It’s that time of year again when club cricketers up and down the land are dusting down their whites, digging out their gear and considering investing in a new block of willow.
But, worryingly, it appears that fewer players are now doing just that in Doncaster.
It’s not just Doncaster, of course. And it’s not just cricket.
At a time when people generally have less time, less disposable income and more distractions, every sport is fighting its own battle when it comes to junior and senior participation levels.
But with several local clubs having folded over the last 20 years*, and others amalgamating, the picture in Doncaster is a concerning one.
Ahead of the new season, which starts later this month, the Free Press spoke to a group of players and officials and asked them if local cricket in Doncaster is at risk of dying out and what can be done to ensure its survival?
*Doncaster clubs that no longer exist: Hatfield Main, Yorkshire Main, Thorne Town, Thorne Colliery, Cementation, Armthorpe, Misson, Finningley, Adwick on Dearne, Harworth (now amalgamated with Wadworth)
The ex-player turned umpire
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why cricket clubs are dying out but we are in danger of losing a sport that is so important to the town and the county.
Some people believe that playing anything more than 40 overs a side is too long for younger people who have been seduced by the short formats.
Some say the encroachment of football, which is now almost a year round sport, has not helped.
Others argue that there has been little or no investment in the sport.
I think it is down to a blend of all of those reasons.
I feel that there has been a gradual erosion of the village identity in the sport. People now live in one area of the town but play cricket miles away for another.
I also think that the people of Doncaster no longer feel a connection to their village clubs.
There is a disconnect, either because the clubs have not reached out to them, the players no longer come from the area, or they do not have anyone willing to run junior teams.
Hatfield Town, for instance, put out two teams on a weekend last season and only seven of the 22 players actually lived in the village.
Some clubs have loads of juniors and then can’t raise two teams on a weekend.
I would introduce a Doncaster village league on a Sunday to try and preserve the game.
With a bit of hard work from the clubs to advertise games and get people to come down and support them, I feel that Sunday cricket could be a real growth area.
I would have a rule that players need to come from a catchment area or must have played for the club for five years. You could have a group stage and then the knockout rounds.
It would be a showcase for club legends and some of the larger than life characters that still play the game.
Gary Strephan, who plays for Conisbrough, is a classic example. People almost lick their lips in anticipation when he walks out to the crease.
The current player
Gary Strephan (Conisbrough)
A lot of clubs have gone down the route of paying players and it’s not sustainable.
At Conisbrough we did it for a season and then decided not to do it, apart from the overseas professional which is covered by sponsorship.
It’s got to be manageable and you’ve got to get the youth involved, so we go into the local schools over the summer and try and encourage the youngsters to play.
It’s not as common now for young people to get out and play sport as much as we did in my era. When I was growing up it was just natural to play football in the football season and cricket in the cricket season.
Nowadays you’ve got to engage with the kids and I don’t think many clubs have done that. So when clubs lose a few senior players and they don’t have the juniors, that’s when they end up folding.
There’s the All-Stars cricket (aimed at children aged 5-8) now which is big and clubs have got to embrace that.
The other thing is that you’re losing a generation of volunteers who used to live and breathe cricket for the club. There’s not the community spirit there once was.
We’re lucky at Conisbrough because we’ve got a lot of people who haven’t played cricket for a long time who still do a lot for the club.
If you’re not recycling people to do that, that’s another downfall.
In terms of making changes, leagues are now giving captains the opportunity to reduce the number of overs and I think that is a way forward.
The fact that the game takes up all day does put juniors off.
Whether I’d want to go T20 in the league, I’m not sure. I’m a purist. I’d maybe look at 40 overs a side.
Pontefract & District League secretary
As a league we have tried several initiatives to halt the decline.
We’ve tried regionalizing teams to reduce travel but this wasn’t popular with clubs because it produced a large spread of ability within a division.
We’ve reduced the number of overs in a match, brought forward start times, reduced the cost of playing and introduced T20 cup competitions.
We’ve allowed the loan of senior and junior players from other teams and leagues.
We’ve also encouraged clubs to consider amalgamating with another club if they are struggling.
Unfortunately this is mostly without much success but we will keep trying to innovate.
It seems that it is a national problem and not solely restricted to cricket. Rugby union, for example, is facing the same downturn in participation.
South Yorkshire Senior Cricket League CEO and cricket committee chairman
Across the South Yorkshire Senior Cricket League we’re in a fairly healthy position but it is a constant challenge to attract players, committee members, umpires, scorers and sponsors to ensure clubs can be run efficiently and games can be played.
Harworth struggled for players last year and folded in January this year. They’d also moved from Harworth to Wadworth in 2018 because of problems with ground maintenance by the local council, which no doubt contributed.
We are keen to support the growth and development of clubs around the Doncaster region, with levels suiting all forms of the game.
Not all clubs are dropping teams; Rockingham and Sprotbrough have both added 3rd XIs and Barnsley have added a 5th XI.
On the whole our picture is fairly positive and we’re working hard with our clubs to provide regular training courses that give people the skills to be proficient umpires, scorers or junior officials.
Doncaster & District Infirmary Evening League chairman
The Evening League is a dying thing which is a shame because over the years it’s helped produce a lot of youngsters.
We’re down to eight teams now. People don’t want to play midweek. They are busy with other things in life.
If you look at the club game more generally the standard of play has definitely dropped, which is ironic because the coaching nowadays is better.
I’m a traditionalist so I’d be reluctant to play T20 on a Saturday afternoon.
What clubs do need is good people who are willing to spend time with the youngsters, sell the sport to them and encourage them to continue playing.
It's not all doom and gloom
Tickhill have a thriving social scene and will join Doncaster Town in this season's ECB Yorkshire South Premier League - the top division in the county pyramid system.
Conisbrough will be competitive again in the South Yorkshire League Championship, along with Sprotbrough who have been promoted three times in five seasons.
Likewise, in the Pontefract League, Brodsworth Main won back-to-back promotions to reach the top flight, where they line up alongside Askern Welfare.