends was taken some time ago but it was a flawed one. Cricket in this country isn’t like football or rugby. It a summer game played in a mostly wet climate over a short few months and to effectively remove two Saturdays from the fixture calendar is asking for trouble, especially with the days shortening and autumn approaching.

By the time we reach September, many people’s attention will have turned to winter sports, and by leaving such a prime weekend of cricket blank, it only gives spectators an excuse to go early, possibly not to return until next spring, or perhaps even not at all.

It’s not as if, as in some previous years since the Premier League was reduced from 10 to eight teams, that clubs are up to date with league fixtures. CIYMS, the Premier League leaders, have six matches still to play, along with Instonians, who are right in the middle of an unthinkably nervous battle against relegation.

It’s not a stretch to argue that by dragging the campaign into the reserve weeks of the season in September, that the outcome at both ends of the table could yet change as more players (particularly from overseas) could become unavailable.

Of course the administrators at Cricket Ireland will argue that cricket here is all about the success of the Ireland team, and that the interpros, with best playing against best, facilitate that more than the club game.

There is some merit in that assessment but a couple of points are worth emphasising. Firstly, if in the future the T20 festivals are going to take place over two separate weekends then club cricket must carry on regardless, even if it means that club teams are missing key players.

The argument that crowds would ignore the T20 competition because club cricket clashes is a hollow one because even had the games gone ahead at Bready on Friday and Saturday, there is no way that spectators would have travelled from either the NCU or Leinster in any significant numbers. It was a festival totally reliant on local North West interest.

Much good has come out of the revived interprovincial competition, but the disappointing reality is that spectators largely still fail to identify with their respective local teams for a variety of reasons. They resent their players being pulled from the ranks because there might be an interpro the following week.

The events of the weekend just past (or non-events) will hardly help. Administrators need to accept that the bulk of cricket spectators follow their clubs and don’t appreciate being deprived of their Saturday cricket fix because of a T20 tournament 80 to 100 miles away.

On the evidence of the recent Lord’s Test, and the performances of James McCollum and Mark Adair in particular, the interpros are doing a good job in preparing emerging cricketers.

However, a robust club scene was also pivotal in the development of both players. It’s an essential breeding ground for the future that shouldn’t be neglected.