WE CANíT IGNORE THE GRASSROOTS

The recent emails on the Forum from Ivan McCombe of Muckamore Cricket Club highlighting the great revival at Moylena show what can be done with hard work, focus and vision. What was disappointing were the negative comments on the Forum from a few anonymous correspondents who posted snide and derogatory remarks, almost as if they begrudged a club doing well and singing their own praises.

Of course, this is not the fault of the Forum, but it begs the question why knock a club that has got its act together and is succeeding at promoting the game at a time when it is dying in other areas? Ivan wasnít boasting, he was sharing the clubís success with fellow cricketers in the hope that other clubs might benefit and of course, he is very proud of what has been achieved. Well done Ivan and well done Muckamore.

Unfortunately the Muckamore experience is not widespread and although we hear occasional news about cricket springing up in non-cricket areas, there are serious concerns that it is struggling at grassroots level throughout Ulster cricket. This is ironic coming at a time when the international profile of Irish cricket has never been higher, so why are the clubs not riding on the crest of a publicity wave and piggybacking on the national teamís success?

One of the reasons is a serious disconnect between Cricket Ireland and clubs, something that is at the root of poor support for all representative cricket in the north apart from the visits of England.

It costs a lot to run professional cricket and the Cricket Ireland Balance Sheet in the modern era bears no resemblance to 30 years ago. It shows how far the modern game has progressed and the infrastructure needed to promote and develop the game at the highest level. However, it doesnít show too much expenditure at grassroots level and that could have a disastrous effect on the game where it matters most.

Rest assured that if young players are not coming through at the traditional strongholds of club cricket then there will be a knock-on effect up the line in future years. It is already happening. Look at the two northern interprovincial squads and assess their strength outside the first 12-15 players.

Look at the absence of young players competing for a place in the Northern Knights squad and the quality of some of the young players that are being pushed through in both unions compared to former years. Yes, they might come good, but the main point is the quality and the numbers competing have reduced significantly. And this is surely back to grassroots when youth cricket at many clubs is struggling and schools cricket is in serious decline.

Cricket Ireland may claim it doesnít have the resources to promote the game at club level, but it will have to address the issue at some stage because the Interprovincial Series is not copping it. The Northern Knights match against the Warriors last week at Downpatrick was a good example of the current state of Ulster cricket on and off the field.

The cricket was competitive and entertaining with the Warriors in command for most of the match, but the Knights fought a staunch rearguard to earn a draw. There were several good performances from local players, but without the involvement of the overseas professionals this match might have been over in two days. Those people who feel even a few overseas players have no place in representative cricket need to seriously re-think their criticism as without them we are going to struggle in the longer form of the game.

Off the pitch there are some serious issues. The Strangford Road ground was resplendent, and the weather was good albeit bitterly cold at times. However, there were few spectators and it is easy to see why. Club cricketers donít support interprovincial matches any more and expecting club spectators to support representative matches at a time when they are declining in numbers at club level is pie in the sky.

Other issues on this occasion added to poor promotion. There was no public address system, very little publicity for the match and virtually nothing to offer spectators. Some people donít like to hear it, but going to a cricket match at most grounds means you have to bring your own seat and arrange your own catering, and if you need to go to the bathroom pray the clubís facilities are available and acceptable in the clubhouse. If you want to make it a family day bring your own entertainment because most grounds donít provide playgrounds, playing areas or entertainment for kids. Family days at cricket are a fallacy.

The end result is that you get what you pay for and when you pay nothing you get nothing. And thatís exactly what this Interprovincial match got in terms of spectator support. You canít blame the players, as this was a good match with some excellent performances, albeit a North-West declaration on the second evening might have produced a competitive chase rather than a rearguard from the Knights. Whether this would have enticed more spectators for the final day is another question.

It is great to see Irish cricket enjoying a high profile and competing so well on the international stage, but the model isnít sustainable if the players arenít coming through from grassroots and if clubs are being ignored. It is not sufficient to throw this back at the interprovincial unions because Cricket Ireland is the governing body of the game and needs to sell itself at club level to get more support, membership, players and spectators. These are essential ingredients in a sustainable and successful model going forward.

Perhaps we need to hire Ivan McCombe as a Consultant to show how to promote the game at grassroots level? More and more people are being hired to manage and administer Irish cricket these days, so why not tap the expertise of someone who has a winning formula?