Village cricket’s big day close to my heart

My earliest memory of competitive cricket: it was the searing summer of 1975 and I was sitting, if the pavilion was at twelve o’clock, at quarter to the hour, surrounded by what felt like many thousands to a seven year old boy but was probably only a thousand or two. The match was Woodhouses Cricket Club against Read Cricket Club in the Lancashire area final of what was then the John Haig Village Knockout.

The match ended in a high-scoring tie, if memory serves, which Woodhouses won by dint of losing fewer wickets and my dad got some runs, smashing the clock face on the front of the pavilion with a lofted straight drive, which was a rare event, given that he hit as few sixes as I did. With the exception of the crowd, which rendered the day unusual, it was a scene that could have been played out anywhere across England.

In those days Woodhouses was what you would call a bona fide rural, farming village, surrounded by preciously guarded green-belt on all sides and full of working pig farms. It was said by the villagers that there were more pig farms per square mile in Woodhouses than in any other village in the country, which was a statistic that I could never verify, although the smell and the noise on a daily basis rendered it perfectly possible.

There was a pig farm at three o’clock to the pavilion owned by a farmer called Len- he specialised also in unbelievably vicious dogs- and in those days the piggery was still very much in action. At around tea time during the match, the swill would be served and the smell (I’m told this since I don’t have a sense of smell) and the noise put a firm spoke in the wheel of the imagined idyll that is village cricket. Still, it was an authentic scene.

Not much happened in the village. There were exotic stories of members of the Quality Street gang- a group of criminals who ran much of the crime scene in Manchester in the 1970s- some of whom were said to live nearby. There was great excitement when a retired Everton footballer moved into a swanky house at the southern end of the village. Gradually, the shops shut, although the pubs- the Dog and Partridge and the Woodhouse Gardens- remained. The D&P had a beer garden and a crown green bowling lawn, where I used to play bowls against my granddad.

These days, some of the green-belt has been eroded, although the village is still surrounded by open countryside. The extension of the M61 runs nearby, which is not that much of a nuisance to be honest, and gave some of the locals a happy financial windfall. Most of the pig farms are no longer in operation, many having converted to stabling horses and some of the land has been flogged off to build housing. You can still differentiate it from the surrounding areas of urban sprawl in between Manchester and Oldham, but the contrast is less sharp than before.

The cricket club remains a focal point of the village, though. Some of those playing now were doing so when I played my last few matches for the club in the late 1980s, before I joined Lancashire. Some of the players are sons of cricketers I played with, and cricketers I grew up watching with my dad. The club has retained a village feel- a community in the true sense of the word- even though the village is much changed.

In 1972, Ben Brocklehurst, the then owner of the Cricketer Magazine, and Aiden Crawley, the chairman of the National Cricket Association, had the idea to set up a village competition to showcase both the strength of village cricket and the unique spirit that accompanies it. The rules of engagement are fairly simple: clubs must be in a village- defined by being surrounded by open country and having a population of less than 5,000- and they mustn’t play paid professionals. It is, unashamedly, an amateur competition. The great incentive is that the final is played at Lord’s.

Woodhouses entered the competition for the first time in 1973 and they have played in it every year since. Playing in a competitive league in the North of England (the Lancashire County League) has meant the club has paid professionals in the past, often quite decent ones in the case of Farokh Engineer, who spent a couple of post-retirement years in Woodhouses colours, and T.E. Srinivasan, who played one Test match for India. But those professionals have always given way in the village cup.

The dream of playing at Lord’s for Woodhouses has been a constant, and over the years the club has reached the quarter-final of the village knockout on three occasions and, before this year, the semi-final once, in their centenary year in 2008. I played in one of those quarter-finals as a fifteen year old against a club called Forge Valley in Scarborough. It ended in a defeat and a badly broken thumb for me- ironically the only bone I ever broke as a cricketer, amateur or professional. Who was that bowler, I wonder, who did what Ambrose, Walsh and Donald could not?

It has probably become easier to progress in the competition now. In 1972, 795 village clubs entered the competition; this year that number was down to 286. The decline is partly due to the decline of village life in general, and the growing urbanisation of England, but also due to the strength of league cricket. In the past, there were fewer organised leagues and therefore the village knockout was the only competition for many village clubs.

This year, Woodhouses, for the first time in their history, have made it to Lord’s. They have done so by becoming Lancashire village champions and by beating the winning representatives of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Worcestershire and, last week (extra special, this), Yorkshire. The final of the competition, now sponsored by Persimmon Homes and still run, commendably, by The Cricketer magazine, is on September 4th. I hope Mick Hunt prepares a decent strip somewhere near the middle.

The names of the players will not be familiar to you, but some of them are to me. Doug Sloan played when I played; Ryan Sloan’s father, Darrell, opened the bowling when I played; Nick Hardman’s father, David, was my opening partner when I played my first match for the seniors aged fourteen, in 1982. Gareth Tuson’s father, David, took four wickets in four balls in that match against Read in 1975. The President of the club is Gill Belfield, whose husband Richard was the President for many years but who died of cancer last year. She is the grand-daughter of Jesse Clare, who founded the club in 1908. In village cricket, the lines of continuity and community run strong. For Woodhouses, the realisation of a near-forty year dream is a wonderful thing.