Alex Stockton reflects on the season so far and the impact of new formats…
We’re just over halfway through the NCL season. That means that form has settled down and we’ve got a reasonable idea of who this season’s main contenders are when it comes to promotion, relegation, and, of course, our 2018 Premier League champions.
How, though, has the introduction of “win/ lose” cricket throughout the leagues (yes, apart from you, Division 2) affected the way the game is being played every Saturday?
That’s what I’ll be taking a look at here, as it seems to have had a profound impact on the way the vast majority of sides are approaching games now. From teams backing themselves to chase mammoth totals to sides going defensive early on, there’s definitely been a degree of adaptation that the new rules have necessitated.
First, though, a quick word on how various teams have performed so far this season. As I’ve already mentioned, we are only just over halfway through the 2018 cricketing summer, so nothing’s set in stone yet. Even sides 100 points adrift at the foot of the table still have a chance of staying up; they’ll need to change their fortunes pretty quickly, but nothing is decided just yet.
That being said, ONs have yet again made an extremely strong start in the Prem. They’ve been matched almost equally by Finedon and Peterborough, the three sides sitting in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd respectively. At the other end of the table, Rushton have unfortunately had to pull out of the league, meaning that none of the clubs left in the top tier need to worry about relegation this summer. The teams most likely to join the likes of ONs next season seem to be Desborough, Overstone, and perhaps Stony Stratford. Credit, too, should go to ONs’ 2nd XI – despite the fact that they’re not able to go up, they sit in 3rd place in Division 1.
Elsewhere, Weldon continue to impress. Although they’ve finally tasted defeat a couple of times this season (until a few weeks ago, they’d gone over a year unbeaten), they sit proudly atop Division 3 as a newly promoted side. Kislingbury have been equally impressive, perched at the top of Division 2 as the league’s new boys.
Division 3 looks to be one of the tightest so far this season, with the top 7 sides all over the 200-point mark already. With so much of the season left to play, though, we can expect to see plenty more twists and turns as the pressure ramps up.
So, after a whistle-stop tour through the NCL divisions, let’s focus on the matter at hand: the new playing formats.
For those unaware, win/ lose cricket was introduced throughout the leagues for the first time this season. The Prem and Div. 1 are playing split seasons, with half of the fixtures being in the new format, and half being in the more familiar territory of “win, lose, draw”. With the exception of Division 2, however, the other leagues are playing a format of cricket that closely resembles One Day Internationals. There are 50 overs, Duckworth Lewis (or a run-rate projection) is required, and there are fielding restrictions. What I’ve found from my own games, and what I’ve heard from others I’ve spoken to, is that many of this summer’s fixtures are actually playing out like ODIs, too.
Recent ODI cricket has been high-scoring and full of flair. 300 used to be a winning score. Now, international sides know that they’ll have to bowl well to keep the opposition below 350. Okay, so we’re not quite at that stage in our cricket just yet, but there are certainly similarities. The knowledge that chasing teams must reach their target, with no possibility of holding out for a losing draw, is opening up the possibility of much greater run chases than before. We’re seeing teams chase down scores in the high 200s almost every weekend, and that simply wasn’t happening a year or two ago. Even last season, if you batted first and posted 280, you could be pretty confident that the opposition wouldn’t be looking to win the game. Obviously, that’s all changed now.
The dryness of the summer has to be a factor in this trend – pitches are hard and outfields are rapid. A couple of weeks ago we came off having conceded around 240, and yet we were really happy with that. In the end, we knocked off the total 3 down with 7 overs to spare, and that didn’t really feel like we’d had to exert ourselves too much. The biggest difference, to my mind, is that the shackles are off. The NCL has brought in a rule that’s forced batsmen to find different ways to score, and discouraged players from being conservative. Some will argue that it kills the game for bowlers, making attacking fields and aggressive lines almost redundant, while others will argue that it makes for a more exciting, competitive brand of cricket. Personally, I suppose it makes sense for cricket in the higher divisions to reflect one-day matches in the professional game. Holding out for a losing draw could be thrilling, and the skills required by bowlers to take 10 wickets in the game’s second innings should never be overlooked, but players want to emulate what they see on the world’s biggest stage.
The big question
My primary concern, unfortunately, is centred around the future of test cricket. It might be a little egotistical or self-important to suggest that the cricket we all play on a Saturday influences countrywide or worldwide trends, but just hear me out. If we consider the latter part of my previous point, that bowlers no longer have to take 10 wickets to win a match, then it offers us an insight into the importance placed by some on the basic principles of test matches. Bowling a side out is the only way to win a test match, and clubs in the NCL no longer need to do that.
For me, test cricket is the pinnacle. It’s where I wanted to be growing up, and I’d still take an England test cap over a BBL contract or even a World Cup appearance. Whether or not that’s the case for cricket as a whole is a different matter, though.
Granted, the NCL isn’t going to necessarily reflect the trends of the rest of the country, but surely it’s an indicator. If there’s such a clear desire for our clubs to be playing strictly limited-overs cricket, with reduced reflections of test matches, then how long might it be before people start voting for T20s? “Why does it matter”, you might ask. Well, I’d argue that the longer test cricket and championship cricket go without the spotlight, the quicker people will start to neglect them. We’ve already seen it with the English domestic season – cramming Championship games into the start and ends of the summer doesn’t seem like the best way to ensure cricket of the highest quality, does it?
Perhaps I’m just a 23-year-old taking the stance of a cricketer in their late 60s, or perhaps I’m onto something. Whether or not people will even care that test cricket might be on the way out in 30 years is a whole other debate entirely, but it’s important that we’re aware of where this might end up. All sport relies on its roots, and the league system around the country has a big part to play in that. Once we start making these kinds of changes, we can expect to see changes in the way our game is played. That, in turn, will logically affect the way our youngsters play the game, which will, in turn, affect the way the sport is perceived on a much wider plane.
Does it make sense for our leagues to reflect that of the professionals? Yes. Does it make sense that we, as cricketers, adapt our games to suit the new rules? Yes. Might these changes jeopardise the future of the game’s most iconic form? I’d have to be a pessimist, and say yes.