The Neil Drysdale Column
Scotland's lost grounds
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One of the most gratifying aspects of writing features for this site lies in the sport’s truly global aspect. Recently, I received a message from Nigel Manuel, a Scottish cricket aficionado, based in New York, who asked me to cast my gaze over a publication, prepared by the West District authorities, which reflected on the startling transformation between the game in the west of the country 15 or 20 years ago and how it looks today.
This isn’t the prelude to some sort of “Recherche du temps perdu” piece, bemoaning the present state of the summer pursuit in Caledonia – after all, the most recent figures point to an unprecedented number of cricket enthusiasts and players involved at every age group – but rather a moment to pause on how difficult it is to cling on to a pastime’s soul, heart and infrastructure when society is shifting at such an astonishing rate.
To that extent, I plead guilty to reminiscing; yet, on the other hand, and especially in the midst of a season, bedevilled by horrible weather, I might also be making a valid point about how easy it is for once-strong organisations to end up withering on the vine of apathy.
The document, to which Nigel was referring, is “Lost grounds in the West: Warnings from the past of the threats to future cricket in the west [of Scotland].” And, for people of a certain age, it will evoke memories of the days when almost every major industry in Scotland – and especially those involved in oil and steel – could be sure of finding sufficient employees to turn their hand to cricket on a regular basis.
The majority of these competitors were Scots, but they were augmented by a significant influx of English migrants and Scots-Asian families and the consequence was the creation of a flourishing network of well-run clubs, who might never have threatened the traditional hegemony of such sides as Clydesdale, Poloc, West of Scotland and Greenock, but who genuinely loved cricket and were prepared to partake of their passion on a regular basis.
The names of many of these organisations are enshrined in the local newspapers and sporting literature from the period. Sadly, though, that is all that remains of such institutions as: Anchor, Jerviswood, Old Grammarians, Kilmacolm, Clydebank, Lennox, Eaglesham, Rolls Royce, North Kelvinside, Old Aloysians, Babcocks & Wilcox, Bishopbriggs, Garrowhill, Milngavie & Bearsden, Woodhall, Dunlop, Hillend, Scotts, Greenock Wanderers, Ardeer, Cumbernauld, Lenzie, Thornliebank and Hyndland.
As the finely-crafted West publication points out: “These are just some of the teams that played Saturday cricket and, when you add the midweek sides, the number of folded clubs increases again. Why?”
It is a question which should exercise anybody who cares about the manner in which the popularity of certain sports rises and falls and, lest anybody imagine that cricket is a minority game North of the Border, let’s just remind them that the sport was thriving long before the SFA or Old Firm ever sprung into existence.
But, none the less, the task of spreading the gospel has never been straightforward and I speak as somebody who used to turn out for Atlas – who were based in the Rangers-obsessed community of Armadale in West Lothian – and who locked horns with many of the aforementioned clubs who have subsequently joined the tanks of Monty Python’s dead parrot.
Our clubhouse, such as it was, consisted of a rickety Nissen hut with a couple of old wooden tables. The “toilets” were in the long grass at either side of the ground, which was adjacent to the old North British Steel Group building, one of many once-potent businesses in the area to fall victim to the government cull of traditional industries which plagued the 1980s.
The pitch, a treacherous strip of pseudo-grass and dirty brown earth, which frequently fell victim to vandalism from local gangs, might have been specifically designed as a V-sign to any of the big organisations, who dared to sneer at our efforts to climb up the minor leagues. And yet, despite every negative vibe – the derision of opponents and grief from the hooligans, and tedious cries of “Poofs, Poofs, Poofs!” which emanated from passing IQ-diminished locals – we survived on Skid Row far longer than anybody could logically have anticipated.
The annual subscriptions were paid, the sandwiches lovingly prepared, the roller was dragged out, impromptu net sessions were organised by a minority, and onwards we marched, even if common sense dictated that the ultimate destination could only ever be a road to nowhere. This matters a lot to me, because I scored my first half-century at Woodhall, and have never forgotten the contrast in the behaviour of their players between the nerve-shredding few moments when I was a quivering bag of butterflies on 49, and only marginally survived a brush with ignominy, and the fashion in which they came up to congratulate me once I had nurdled another single.
It wouldn’t do to over-sentimentalise these occasions – and there are some observers who reckon Atlas should have been shut down on safety grounds – but, as the West District publication points out: “Over the last 35 years, the cricket we have grown up with, knew and loved, has changed. The Western Union has merged with the Glasgow League, the Scottish Counties Championship has folded, the Strathmore Union has merged with the Perthshire League and the East of Scotland Cricket Association has picked up all the waifs and strays. (A tad unfair!!)
The Western District Cricket Union currently has 32 clubs which play Saturday cricket. Add the five evening/Sunday League teams and the total becomes 37 in all.” The message from these statistics is patently clear.
Firstly, there is no value in any organisation believing that it has some divine right to carry on as it has always done without becoming more inclusive and welcoming new members through its doors; secondly, in the absence of any clear signals from Scotland’s various district entities, clubs of every standard have to grasp the thistle, develop their own spectator-friendly events and revenue streams, and do their utmost to tap into the present fervour for the Twenty20 format; and, thirdly, every effort which can possibly be expended in encouraging youngsters to play the game has to be applauded and supported.
To their credit, Cricket Scotland and such pioneering spirits as Craig Wright and Andy Tennant are effectively moving heaven and earth to change perceptions and improve the links between local authorities and their clubs.
The problem is that too many private schools still continue to act as if we were living in the days of Brideshead Revisited. Ultimately, clubs live or die, survive or decline, prosper or plummet as part of a wider picture.
Who could possibly have predicted 20 years ago, for instance, that Perthshire, the place where Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist grew acquainted with the vagaries of the British climate, would have plunged into extinction?
But I thank Nigel Manuel for getting in touch and allowing me to read the Western perspective. Hopefully, there will not be too many other obituaries to be written in the years ahead.