“What could possibly be better than an afternoon of fun and friendly cricket, and a few drinks afterwards?” I overheard someone ask on Sunday. It was not a question that invited alternative answers, but a categorical statement of belief. Sunday cricket – fascinating, endearing, misunderstood and underappreciated in equal measure – embodies, in the minds of many, the purest expression of sportsmanship and the finest form of the ultimate game.
By “Sunday cricket” I am referring to the entirely amateur matches taking place across England, Wales and (somewhat surprisingly to some) Scotland on Sunday afternoons and which, in spite of declining numbers of participants, remains evocative of what is generally felt to be good about the game. Ask many to describe “the spirit of cricket” and often it is Sunday cricket that comes readily to mind: for purists and no small number of nostalgics, it is Sunday cricket that epitomises the essential character and values of the world’s greatest sport.
With Saturdays generally reserved for more serious first and second string games, Sunday matches are played by third teams and specialist Sunday sides. I use the terms “specialist” in its loosest possible sense – most Sunday teams will contain no-one remotely specialist at anything other than a captain adept at persuading ten other people to give up their Sunday afternoon. Even amongst the ranks of amateurs, there is a special status for the dedicated Sunday cricketer. Sunday teams play in games few people want to watch, on grounds that have seen better days, at times when every sane person is taking a well-deserved rest. And they do it because they love it.
The nature of Sunday cricket is as distinct from Saturday cricket as Saturday cricket is to the professional game. It’s a million miles away from the glitz and glamour of the Cricket World Cup, which started last week – but it’s the heartbeat of cricket. Sunday matches are where fathers play with sons (and sometimes daughters), where the umpire is the batsman who was last out and, crucially, where everyone gets a chance to play however unselectable they might appear. It’s also where you’re surprised by the consistent line and length of the sexagenarian bowler, impressed by the fielding of young teenagers or awed by the strokeplay of ageing campaigners. It’s unrehearsed theatre, even if the cast is far from stellar. Sunday cricket is where players are born, and where they ultimately return.
Like all sports teams, Sunday cricket sides are a sum of their individual parts. However, such a statement diminishes the role one key person plays: the captain. Sunday captains don’t merely motivate players and take a leadership role on the field. They mentor young players. They coax older ones (“just another season, Jack!”). They organise fixtures and transport. They spend their week frantically telephoning everyone in the hope that, by some miracle, they can find 11 people for the next game (and hope that none are called up at the eleventh hour to play for the third team). And then they have the near impossible task of keeping everyone happy, while trying to forge a team from an array of players with different levels and abilities – all of whom could realistically be taken by the seconds or thirds next week, especially if they play too well.
Joe Root may be an inspiration captain but he never went to Orrell with seven players, having to call upon the wicket-keeping skills of the scorer. Mike Brearley may have written the seminal manual to the Art of Captaincy, but I believe you will search its pages in vain for any advice on what to do when your opening batsman is 45 minutes late because he can’t find the ground – or how to approach a game when your star bowler and the only available wicket-keeper happen to be the same person. Week in week out, Sunday captains do wonders to make sure there’s even a game on – and that’s before we consider the unique challenges they face.
At Rainhill we have a third team and a dedicated Sunday side. When I say “dedicated” I again do so in the loosest possible sense. The third team is ostensibly competitive and focused on development, something it does well. The Sunday XI is a purely recreational affair, aimed at offering cricket to all and playing only friendlies. That’s not to say that winning isn’t a motivation, but that it is secondary to providing opportunity. The Sunday XI is perfect for those of us who are learning to play cricket, who have physical limitations, who prefer the more leisurely approach or who simply dislike the cut and thrust that is a common feature of fierce competition. Sunday cricket is nothing if not inclusive.
Rainhill’s Sunday XI captain is Joe Crossley. His age is the nearest thing to a state secret, but I'll be diplomatic and say that he’s a little over 50. Joe is the personification of Sunday cricket – straightforward but unpredictable, quirky yet endearing, fair-minded but enigmatic. In addition to being the nearest thing to a national expert there is on the history of the Staffordshire Club Cricket Championship, Joe is a passionate champion of Sunday cricket, to which he has given the last 20 years or so of his life. Why does he do it? Because he absolutely believes in it: in its values, its ethos and its undeniable place at the centre of the amateur game.
On Sunday, Rainhill travelled to play Carmel in Flintshire, North Wales. What happened on a few hours in that afternoon neatly captures the appeal of Sunday cricket as well as bringing its challenges into sharp focus.
Our team travelled in the usual convoy of MOT failures, along with our vocal support. OK, I’ll rephrase that – I brought my children along. Joe was following with (we thought) the rest of our team. We were greeted by the Carmel captain, a friendly and easy-going young man named Cameron Ackroyd who made us feel welcome from the outset. Shortly afterwards Joe arrived, with some bad news. Disaster Number One – we were heavily depleted, even more than usual. I heard the familiar stories of school holidays, work commitments, illness and players called up to one of the competitive teams. None of that is remotely unexpected, but we were even shorter than usual. Cameron to his credit took all this in his stride, and suggested we could instead mix up the teams and play an 8 a-side mini test match with two innings of 15 overs each. He would captain one side while I would skipper the other. Improvisation is a necessary skill in Sunday cricket.
