Yesterday evening, I wandered around the boundary at Radcliffe CC, watching an under 16 cricket match. The play was of a good standard, but subdued. The two teams had played each other the night before in an exciting Cup Final and this match, despite having the potential to be a league decider, was passing calmly. The scene was peaceful, too. The ground, in bright evening sunshine, was still, belying its elevated situation to the north of Manchester, Pennine hills visible to the east. Family and players from both teams, sitting on the terraced benches rising up to the pavilion, chatted amicably.
The ground stands on the site of an old race course and was first used for cricket in the mid 1870s and has been in continuous use for the sport for 107 years. For an urban-sited ground it is unusually spacious having not experienced the incursions from land sold for housing or from clubhouse extensions to earn the club fees from function room, bar or multi-sports facilities. The boundary, when the full field is in use, is marked by a narrow gutter and whitewashed low brick wall. There’s a low picket fence around one stretch of the field and whitewashed walls mark the club’s curtilige. The playing area shows devoted care that promises batsmen will get the full value of their shots. The outfield may be Test, let alone first-class standard. The square extends two-thirds of a central band running east to west across the ground. The tracks to the east, within 15 metres of the full boundary, are well worn, suggesting their use, not for junior matches but square practice with a mobile cage.
In the break between innings I climbed the steps to the pavilion bar. Charmed as I was by the ground, the bar brought even more treats. On a beam, above the picture windows looking out on the ground, that runs the length of the bar, were photos of each of the club’s professional cricketers. Worrell, Amarnath, Pepper, Sobers, Ramadhin, Pilling, Moseley, of those with instantly recognisable names. In an unlit corner, marked for sponsors, there was a sculpture of Sir Frank Worrell who had pro’d there from 1948-53.
As we drove away from the ground, I told my son that he had been playing at the club where Gary Sobers had played. “Was he famous then?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. He played Test cricket at 17 and held the record for highest individual Test score when he played here.”
“Why did he play here?”
I explained that there was very little money in the game for players before the 1980s and a professional in the Lancashire Leagues would be well paid for one or two days work a week. The key detail I didn’t have to hand, was that until the late 1960s strict residency qualification periods were in force for county cricket. For example, Bill Alley, synonymous with Somerset, spent five years playing league cricket in Lancashire before becoming eligible to join Somerset in his late 30s.
If Sobers had been born 60 years later, he would still have been forced to migrate to make a good living from the game. But not to Lancashire (or Nottinghamshire), unless perhaps for a four week contract covering the final stages of the county T20 Cup, but to Bangalore, Brisbane, Melbourne or Mumbai.
Radcliffe is quieter and less vital than in the heyday of the Lancashire Leagues. The buildings and areas beyond the boundary are looking worn, but good attention seems to be paid to the bit of real estate that matters – the bit in the middle. The junior section thrives and, from my experience of watching three games, has depth and a good friendly spirit.
Next year, the club breaks a tradition of almost 80 years. Radcliffe leaves the Central Lancashire League to join the new Greater Manchester Cricket League. New clubs, fresh players and followers will have the pleasure of playing on and spectating at its excellent ground and pausing in the bar to take in its heritage.