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If only club cricket would go back to its Twenty20 roots, the talent might stop draining away

Two successive cricketing weekends, two lovely, quite contrasting new experiences at grounds never previously visited and lots of food for thought.

Sri Lanka are world champions of cricket's shortest and, for many, most entertaining format. Picture: Getty Images
Sri Lanka are world champions of cricket's shortest and, for many, most entertaining format. Picture: Getty Images

A week past Saturday, I rejoiced in the magnificence of the refurbished Emirates Old Trafford for the NatWest Blast, a Twenty20 encounter spent in the company of a variety of people, many of whom had no real previous interest in cricket.

Those who fitted that description had considered it a dull sport that was certainly not worth spending whole days watching without any guarantee of a positive result, but the mixed company seemed to thoroughly enjoy this particular evening at the cricket.

For some the match was almost incidental, an excuse for a social gathering during which conversations were interrupted only by the occasional roar as a boundary was struck or a wicket was taken, while Lancashire new boy Junaid Khan's hop, skip and a jump provided additional entertainment.

However, for those properly engaged, there was plenty to enjoy too as England's Jos Buttler was denied much chance to shine by a fine stand between Tom Smith and Paul Horton as they took their team close to 200 and beyond the reach of their opponents.

A week later and there were mixed feelings on waking up to decent weather in the knowledge that we were to meet at New Williamfield, Stirling, at 9.45am, bound for Poloc on Glasgow's south side.

One aspect of the day was an unexpected pleasure. Having had considerable experience of playing cricket in public parks in Dundee - where it all began - Edinburgh and Fife, turning up at Pollok Park was a delight.

In truth, for all that a feeble batting performance ultimately meant we got a right thumping, what was a first full 50 overs in the field this season was actually fairly enjoyable too.

However, even though we got nowhere close to batting our full quota we still, after a couple of drinks, made it back to Stirling just in time for the Champions League final, some 10 hours after we had set out.

During that post-match chat with Richard 'Siggy' Young - he is our match umpire who recently made his literary debut with his cricket/football work As the Willow Vanishes - we discussed the on-going struggle to keep youngsters interested in the sport.

Like many other sports, cricket actually has no real trouble attracting primary-school pupils to the game in those areas to which it manages to send coaches and development officers.

Again in common with most others, though, there is a drop-off in the mid-teens but, in cricket's case, I have no doubt that the extent of that is greatly exacerbated by the amount of time we ask players to commit to once they get to the stage of being able to play weekend league cricket.

In trying to identify solutions, the main considerations are what is required to keep club cricket going and how best to develop players. My question is whether it is necessary to continue to play 100-over matches.

My contention would be that, with only the odd exception, most of those with the potential to reach elite level in sport, particularly one in which technique is as important as cricket, have been identified by their mid-teens. That, then, mitigates against any argument that it is particularly important for the development of elite players to keep playing such lengthy matches.

Which, of course, brings me back to Old Trafford and a match that started at 7pm and provided a fun evening's entertainment for all concerned.

There are, of course, long-standing midweek competitions played in Scotland such as the Rowan Cup, Masterton Trophy and Three Counties Cup and, in truth, the idea that 20-overs-a-side cricket was somehow suddenly invented a decade or so ago is quite amusing.

In reality my first club, the late, lamented Lawside FP, started out cajoling more established clubs into letting us take them on in 20-over matches in the 1970s before persuading the Strathmore Union to let us take part in the Two Counties Cup - a lesser version of the Three Counties - as a progression into weekend cricket.

I cannot help but feel that, just as the English cricket authorities have elevated T20 cricket from the novelty value of the early county encounters to a competition that is being run throughout the season because of its superior commercial appeal, so we should think about doing something similar.

There is very little that happens in 20-over cricket at club level that is other than an intensified version of the 50-over game. The same handful of players who are blessed with good eyes and sound technique score steadily, the sloggers slog and the rest of us struggle to get the ball off the square.

If clubs really want day-long activity, play three 20-over matches with three clubs involved, the home team playing the first and last matches to reduce travel time for the others, still allowing for changes to teams to accommodate those who cannot commit to the entire day.

I put this forward merely in the hope of stimulating a bit of discussion because Siggy's book was meant to be reflective, rather than predictive and yet I look at the number of players who drift from the game in their late teens and early twenties and wonder what the future holds for the sport . . .

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