Just as we prepared to make our way onto the field Disaster Number Two occurred: it began to rain. Actually, that’s understating it – it was a deluge. With the weather forecast not looking positive, we feared we might not get any cricket at all. Out came the covers.
Fortunately it subsided and at 3pm our game started. My team went out to bat first. Having picked two openers who looked as if they could bat a bit, it was pleasing to see them knocking the ball around with relative ease. But then one of them, Ben, misjudged the flight of a ball and was out for 20, lbw. This marked the beginning of a mini-collapse, which coincided with Cameron releasing Shaun into the attack. Shaun was impressively accurate. Worse still, he was what every amateur batsman hates: a left-arm quickie. A couple of wickets fell quickly and I was at the crease.
I stuck around for a bit and managed to steer a delivery from the near unplayable Shaun down to third man. It should have gone for four, but the grass on the outfield was a bit too long. Just when I began to feel comfortable he deceived me with a straight one and I was bowled for 3. I would have said Shaun removed the bails, but the umpires had already done that at the beginning of the game due to the swirling winds. Once Shaun’s four-over spell was complete Stevie (a young teenager) and Nick (a veteran of considerable ability and a sense of humour) helped take the score to 103 from our 15 overs.
Cameron’s team began their first innings brightly, and we struggled to make the early breakthrough. Then the ball was thrown to me and I was told to “have some fun”. In my mind, “bowling” and “fun” aren’t usually associated. I’m not the world’s best bowler and I didn’t fancy my chances against these two – but it was difficult to say “no” in the circumstances. It was, after all, a friendly knockabout.
My first attempt at a ball went embarrassingly wide. My first proper ball wasn’t great either, and got the treatment it deserved but, by some miracle, the batsmen were only able to take a single (that long grass again). And then, with my second ball, a series of miracles occurred: I bowled a decent length, the ball kept low, the batsman missed and the umpire’s finger went up! I bowled a few more donkey drops and in the next over sent down an inviting delivery that really merited being whacked to the boundary – but the batsman wandered forward, missed completely and was stumped. Two wickets in two overs, and only a couple of decent balls among them. Cameron’s side rallied a little bit and Joe came in down the order to help them to 79 – giving us a lead of 24 at tea.
And what a tea it was too – with some of the best cream scones you’ll find anywhere, although I was more interested in the items in the cabinets pointing to various links Carmel had with Eastern European cricket. We sat down together and reflected on the afternoon so far, which was about to get more dramatic yet.
When we emerged after tea, the wind had worsened. Due to earlier delays we agreed to reduce the final innings to ten overs each. It seemed to me the best approach was to slog at everything – which might have worked if any of us were remotely competent at slogging. We only managed a rather dismal 46 from our ten overs, setting a target of 71. I suggested the best chance of preventing Cameron’s team from scoring 7 per over was to keep Joe at the striker’s end.
The next nine overs had everything, from the sublime (some superb bowling and positive batting in near impossible conditions) to the ridiculous (crazy overthrows and two fielders colliding in an attempt to take a catch). But it came down to the final over, with them needing 6 to win. Nick was to bowl it. He steamed in – first ball: dot! Second ball – hit for two. Third ball: a single. Fourth ball: another single. Two runs needed from two balls. Nick delivered a good length ball: dot! Just one ball left. Nick sent it down and the young man facing did well to find space at cover and scamper home for two. What a finish! What drama! It was reminiscent of Roger Twose’s winning runs in the 1993 NatWest Trophy final - remember? No, I thought not...
It was an enjoyable day of cricket, all the better for the respective captains working something out following the unforeseen problems. This was Sunday cricket in all its unsophisticated glory: throwing away the script, getting on with it and letting everyone play in a non-pressurised environment. Thanks to Cameron, Nick, Stevie, Noah, Ben, Paul, Vino and everyone else from Carmel for their welcome and sportsmanship. Hopefully next year we will bring a full team and give you a proper match.
Even when you have a full team things can, and invariably do, go wrong. But that’s the nature of Sunday cricket. It would be wrong to perpetuate the myth that Sunday cricketers are somehow not “proper” players as if only competitive cricket matters, but there is undeniably a difference in mindset. Sunday cricket is perhaps best seen as a cousin of the more “serious” game, allowing players and spectators alike to enjoy the truest pleasures of the sport. It’s not a question of whether Sunday cricket is better than league cricket, but one of allowing people to play the kind of cricket that is best for them. With a palpable soul and an enduring appeal, Sunday cricket surely merits a revival - especially at a time when the ECB is calling for more inclusive approaches.
Rainhill’s Sunday XI plays friendly matches against other clubs in the North West. If you fancy getting involved, or playing for any of our teams, please contact Mike Rotheram on 07734 678778 or at email@example.com