Pay too much attention to certain sections of the media and associated outlets and one could easily be drawn into understanding that football in England only began during the summer of 1992. Such is the hype and hysteria surrounding the Premier League that anything prior to that date seems to be looked upon with a certain level of disdain and / or viewed as distinctly inferior. Football as we know it in the present day with all its jaundiced glory is almost viewed as being played to a much higher standard courtesy of the pizzazz and mania afforded it by those tasked with covering the sport. Of a similarly apocryphal nature is the general consensus that 20 over cricket only arrived in 2003. During those formative days it was known as Twenty20 but soon rebranded as T20 once the IPL galloped over the horizon. Whatever the circumstances, 20 over cricket was neither formed in 2003 or five years later when the BCCI stared down the rival attempts of the Indian Cricket League to capitalise on the zeitgeist.
Indeed, twenty over cricket, or similar variants, has existed for decades. Far from the baying, hysterical crowds the short format of the game has been quietly and unassumingly doing its thing for year after year. Down on the south coast the Southampton Evening League ventured into its ninth decade a few years back and reached eighty years of existence half a dozen summers previous. The twenty teams currently involved, divided into one division of eight teams and two of six teams each, technically stretch beyond the city limits but such pedantry is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Matches in the competition are sixteen over contests as opposed to twenty but the league’s lengthy existence illustrates how the shortest format is most certainly not a new creation.
The hosts for tonight’s contest, Sarisbury Athletic, are one of those clubs not technically based in Southampton but, nevertheless, part of the city’s hinterlands. Their opponents, Old Netley & Highfield, are similarly outside of the city limits albeit only by about a quarter of a mile. Such geographical anomalies are all rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. English cricket is full of anomalies and all the better for them. Sarisbury begin the latest round of fixtures at the summit of the first division and as defending champions. Their opponents reside in the middle of the table after winning promotion from the second tier at the conclusion of the previous season.
Theoretically Sarisbury should possess an advantage due to their first team playing in the Southern Premier League and their second team residing a division higher than the first equivalent of Old Netley & Highfield in the Hampshire league. Sport is never so simple though. As club cricket continues to feel the pinch of time constraints on its players so the challenge of putting eleven players on the field becomes ever greater. For competitions such as the Southampton Evening League, and the Border League as featured on this blog earlier in the summer, the challenge is ever more acute. There is no guarantee that any of Sarisbury’s eleven players will play for either of their first or second XI’s. In contrast, Old Netley & Highfield’s team could contain a number of first team regulars, for instance.
Indeed, on a breezy evening and a pitch scorched tinder and golden by the prolonged heatwave the visitors reach 50-1 in the sixth over. Sarisbury’s players chirp away amongst themselves despite the rapid start, perhaps because of the confidence gained as a winning team, perhaps from keeping in perspective the more recreational nature of the competition. Whatever the reality for the banter the runs continue to flow, Old Netley reaching 105-2 after a dozen overs. The status quo remains in the final four overs as Old Netley post a challenging total of 157-2, Josh Wilkins and John Powell recording unbeaten half centuries.
Sarisbury’s players seem unperturbed by the target. As the shadows lengthen and the ether begins to cool first team batsman Josh Hill plays with authority and great power, dismissing the early bowling with brutal shotmaking. Already with a century to his name in this season’s competition, Hill strikes half a dozen early sixes as he reaches his half century in the fifth over, Sarisbury 105-1 at the midpoint of their 16 over allocation. Ably supported by Matt Jorneaux, the hosts progress serenely toward another victory. Almost every delivery is met with a very audible gun-shot loud crack as the batsmen flay the bowling, reaching 146-2 after 12 overs. Jorneaux falls to a stunning one handed catch on the boundary but Josh Hill guides Sarisbury over the winning line, finishing unbeaten on 78 as the hosts win with plenty to spare.
Cricket can be a cruel game for bowlers. But for the early stages of the season every aspect appears biased toward those in possession of the bat. Limited overs contests magnify such an imbalance. The varying standard of player in the Southampton Evening League amplifies the imbalance even further. Theoretically Old Netley & Highfield could have taken to the field with a stronger team than their hosts. Indeed, one could argue that their bowling attack offered more than that of Sarisbury Athletic. But the batting strength of the latter proved far superior, the top order feasting on boundaries and chasing what appeared a formidable total with ease. Such is the way in the Evening Cricket League. Over such a short distance the performance of one or two players is often enough to alter the landscape of a contest. The world of T20 cricket has discovered that matches are often imbalanced or drift into a period of inevitability during the second innings. This is not a new phenomenon though. Not in the Southampton Evening League, the Border League from the other side of the city or any other such local leagues around Britain where the shortest formats of the game have been quietly, and unassumingly, taking place for decade after decade. T20 cricket might be able to add one of those tacky ‘Est 2003’ appendages to its moniker, if so wished, but variants have been played out for almost a century; the unforgiving arbiters of time and daylight the natural parameters for such organisations.