Sussex Cricket's Chris Coleman is behind the world's largest adult cricket league, which is launching this summer. Jeremy Blackmore finds out more.
Sussex has a proud tradition as the oldest first-class county cricket club. Now it is setting another first with the formation of the world’s largest adult cricket league.
With some 335 participating teams across 34 divisions coming together under a single structure with the same rules and regulations, this season marks an historic moment for recreational cricket.
Overseeing the move, which has been in the planning for several years, is Head of Community Cricket Chris Coleman.
Coleman, 38, joined Sussex Cricket 17 months ago from Sport England with a brief to maximise participation in local communities.
“Cricket has been part of my life from a very young age,” he says. “I’m a firm believer in the difference it can make both on and off the field.”
His role encompasses competitive junior, senior, women and girls and disability cricket. Unlike many other counties, all these strands fall under Sussex Cricket, the same organisation that runs the professional game at Hove.
Explaining the move to the unified 1st Central Sussex Cricket League, he says: “The four leagues were essentially closed off. If you played in the west league, you couldn’t be promoted to the Premier League in that Cinderella story way.”
“As part of the merger process, we opened up promotion and relegation to the top of the pyramid. The response was extremely encouraging.”
Indeed, with opportunities on offer for clubs to progress and play against better sides, such was the appetite for the change that the original target date for a single playing structure was brought forward by a year to last May.
Last October the league’s inaugural AGM formally adopted the rules and regulations which all clubs will operate under from this summer.
It has been quite some undertaking given the number of clubs and cricket involved – around 3,000 games each year.
To inform those decisions, Sussex Cricket embarked on a far-reaching survey of all adult cricketers last year – by far the largest piece of insight into recreational cricket in the county.
“We surveyed 7,000 adult cricketers and got 1,700 responses,” says Coleman. “That’s a pretty good base.
“It told us the players wanted to have their say on what they felt strongly about. It gave us a really clear picture of the formats they wanted to play, when they wanted to start and finish, what they wanted to do around no-balls, free hits and fielding restrictions.”
The top two tiers, the Premier Division and Division Two, remain county wide, with conditions mirroring county cricket to help blood the next generation of potential professionals. However, lower divisions are split geographically, reducing travel times significantly.
“Following the survey results, we brought in earlier start and finish times,” explains Coleman. “You're seeing more results-driven cricket which is where all the insight says the vast majority of players nowadays want to be playing.”
Such a joined-up approach has an impact in terms of participation, he says.
“It helps us clearly communicate with clubs and they're able to see the benefit. Players have a voice and we’re able to instigate change to give them the cricket they want.
“Whereas if you look at some of our neighbours who have seen over 40 teams walk away from their league structure in the past year because they're not getting the type of cricket they want.
“Modern society and modern team sport are not moving in the right direction and we've seen a decline in team sport over the last 10 plus years. We've been able to sustain the number of teams we've got. Giving people the cricket they want is absolutely key to that.
“When you look at overarching cricket figures we are trumped by the likes of Yorkshire purely size wise, but we are the first to bring this all under one league structure and be able to instigate the changes to make sure the players have the cricket they want to play.
“We are incredibly proud of our history and heritage. One of the key parts of my role is making sure that cricket flourishes in the environment in which it's played and rural cricket clubs are the heartland of villages in Sussex.”
Next on Coleman’s agenda is to introduce the same approach to Sussex’s five junior leagues.
“As soon as you join the Under 9s at your club, you're running in with the ball that’s got the Sussex Cricket logo on and that's what you see Joffra Archer and Chris Jordan with when they when they run out at the 1st Central County Ground at Hove.