In 1993 Sir John Major said that in 50 years' time, Britain would still be a country of “long shadows on county cricket grounds”, “warm beer” and “invincible green suburbs”.
County cricket might be in rude health, but village cricket is facing a battle for survival. By definition, these clubs exist alongside homeowners, and the two have been rubbing shoulders and crossing swords for decades, or even hundreds of years. Even those clubs that confine themselves to friendly, non-league games will fight tooth and nail to survive.
Colehill Cricket Club is the latest in a long line of near-casualties. It faced eviction from its ground in Dorset after a handful of residents complained at how their airspace had been invaded by cricket balls, allegedly landing in gardens and damaging properties.
Local players pushed back, arguing that the only major issue was a smashed garage window that it later repaired. The public outcry, which was joined by current and former England captains Ben Stokes and Michael Vaughan, stopped the 100-year-old club being driven out of the village.
But what is at the root of this enmity between homeowners and cricketers?
As one enthusiast notes, you never hear about these disputes with football clubs. He puts this down to the dimensions of the cricket ball – an “incoming missile” if you do not have your eye on the game.
Author James Wilson, who covered cricketing legal battles in a book, Court and Bowled, agrees. “The trouble is that cricket balls tend to get hit harder and farther and more dangerously than a football or a rugby ball,” he says. “That does make cricket naturally more of an enemy to neighbours.”
One of the fiercest quarrels began 70 years ago with a single shot. A player at Cheetham Cricket Ground, near Manchester, hit the ball with three feet of English willow and sent it a hundred yards through the air. It would have gone further but collided with a woman standing outside her home.
Wilson says, half-admiringly, that it was a “hell of a shot” given the standard of bats at the time. The woman sued for negligence but lost because the odds of causing an injury were so small. Neither party gave up easily, though: the claim went all the way to the House of Lords.
Another case ended up before the upper echelons of the judiciary – this time the Court of Appeal – some 25 years later. It was propelled into legal folklore by Lord Denning, who rhapsodised about cricket in an opening judgement that began: “In summertime village cricket is a delight to everyone.”
The Millers, who had moved to the village of Lintz in County Durham, were less than delighted. Tired of balls landing in their back garden, and players asking for them back, they won a High Court injunction to stop cricket being played at the local club.
A scandalised Denning noted that cricket had been played on the site for decades, while the Millers’ house had been recently built on adjoining land. “The wicket area is well rolled and mown,” he wrote. “The outfield is kept short… Yet now after these 70 years a judge of the High Court has ordered that they must not play anymore.”
In the end, the Millers were awarded £400 in damages – about £2,500 in today’s money – but the injunction was quashed. The couple moved away soon afterwards.
Neil Harding, secretary of Shamley Green Cricket Club in Surrey, did his research when a homeowner took them to court in 2009. “We really didn’t know what would happen,” he recalls. “Cricket clubs tended to win these disputes, but there were quite a few times where they hadn’t.”
The club was founded in 1840, meaning its boundaries cross the road – beaten tracks rather than tarmac until the 20th century – and reach the properties that border the green. After surviving two world wars, it faced closure at the hands of a newcomer concerned about his converted bungalow.
The cricketers won, but Harding was dismayed by the dispute. “It’s a classic little English village green,” he says. “We’ve got the church, two pubs, a village shop and post office: the club’s part of the community. What was disappointing is when someone buys a house in the village, they can see there’s a cricket green.”
Disputes that do not end in costly legal tussles are usually resolved with clubs setting up nets and cages to intercept rogue sixes. They do not come cheap: Colehill recently raised £35,000 just to stay open. But this is the price for village harmony – or at the very least, a stay of hostilities.