Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A WINTER OF EXPANSION



The pavilion at Great Chell: symbol of the precariousness of all clubs  



It has been a winter of expansion – not only of my waistline, but also of the NSSCL. Indeed, the winter’s cricketing activity has been dominated by the NSSCL restructuring, with several new additions coming in (including our own Sri Lankan enclave, Moddershall Phoenix, straight in at the fifth tier) and a raft of major and minor changes. 

Primarily, the expansion serves to reward ambitious clubs, allowing them access to the area’s premier cricket competition. The restructuring into a ten-division ladder is for the same purpose: to reward well-run, ambitious clubs. In theory, allowing a club’s 2nd XI to progress up as high as the second tier of local cricket (providing they’re below the 1st XI, of course) means they can offer youngsters not quite ready for the 1st XI (and seniors no longer good enough) the best possible standard of cricket, rather than, at best, fifth tier. In turn, this hopefully enables them to keep those youngsters that they have developed at the club for longer (with the knock-on effect of preserving a club’s playing identity, of slowing down the revolving door) rather than having them cherry-picked by fly-by-night, house-of-cards clubs with plenty of money but no infrastructure who are able (they will say) to offer 1st XI cricket. 

Not only that, clubs that are currently struggling for numbers yet still retain a dedicated core of players will not be punished, or even forced to close, for not being able to put out two Saturday sides. If you can muster up eleven, you can still play (without having to meet unattainable ECB Clubmark goals). So, sensible all round. 

While the restructuring is all perhaps a little confusing at the minute – why are Moddershall A still called Moddershall A if it’s a straight ladder? Why not Moddershall 1sts through to 5ths? Does this affect the starring system? – the changes nevertheless serve to illustrate the broader reality that the league is a continually evolving entity (even if it was more comforting and less disorienting when it was 1A and 1B, mirrored by 2A and 2B!). 

Moddershall ourselves were beneficiaries of this evolution in late 1989, when the folding of one of the league’s founder members, Great Chell, allowed us into the NSSCL. We haven’t looked back. A season later, Chell (who had a phenomenal pavilion, the Lord’s of the Potteries) re-emerged, having merged with another founder member, Sneyd (whose pavvy wasn’t quite so salubrious), before both clubs bit the dust. In the 1960s they had West Indies Test players as pros, today they are a memory. A salutary lesson. 

"The Lord's of the Potteries" [Chell photos provided by Gary Stanyer] 

In our early NSSCL days, we played many times against clubs that are either no longer with us, or no longer members of the league: Nantwich, Crewe Rolls-Royce, Haslington, Buxton (it would have been quite an early alarm-call, trekking from there to Norton-in-Hales for a 12pm start in September: Derbyshire to Shropshire for a North Staffs & South Cheshire fixture!!). Nantwich left in the mid-nineties and have since gone on to win the Cheshire County League on a number of occasions. They were another of the NSSCL’s founder member clubs, one of the dozen that started out in 1963 (coincidentally, the year that one-day cricket began, in the form of the Gillette Cup). 

As well as Chell, Sneyd and Nantwich, the other NSSCL founder members were Stone, Crewe LMR (today, Crewe), Longton, Leek, Knypersley, Norton, Bignall End, Newcastle & Hartshill and Porthill Park. These clubs were predominantly based in the Potteries or in other sizeable towns, and their respective current fortunes – five in the Premier League, three defunct, three down the pyramid, one elsewhere – show just how difficult it can be to sustain a club’s strength (be that on the field or in its social aspect) over a long period. It’s hard work, and requires thousands and thousands of small acts of investment of time, love and energy (not to mention, for some of those founder members still in the top flight, a well-thumbed chequebook). 

The NSSCL’s first great expansion took place in 1981, when several clubs took the plunge and sought out a better grade of recreational cricket – the likes of Cheadle, Little Stoke, Caverswall and Elworth, all of whom have won the NSSCL, as well as Leycett, Kidsgrove, Stafford, Burslem, Barlaston, Betley, Buxton and Crewe RR, who haven’t won the NSSCL. And in some cases, for various reasons, won’t. 

Everybody played everybody once during that 1981 season. The top dozen went into 1A, the rest into 1B, with second teams shadowing them in 2A and 2B respectively. My dad’s club, Little Stoke, finished level on points with another team (I forget which) smack bang in the middle of the table, meaning they had to contest a playoff. It was at Great Chell, funnily enough (maybe the opposition was Great Chell themselves). It was tense. There were several abandonments. Little Stoke engaged the Derbyshire opener (and sometime Staffordshire Academy head coach) Alan Hill as sub-pro. He made quite a few good but ultimately fruitless scores. On one occasion, he stroked 80 and it snowed. It was eventually resolved in the early weeks of October. I forget the result. It’s not important. It’s the exploring-the-massive-pavilion that counts. 

