Few things better capture the essence of an English summer than the sound of willow on leather. Add to that the lure of healthy competition and a slap up tea and even non-cricketers can begin to appreciate the appeal of playing the sport they call ‘the gentleman’s game’.
But what happens to players when childhood enthusiasm, youthful exuberance, adult dedication and middle aged doggedness are no longer quite enough to continue playing to the best of their ability? Can they still get a game?
‘I’m just pleased I’ve still got grass under my feet,’ says Steve Webb, a distinguished former Dorset League cricketer and now chairman of the county’s 50+ sides.
This year marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Counties Veterans Cricket Competition for the over 50s that is now known as the England Cricket Board (ECB) Competition, of which Dorset was one of the founding teams. In that first year it played one match against Gloucestershire and lost, as it did the two matches it played in 1986 against Wiltshire and Wales, before finally registering its first win against Hampshire at Blandford in 1987.
In 1993 Dorset finished runners up in the ECB, losing to Lancashire by eight wickets to record its best finish in the competition to date.
However, the county has fared better in the Southern Counties Senior Championship (SCSC), a second competition for the over 50s launched in 2007. It won the inaugural contest, was runner up in 2009 and 2012 before winning again in 2014.
‘We’re a small fish to be fair, but we punch well above our weight,’ says Steve. ‘Running two sides can be a struggle at times, but we manage. I’d say we have a squad of about thirty players and we need it. Although the two teams are essentially separate sides there is some minimal crossover within strict rules about the number of times a player switch between them.
‘That said, being named twelfth man is quite popular as you’re almost certain to get a game – somebody always pulls something.’
Dorset has flourished in recent seasons under coach Paul Pritchard, a former first class cricketer who captained Essex and played for England A, the forerunner of the Lions.
‘There was a lot of excitement when Paul first came in and we could see straight away that he was a cut above the standard. He has made a huge difference to how we play.’
Over 50s cricket gives players that have been decent club performers the opportunity to play at county level. There are more than forty counties fielding sides, but they are not laden with veteran internationals and although a few former professionals – such as Paul Pritchard – are involved, the best players in most teams are those who turned out for the second sides at first class counties.
‘What I like about it is that it gives you an opportunity to play with some of the players you’ve played against for years,’ notes Steve, who captained Blandford in the Dorset League for many years. ‘There are guys you’ve admired over many seasons and finally you have a chance to play alongside them. Reminiscing is always a large part of the games, usually about games that got away or remembering the time our bodies could do more.’
The march of time will take the sting out of the speed bowlers and perhaps the batsmen don’t slog for six as readily as they once did, but it’s in the field that the passing years exact their heaviest toll – it can take a couple of throws to get the ball back from the boundary to the wicket.
‘We all accept slowing down, but your arm and shoulder muscles go so it’s impossible to throw the ball as far as you used to. If we get a player who can still throw from the boundary then his position in the field picks itself.
‘On the other hand, spin bowlers are largely unaffected and slowing down means you throw with more accuracy.’
At 65, Steve is now the oldest player at Dorset 50+ and opens the batting for the SCSC side.
‘We get a lot of fun out of it and we welcome everyone to come along and try out in the nets. It’s county level and we are involved in competitions so we’re always going to pick our best side, but we try to arrange more friendly matches against club sides so that the whole squad gets a game – depending on the team there’s at least eight competitive matches a season and as many friendlies.’
Dorset 50+ hosted a touring side from South Australia in 2018 and went on a tour of its own to Dubai in 2016, playing in test match grounds. Steve, though, was taken ill and spent the week in hospital.
‘My wife had a great time,’ he smiles through gritted teeth.
At home, until 2015 matches were played at the historic Dean Park in Bournemouth, but since then the club has enjoyed a somewhat peripatetic existence playing at various grounds including Bournemouth Sports Club, Blandford, Wimborne, Dorchester, Shillingstone, Stalbridge and even out of county at North Perrott in Somerset.
The grounds are all very different, but when pushed Steve identifies Shillingstone as a particular favourite as the groundsman works as an assistant groundsman at Hampshire’s home ground, the Aegeas Bowl in Southampton, so the wicket is properly prepared and the outfield well kept.
“The teas are really good as well – all the home baking comes out and they always do us proud,’ Steve declares. ‘It’s very important to get the teas right because that’s what everyone talks about.
“I remember playing Gloucestershire and they hit us for 270-odd before tea. It was a baking hot day so came in drained and then noticed the smell – full roast dinner. Not only had they done roast beef, pork and chicken with all the trimmings, we had a choice of desserts as well with cheesecake and trifle. That was sublime. The only trouble was I was opening the batting so the guys lower down the order got seconds and thirds.’
Clearly there are far worse ways of spending a summer Saturday or Sunday and with new players coming into the club and sponsorship agreed with J & G Environmental, fifty not out is looking like a good innings for Dorset 50+.