A season’s review

It was good to be back.

After a frustrating 2020 and its curtailed season of 20 overs game, there was genuine hope that 2021 would offer more. In the end it did but Public Health guidelines dictated that the season started with 20 overs games. It was a fair call though it was hard not to be envious when NCU and North West competitions moved ahead into a longer format game before Cricket Leinster were given the green light.

Hand on heart, I have no love for the 20 over format. To me, 20 overs meant rushing from work to get to Castle Avenue or some further outposts for a 6 o'clock start in a competition for which I had no great fondness. Some clubs took it more seriously than others, many viewed it as an opportunity to give senior (aka older) players a night off nets and give younger players a chance.

It had its place in the calendar but it came in behind the 2 local league competitions, the Cup and Irish Senior Cup. I am not saying we didn't take it seriously when we were on the pitch but sometimes getting on the pitch was the difficulty, however, in one game Clontarf actually played the entire game against Leinster with 12 players before the error was spotted (and not by the umpires) we had actually fielded with 12 for the entire 20 overs.

I acknowledge and understand that these days it's an accepted format of the game worldwide but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Do not fret, we will get to The Hundred later.

But at the start of the 2021 that is what we had and I was grateful for it as I guess many of us were as well. I had hoped and planned to get around various grounds to shine some light on the cricket played below the senior line, however, events conspired against me.

It started well however the Interpro series had an impact on availability in clubs and that meant that the two cricketers left in the house would be playing both days of the weekend and in Covid times someone had to get them to their game and four hours later, back from their game. So weekend visits to other grounds was out of the question.

Instead I used the preponderance of midweek games to get out and about taking photos and writing a report for CricketEurope. I saw both men’s and women’s cricket at varying standards. I enjoyed it, the vast majority of cricket is played at, let’s call it recreational level. There is no insult intended at this description rather the acknowledgment the cricket is being played for fun. Of course the result will matter but it does not have to be the reason for playing and nor should it.

Nonetheless, I did get to see plenty of senior cricket, indeed occasionally Cricket Leinster asked me to cover the game on their behalf. It is not an easy job I can tell you but the Editor gave me some advice which helped a huge amount. “There is no rush” he said “leave it till the following day”. Indeed that is good advice - provided the report is not required instantly, allowing time for reflection, which is always a good thing.

Some of the cricket was good, some of it not so good. It was great to see the elder show not just his ability but his sporting nous in compiling a fifty in the Tillain Cup Final which gave his side’s bowlers the opportunity to win a game that had seemed beyond them for much of the first innings. Winning games can be done in many different ways. I enjoyed that report.

So the season meandered along, a couple of games every weekend, maybe a midweeker too since by July with the Leaving Cert finished, the younger was involved with games for the Irish under 19s in preparation for the World Cup Qualifier which was due to take place in La Manga in September. The dates changed along the way as did the venue which was originally supposed to be Scotland. But that which must not be named made a mockery of plans for virtually everything this year it seems.

The 19s played in Cricket Ireland’s Future series as well as some other games to help get the side ready for the tournament and for players to show their worth to the selectors. As the Under 19s were the only side not to have a home venue that meant all games were away games. So the car which had had an idle time of it for the past 12 months had to earn its keep as it went its way to Cork, Oakhill (I suppose that qualifies as a home venue) and multiple trips to the Belfast area.

Since carpooling is against Government regulations and bus travel was presumably prohibitively expensive, it meant that parents were called on to transport their child to these grounds. It becomes a collegiate affair, many years of sitting watching the offspring at underage interpros and squad sessions means that the parents have become friends or at least seasonal acquaintances.

This year’s under 19 squad included players from the under 17 squad so it meant some new faces to link to their playing sons. And it's a great group of people, friendly, interesting and interested. Conversations rarely stay on the sport carried on in front of us, the price of cattle (not great, I believe) was one of this year's topics.

Sport, of course is the common denominator but often it moves into pastimes other than cricket and a great chat about the crossovers between golf and cricket coaching was one I thoroughly enjoyed. While I am fortunate that my work coincides with the school year, I was more often than not, available to travel and Fiona used her holidays to travel regularly, learning some beautiful swimming spots in the Belfast area while we were at it.

We were not alone, every game we would find parents, sometimes huddling from the cold and occasionally hiding from the sun while following the play, sometimes disappearing to take a work call or trying to find a wifi signal so they could get a bit of actual work done.