After this first Great Leap Forward, there was an occasional dribble of newcomers, usually the best of the old North Staffs and District League, one of the oldest in the country and the chief casualty of NSSCL expansionism. First it was Audley and Ashcombe Park in the mid-eighties. Next Moddershall got in, then not long after that it was Checkley and Meir Heath, followed by Haslington. 

Audley CC
At some point after that (my history is sketchy and the NSSCL Library has not yet been built), they introduced a one-up one-down backdoor (or trapdoor) entryway to the NSSCL, designed to offer an incentive to the restless, ambitious clubs in NSDL while quelling its officials by preserving the latter’s identity. But NSDL were fighting the historical tide – fighting evolution – and in 2005 the NSSCL expanded to four divisions, split into A and B sections (with the NSDL folding and living on as a midweek competition), which is where we have been, with a few changes in the cast, until the League’s November AGM last year. 

So now we have Milford Hall (who, I’m told, don’t get along with our junior section), Sandbach, and Onneley & Maer to add to the long list of NSSCL clubs. But what do all the new changes amount to? I don’t really know, beyond turning up on a Saturday with enough white clothes not to embarrass yourself by having to wear someone else’s, and trying your best for your team, for your mates... But what this potted history does show us is that Moddershall, for a rural club (I mean, we are not even in a village!), punches far, far above its weight. You only need glance at the list of NSSCL winners over the first 53 years of competition to see that.

11        Longton 
6          Stone 
5          Leek 
4          Crewe 
3          Audley, Knypersley, Nantwich, Newcastle & Hartshill, Norton, Moddershall
2          Little Stoke   
1          Ashcombe Park, Caverswall, Cheadle, Elworth, Great Chell, Norton-in-Hales, Wood Lane

The four clubs that have won more NSSCL titles than us were all founder members of the League. Crewe’s last title was in 1986, and their next won’t be any time soon. Stone may have won twice as many NSSCL titles as us (boosted by winning the last two year’s Premier Leagues, of course) but they have also played over twice as many seasons (2016, our 27th year in NSSCL, will see us having been members of the league for half its lifespan). 

Of the five other clubs to have won, like us, a trio of titles, four were founder members of the league (and one of them owed two of its titles to the current Moddershall groundsman, on an early-career three-year pro’s assignment), albeit two of those four are no longer NSSCL clubs. The fifth, Audley, an excellent club, joined in 1986, four years before us. That means only Longton has a better “seasons per title” ratio than we do. 



It is a record of which we can be justifiably proud, particularly given that every other club to have won three or more NSSCL titles has a significant population base on its doorstep from which they can draw. Not only that, the absence from the list of clubs with far greater financial resources than Moddershall demonstrates just how difficult it is to win. 

But it is also a record on which we cannot afford to dwell. The league evolves, some clubs prosper, others decline. The only thing that’s permanent is change, as they say. There can be no complacency, no time for feeling sorry for ourselves because a few good players have jumped ship, for one reason or another. 

Given a fair wind, it is within the compass of the present group of 1st XI players and the quickly improving cricketers rising from the junior ranks to ink Moddershall’s name on to that NSSCL roll of honour for a fourth time. And when it happens, it will be the best thing they'll do in local cricket. 


5 comments:

Brian Carpenter said...

I enjoy these Staffordshire club cricket rambles, Scott. Something to do with being an all-round cricket anorak, I suspect.

Interesting picking out the clubs associated with notable Staffs players - Bignall End with Bob Taylor, of course, Leek (am I right?) with Kim Barnett, etc.

While in Cape Town for the second Test recently I was in a group with a very nice old chap called George Ellis, who said he'd played for Moddershall, and also got chatting to a bloke over breakfast who was groundsman somewhere in the area (I'm pretty sure it was Stone) and had also played a bit for Staffs.

Good stuff.

Scott Oliver said...

Thanks Brian.

I only picked out those clubs because they were founder NSSCL members. You're right, though: of those twelve founder members, Bignall End is RW Taylor and Jack Ikin's club; Leek is Barnett's; Knypersley was Rob Bailey's (and, briefly, Frank Tyson's); SF Barnes pro'd at Porthill for a while.

I reckon the groundsman you're talking about is Jerry Young. Stone CC. Good old stick.

jeff birks said...

The three teams in the play offs were Little Stoke Sneyd and Porthill Park. Enjoyed the short trip down memory lane.Well done Scott, Jeff Birks

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