Monday 18th September 2017 @ 09:45 by Mark Phillip

Two short years ago the last balls in the long and proud history of two of the oldest local cricket leagues in the country had just been bowled.   Centred around the Oldham; Rochdale and Tameside areas the Central Lancashire and Saddleworth Leagues had provided between them 242 seasons of competitive cricket; featured some of the truly great names of the game; and had provided countless opportunities for men, (and latterly women), to participate in the “summer game”.

Many in the area saw it as a sad day that this legacy was to disappear.  But equally no one was in any doubt that the halcyon days of league cricket had long gone.  The greats of Test cricket who had for many years spent their off-seasons pro’ing in the leagues were now being attracted into the County game, as qualification restrictions were relaxed, and latterly the growth of T20 competitions have offered eye-watering contracts.  At the same time, social and demographic changes; greater mobility and increasing calls on time have led to weekend cricket being a far less attractive proposition.  For a number of years, it had become increasingly evident that to maintain local league cricket changes were necessary.

The catalyst for the disappearance of the SDCL and CLL was the formation of the Greater Manchester League, (GMCL).  Essentially driven by the Lancashire Cricket Board, (LCB), it was designed to restructure league cricket in the wider Greater Manchester area, and to provide a hierarchy which allowed for a whole range of competition from elite level through to recreational cricket, and at the same time to enable clubs to develop and provide the maximum opportunity for involvement in the game.  Clubs in the SDCL and CLL were invited to be a part of this and a lot of thought was given.  Whilst 7 clubs elected to make a move it is fair to say when the GMCL proposals came out, they didn’t meet with the wholehearted support of the majority of CLL members and a significant number from the Saddleworth League. Jon Henderson, a player for 26 years, mainly at Rochdale, explained at the time: “The CLL and SDCL both have fantastic traditions. Competitive league cricket has been a strong feature on the eastern side of the Greater Manchester area, around Tameside; Oldham and Rochdale, and there’s a lot of experience we didn’t want to lose”.

All of which led to the formation of the Pennine League, involving an amalgamation of the Central Lancashire and Saddleworth set ups.  Launched in October 2015 with huge optimism; a clear vision and significant sponsorship the future looked bright for competitive league cricket at senior level together with an innovative structure designed to attract; involve and engender a life-long interest at junior level.   Launched as “A Whole New Ball Game” it looked to pave the way forward into the future.  Change was necessary as Paul Adshead, (Vice Chair at Ashton), reflected at the time:  “I’ve played in the CLL for 40 years.  When I started it was a thriving league with great names, but times have changed and we must move on”.

A huge amount of work was put into formulating the new competition and April 2016 saw the dawning of the first PCL season.  League legend Cec Wright got proceedings underway in a challenge match between Norden and Saddleworth, the last champions of the CLL and SDCL respectively.  Competitive action followed, and despite one of the wettest summers in living memory the campaign went to the last day with titles still to be decided. Walsden were undoubtedly the team of the year, capturing the double of the Premiership and Wood Cup.  Reflecting on the first season League Secretary Trevor Harrison said: “Generally I think that all connected with the League can be satisfied with the outcome of this inaugural season”.  He recognised that there had been the inevitable teething problems, which would be eradicated and concluded by stating “I am sure that we are all looking forward to a better season in 2017”.

However, in autumn 2016 the nights had hardly begun to draw in before clouds began to appear on the horizon.  Back in 2015 the Lancashire League, (LL), had indicated that it was looking to add 10 clubs to its then current complement of 14.  The 2017 season was to see three Clubs join – Darwen; Great Harwood and Clitheroe, leaving the LL seeking another seven.  Rumours were rife towards the end of the 2016 campaign that several PCL clubs, mainly centred around the north east of its catchment area, were considering application to the LL, and the door was left wide open on 8th December 2016 when the LL formally invited applications for membership, to be effective from 2018.

A period of uncertainty followed.  The identity of the Clubs which were likely to apply was an open secret in PCL circles, and the potential loss caused many other Clubs to consider their own position.  Some were clear from the outset that they would make formal application to the GMCL.  Fairly quickly the viability of the PCL as a competition began to be open to question.  Meetings involving officials from the PCL and the LCB sought to explore the way forward with little success in terms of the future of the PCL.  Two weeks before the start of the 2017 season confirmation was received that Littleborough; Norden; Middleton; Rochdale and Walsden would move into the LL.  By that time work was underway within the PCL to try and preserve the competition, albeit in a reduced form.  Eight clubs indicated their commitment to the PCL, laudable in itself, but far too few to retain a viable competition, and efforts to encourage new members through advertising had proved fruitless.  Despite the best endeavours of PCL officials, the die was well and truly cast in a single week in May when Greenfield; Glodwick; Heyside; Moorside and Shaw all formally stated they would be making application to the GMCL.  With the later addition, in June, of Milnrow and Crompton to number departing to the LL, the PCL was fighting a losing cause.  A meeting in mid-June facilitated by the LCB and involving PCL and GMCL officials considered the situation and the upshot was that the “non Lancashire League bound clubs” would be absorbed into the GMCL with effect from 2018.  At that point the PCL was on a path to disbandment after two short years.

Many regarded this as a sad move, seeing the tradition and history of the PCL and more importantly its constituent leagues effectively airbrushed into history.  Had the PCL been given enough time?  The roles of many of the major players in driving and influencing such a fundamental change, either directly or indirectly, was questioned.  None of which, of course, will alter things.  Around about 6 o’clock last Sunday evening the last ball in the PCL’s senior competitions was bowled.  “A Whole New Ball Game” is now no more.  The next few months will be about the 24 Clubs planning for 2018, whether it be in the Lancashire or Greater Manchester Leagues.  After two years of real upheaval it can only be hoped that the changes will deliver what is promised.  It is now a question of looking forward, because the maintenance of cricket as a sport accessible by all is the crucial thing.  And, in my view, anybody involved in the game who does not have this as a driving factor is in it for the wrong reason.

By Martin Frost