After the game, sometimes we find ourselves picking up the pieces on the long drive home. The players, in this case, our sons make a huge effort in their commitment to their sport and desire to improve themselves, but the reality is that parents also provide enormous support , practical, financial and in particular emotional support to their children.

These days after an afternoon in the field, I need physical support, never mind the emotional kind, so I limit myself to one game a season for the Leprechauns CC. When Dick Forrest suggested a trip down memory lane for a game against Ballyeighan, I quickly accepted and that became my one for the year. I will not remember it for the quality of my cricket (frankly awful) but I will remember it for a great day played in great company in a beautiful spot.

Also in August, international cricket returned to Castle Avenue when Zimbabwe visited for two 20 over games against our men's senior team. With only 200 tickets on sale, I did not bother applying, instead intending to drop in on the stream which was planned for the game. Except for the first game the stream never materialised. Excuses were made by Cricket Ireland citing technical difficulties. It felt like a kick in the teeth for local supporters. Something was cobbled together to have the second game covered on Twitter but by that stage I had lost interest. We tell our children that honesty is the best policy, it applies to us all, as well.

On TV at this time came The Hundred. A competition that is not marketed to me, it has to be said. After all, I have made my views known on 20 overs already. I watched a bit, hadn't a clue what was going on most of the time, couldn't hack the graphics and please, please don't get me started on the commentators. But I still watched a good bit of it.

January 1 2016, the family were in Melbourne and were in the crowd of 80,883 who watched the Melbourne Stars take on the Renegades in the Big Bash. We were there early to see the women’s game which included one of the best bats in the world, Meg Lanning and later on Luke Wright smashed the ball around the Colosseum that is the MCG.

We enjoyed the day out but it became clear to us early on that we were the exception in closely watching the cricket games infront of us. The vast majority were there for an evening out, cricket was very much secondary.

Many were paying no attention or at best giving a passing nod to the game. This was an evening of entertainment. And entertainment is not limited to the cricket pitch. The most animated the crowd became was when the players came out at the end to sign autographs and throw branded soft balls into the crowd. Well we were not immune to that sort of bribery and managed to get our hands on a ball, lucky us.

Big Bash, Blast, IPL, The Hundred, they have their audience. But what is the difference between The Hundred and The Blast? Marketing no more no less.

Possibly the highlight of the year for me came when Cricket Leinster asked me to do some photography for them at various finals, in the month of August. Some were midweek some weekends, morning, afternoon or evening. They came in all shapes and sizes but essentially the deal was the same. They needed photos before, during and after the game, toss, action, presentation. And the catch was they needed them NOW for instant upload to their Twitter feed.

It was not the first time they had done such a thing for big games but I imagine it was the first time they did it for virtually every final from Premier League to the Cubs (the youngest age group). Most of what I covered was youth cricket and my strong impression was that the clubs greatly appreciated that Cricket Leinster made such an effort to promote all of the cricket being played in the province.

I saw some great,entertaining games and some terrific cricket. Having spent many years involved with youth cricket it was good to catch up with the people who work endlessly to produce cricketers year on year, primarily for the benefit of the kids themselves but also for their clubs but in the long term it is for the good of the game in this island.

One of those whom I met regularly at these games was Cricket Leinster President Elect Jim Bennett. Jim is a Hill's man, a Fingal man but most of all a cricket man and one of the best. I don't know how long I have known him, it appears to have been always. Certainly I got to know him well in his capacity as a parent to a very promising cricketer, his son James.

Jim had leading roles in youth administration and then Child Protection and his interest in history has been evident in the informative and entertaining articles he has written on Fingal clubs and cricket. Time with Jim is always good fun.

So the job of taking photos, uploading and forwarding to Simon Dyke who often was coordinating matters became an enjoyable time. All the while boys and girls were having a ball on the pitch, giddy with excitement and showing off their skills. My family got used to my declaration on returning from these games announcing that I had a new "favourite cricketer" and I really did mean it.

That is what I take from the season of 2021, that local talent exists, it is out there. Yes it may take some time to come through and develop but clubs are doing the right things.

Sometimes they need a bit of help but the wish to promote cricket and cricketers exists. They want a future for their cricketers. Not everyone can be an international but the process starts in the clubs, they nourish the talent and trust me there is talent aplenty out there.