League Cricket in Essex
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League cricket originated in the North of England and the Midlands in the 1880s and soon spread to Scotland and Wales as well as, interestingly, Cornwall. Although around that time the Victorian era witnessed considerable growth in the formation of new clubs across the South of England, the 'harder' league cricket in the North wasn't to Southern taste: it was regarded as a threat to the spirit of sportsmanship. Many clubs in the Northern leagues employed paid professionals, including in the First World War when Jack Hobbs and Sydney Barnes played for Idle CC and Saltaire CC respectively in the Bradford League. It took another seventy years for leagues to reach southernmost parts of England, including Essex.
'. . .the 'harder' cricket played in the North wasn't to Southern taste...'
From its inception in 1916, and in a period when club cricket was dominated by gentlemen from the major public schools and Oxbridge, the Club Cricket Conference disapproved of league cricket. Indeed, it was a condition of CCC membership that, 'no club shall be connected with any organised cricket, league or competition'. In 1939, not one of the 1,100 clubs in the Home Counties that was affiliated to the CCC was a member of a league. At the time, there was a distinct class divide among recreational clubs: the school old boys' sides and clubs in the more affluent areas tended to arrange fixtures against each another, and the village and parish sides did likewise. Of course, such scenario ensured that a social distance was maintained and the so-called 'elite' clubs continued to play against opponents that, generally, had similar superior grounds and facilities.
The CCC was originally opposed to league cricket
After the Second World War, the mood for change gathered momentum. In May, 1949, a group of clubs in Essex led by George Parkinson, the secretary of Crompton Parkinson CC (a works club based in Chelmsford) endeavoured to arouse interest for the formation of a league. Unfortunately, their campaign failed to gather sufficient support and George's dream fizzled out. Club cricket continued much as it had for the previous 200 years until the more prestigious Surrey clubs (who believed that league cricket would improve playing standards) finally obtained the approval of the CCC to the formation of a league. Thus, in 1968, the Surrey Championship came into being - quickly followed in 1970 by the Kent League and the Middlesex League.
Not surprisingly, Essex followed suit and the Essex League was established in 1972 comprising 19 of the considered stronger clubs in the county. Based initially on a points average system, it proved unsatisfactory in practice so was reorganised for 1973 whereby every club played each other just once. The winners of both the 1st and 2nd XI divisions in that inaugural year were Gidea Park & Romford (a respected club that was formed in 1970 after the merger between Gidea Park CC and Romford CC). The original founding members of the Essex league were, Brentwood, Buckhurst Hill, Chelmsford, Chingford, Colchester & East Essex, Gidea Park & Romford, Hadleigh & Thundersley, Hutton, Ilford, Leigh-on-Sea, Loughton, Metropolitan Police No. 3 District (but without a 2nd XI), Old Brentwoods, Orsett, South Woodford, Walthamstow, Wanstead, Westcliff-on-Sea and Woodford Wells.
A founder member of the Essex League
In subsequent years, various other clubs were admitted to the Essex League as it expanded, and others were invited to join when clubs withdrew. In 1999, after a major reorganisation of the structure of cricket throughout the country by the England & Wales Cricket Board (in conjunction with the county clubs), ECB Accredited Premier Cricket Leagues were established in 39 counties across the country. These 'approved' leagues were intended to provide a pathway to county representation and, perhaps, a professional career. However, this ideology was rather, or partially, superseded with the subsequent introduction of elite, county 'Academies'.
The ECB Accredited Essex Premier League
As of 2021, 46 clubs participate in the ECB Accredited Essex Premier League:
Ardleigh Green (1940), Barking (1901), Belhus (1960), Benfleet (1948), Bentley (1953), Billericay (1875),
Brentwood (1881), Buckhurst Hill (1864), Chelmsford (1810), Chingford (1884), Colchester & East Essex (1862),
Epping (1865), Fives & Heronians (1937), Frenford (1993), Gidea Park & Romford (1970), Goresbrook (1981),
Hadleigh & Thundersley (1946), Harlow (1774), Harlow Town (1960), Harold Wood (1896), Hornchurch (1783),
Hornchurch Athletic (1936), Horndon-on-the-Hill (1956), Hutton (1864), Ilford (1879), Leigh-on-Sea (1907),
Loughton 1879), Newham (2008),Oakfield Parkonians (1906), Old Brentwoods (1954),
Old Southendian & Southchurch (1924), Orsett (1900), Rainham (1896), Shenfield (1921),
Southend-on-Sea & EMT (1850), South Woodford (1884), Springfield (1960), Stanford-le-Hope (1887),
Upminster (1858), Wathamstow (1862), Wanstead (1866), Westcliff-on-Sea (1902), West Essex (1921),
Wickford (1887), Woodford Green (1735), Woodford Wells (1864).
Currently, there are around twelve leagues in which Essex recreational clubs participate, and the extent of competitive league cricket across the county is, therefore, quite considerable.
Undoubtedly (and just as the Surrey clubs had predicted), the introduction of leagues raised playing standards across the southern counties. And as was also predicted, a number of clubs scouted the globe in their pro-active recruitment of first-grade overseas players in order to boost their playing strength. At the same time, and in the quest for trophies, the payment of players came into being (under the guise of 'sponsorship').
'...pre-league cricket was played in a more gentlemanly manner...'
Some of the more senior players in amateur club circles claim that pre-league 'social' cricket was played in a more gentlemanly manner. And perhaps they are right: sportsmanship did deteriorate somewhat upon the introduction of leagues. Particularly noticeable has been the on-field noise level that has risen a few decibels, as well as the football-style celebrations that are displayed when a batsman is dismissed. On a sunny summer's afternoon amid the sweet, captivating sound of leather on willow, the peace and tranquility of England's pleasant village greens has been rather spoilt. Times change - but perhaps not always for the better.
As we know, it has become commonplace in the first-class game for a batsman to remain in his crease until given out by the umpire - even knowing full well to have got a 'snick' to the 'keeper or an edge to a fielder (à la Stuart Broad v Australia at Trent Bridge in 2013). Indeed, some players positively gloat at escaping the umpire's raised finger. In days gone by, failure to 'walk' would have been met with stony silence by the fielding team: today, an offending batsman would be on the receiving end of an accusation of "cheat" - or worse. Unfortunately, the behaviour of some Test players sets a poor example to club cricketers (with the notable exception, of course, of our very own Sir Alastair Cook whose exemplary professional conduct and sportsmanship has brought much credit to Essex). Budding club captains can do no better than emulate Alastair.
Pre-league cricket on the village green
Belhus Cricket Club first ventured in to league cricket in 1973 in what was then the Essex Senior Competition, and joined the Essex League in 2009. Like all clubs, it has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years - see our website page 'Trophy Cabinet'. However, the 2016 season was particularly memorable for the club when no less than 3 SNEL Division Championship titles were lifted by our 1st, 3rd and 4th XIs. And in 2018, our 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th XIs all gained promotion from their respective Divisions and when our 1st XI stepped up to the Premier Division for the first time.
Of the 300 or so clubs that span the county today, around fifty of them were established before Essex CCC (founded in 1876). Their members enjoy their weekend matches as a result of sterling contributions from committed youth managers, coaches, groundsmen, umpires, scorers, caterers and administrators - and armies of other volunteers who so selflessly run their clubs with loyal efficiency. Players should be indebted to them.
Long live cricket in Essex!