Dark times for country district cricket

2008-02-20 00:00

A pervading sense of doom and gloom is currently hanging over South African cricket and the reasons are not hard to find.

The debacle with Cricket South Africa president Norman Arendse, the selection of the Proteas squad and the general deterioration in the standard of franchise cricket has given us that uncomfortable feeling that all is not well with South African cricket.

How refreshing it was to be reminded of the real reason cricketers turn up and play the game and it was prompted by a visit to watch a low-key country district match in the KZN midlands.

The composition of a country district team is fascinating, a combination of old and young with physiques that range from the lean to the rotund. Some players are stalwarts, others are recruited in the bar on the Friday night to make up numbers. The players are part-time or social cricketers who work all week and practise very seldom, but are still ready to square up for battle on the weekend because they love the game and the camaraderie that goes with it.

Many young cricketers — and I was one of them — were brought up watching their fathers play country districts cricket from the wide, open spaces that surround most countryside grounds.

The cricket is played in the right spirit with the batting side often providing the umpires. But the contest in the middle was hard while the friendships made off it were firm.

I learned a great deal watching from the sidelines. It would be inspiring watching some really old bowlers, who had lost their pace but not their accuracy and guile as they picked up wickets year after year. Their fielding attempts would provide a great deal of humour and their stories in the change-room afterwards would be legendary.

Cricket clubs in the cities have lost this generation of cricketers as very few of the older players are still involved. Most of the city teams are made up of players who have recently left school and who have to find their feet without having senior players around to teach and inspire them.

These youngsters are also becoming disillusioned because no matter how well they seem to perform in the league, it seems the franchise team has been cast in stone and they will not receive the recognition they deserve.

The possibility of playing for the Dolphins Amateur side, with the selection issues and quota system — which frustrates those overlooked and embarrasses those selected — has understandably also lost its appeal.

Most country district players know their limitations. They have neither the desire to play serious competitive cricket, nor do they have aspirations to play for the Dolphins.

In the past, if they were good enough, they would have played in the annual districts week in Pietermaritzburg in November and may have gained selection to the SA Country Districts Week. Unfortunately, these popular festivals have been ditched.

The country grounds dotted around the midlands are among some of the most beautiful in South Africa and offer excellent facilities for spectators and families who could spend a relaxing day in the country.

The rivalry between clubs such as Eston and Mooi River is legendary. The celebrations — which my brother was recently part of recently when his club Mooi River beat Eston — are special and a vivid reminder of the importance of this level of cricket.

Unfortunately, administrators have again chosen to interfere and destroy. In their wisdom, they have decided that the country clubs would merge with the premier league clubs in the cities and, sadly, this has seen a number of district clubs fold.

It is crucial that the erosion of country districts cricket is halted. Would it not be far better to see the re-emergence of country districts cricket, where families are all involved on and off the field and communities pull together.

It is what South African cricket needs but, of course, that would require positive, constructive and generous leadership.

•NEIL JOHNSON is a former Natal, Western Province and Zimbawean cricketer who lives in Pietermaritzburg.

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