0 Cricket bouncing back to health

It's been a challenging few years for the sport, underlined by the results of last summer's ECB annual survey which revealed that the number of players nationally fell from 908,000 to 844,000 - a startling seven per cent decline in 12 months.

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The reasons are many and varied and include, in no particular order, time factors on and off the pitch, competition from other sports, finance plus the weather wrecking what is already a relatively short season.

Some - particularly anyone inspired and enthralled by Ian Botham's Ashes heroics - would argue that the lack of cricket coverage on terrestrial TV is another factor in an age when world-class talents such as Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler should be far more recognisable to the general sporting public, regardless of the money Sky Sports pumps into the national coffers.

The ECB's headline statistic led directly to the idea for this feature which originally seemed to be heading down the 'cricket in crisis' road.

But it soon become clear that the sport is reacting quickly to modern challenges and fighting back strongly on a number of different fronts, starting with the structure and form of the traditional Saturday game.

Players have made it clear that these league matches often take up too much time while at some levels the amount of travelling is a real bone of contention, further turning people away from the sport.

These concerns have been heeded with the Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire cricket boards joining forces with local leagues to make Saturday cricket more player-friendly.

The West of England Premier League, currently a four-tier 80-club first XI competition complete with a related second XI structure, has already opted to switch to a three-tier 70-team set-up. That means 80 sides - first and second XIs - will next year revert back to the WEPL's four feeder leagues (the Bristol & District, Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire County competitions) in an attempt to reduce travelling and make the games shorter while still maintaining a competitive edge.

The B&D, too, have reacted rapidly to clear calls for change, voting last week to continue with 45-over innings for the top six divisions, while the remaining divisions will switch to 40 overs for the forthcoming campaign.

Further alterations to rules are also being considered with this league set to expand by anything up to 30 teams for next summer.

Even shorter matches at lower levels, the introduction of a 'two runs for a wide' rule and maybe dispensing with teas are ideas that are all up for future debate in a similar drive to make the cricket day shorter and more attractive. There's certainly no trouble in drawing youngsters to cricket in the first place, as shown by the number of teams competing in the Bristol Youth League.

Participation levels dip at under-17 level (see right) but here, also, the sport is fighting back with a number of new initiatives to try and bridge the gap with senior structures.

The Gloucestershire Cricket Board recently launched their first Chance to Shine Street cricket league, for 16-to-24-year-olds.

It's a six-a-side format using a taped tennis ball with each innings lasting only 20 balls and matches just 20 minutes. Four teams initially signed up for Street20 at the City Academy in Bristol but it is proving so popular that the GCB have already booked further sports hall space to accommodate more sides. There has also been an encouraging response locally to the ECB's new NatWest Under-19 Club T20 which is being rolled out across the country after a successful pilot last year in Durham, Kent, Surrey and Yorkshire.

Clubs across Gloucestershire and Somerset are registering for the chance to wear coloured kits and play 'Big Bash' style games with music blaring out across the boundary ropes.

Steve Silk, pictured, the GCB's chief executive, said: "These matches will be played in July, August and September and are aimed squarely at 16 to 19 year olds.

For the full Bristol Post article click here.

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