Why is Wales not a Cricket Nation like Scotland and Ireland?

When a new cricket competition – the European T20 cricket league – is held from 30 August 30th to 22 September 22nd this year, one nation with a long tradition of playing the game will be absent. Current European rugby champions, football’s European Cup semi-finalists last time the event was held in in 2016, birthplace of the 2019 Tour de France winner, the highest-paid footballer in the world and of the captain of the last two Lions tours, the proud sporting country of Wales will be on the side-lines.

 Cricket in Wales, it would seem, is Glamorgan, or exists to be an “event” that brings people into Cardiff to watch England Test matches or international series, and the club. The Welsh Government seem determined to keep it that way.  

 The new competition will be similar in style to other well-known T20 leagues around the world, featuring city-based franchise teams (two each from Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands). The tournament will involve 33 matches across all three countries, featuring a Group Stage followed by semi-finals and a final. Each franchise must have a minimum of nine domestic players, and up to a maximum of seven overseas players within their squads. Of the 11 players taking the field in each match, six players must be domestic cricketers.

The tournament, which International Cricket council (ICC), has helped to develop will be delivered under an initial 10-year agreement with event and funding partners GS Holding and Woods Entertainment, and will be broadcast in cricket markets globally.

So why have Welsh cricketers – whose numbers match or even exceed those of the other three countries – not been invited to join this event and make it a four-way tournament? To understand this, some context is needed. Cricket in Wales comes under the jurisdiction of the England & Wales Cricket Board, (acronym ECB not EWCB), which took over responsibility for the game from the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 1997.

 Within Wales amateur cricket is organised into a North Wales Premier Cricket League and a South Wales Cricket League, both of which consist of 12 teams that play each other every season. Several of these teams have featured prominently over the years in the Village Cricket Cup, competing against 300 teams from across the British Isles to play in the final at the home of cricket, Lord’s. Past Welsh winners include St. Fagans, Gowerton, Sully Centurions, Marchwiel, and Ynystawe.

 Professional cricket in England and Wales is represented by the 18-team County Championship. Glamorgan has been the sole Welsh member since joining in since 1921, winning the competition on three occasions 1948, 1967, and 1997. Over this period of nearly 100 years more than a dozen Glamorgan cricketers have represented England. One of these Tony Lewis captained the England team on eight occasions, leading the MCC party that toured India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1972-73.

 The best-known Glamorgan Test players, apart from Lewis, are Maurice Turnbull, Gilbert Parkhouse, Allan Watkins, Jeff Jones, Greg Thomas, Hugh Morris, Simon Jones, Robert Croft, and Steve Watkin. Wilfred Wooller, the Glamorgan captain in the 1940s and 1950s, was never capped but was an England selector for many years.

 It is essentially this status in English cricket that Glamorgan and the Welsh Government are determined to maintain, and which makes them refuse to support the idea of a Welsh team. Glamorgan has consistently opposed the idea of a Welsh team on the grounds that it could compromise its finances and its position within the English County Championship. Cricket Wales has also opposed independent status arguing it is preferable to play a major role within the ECB. Glamorgan chief executive, Hugh Morris, has argued that a Wales national team does not make any sense “financially” whatsoever.

 In addition, both Cardiff City Council and the Welsh Government argue inclusion within the ECB is a very useful peg on which to build Cardiff’s reputation as a sporting hub capable of attracting large number of high-spending UK and overseas visitors to England matches. These include games in the Ashes series against Australia, and against other full Test sides, in one day internationals, or special events such as the recent Cricket World Cup. 

 Such events do not come cost-free, however, as the right to stage them must be bid for and won in competition with the main English venues. Making Glamorgan’s home at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff fit for international cricket has also proved expensive, not least for the council taxpayers of the city, some of whose loans to the club have had to be written off. A similar strategy has, of course, seen costly efforts put behind attracting other international sporting events, such as European Champions League football, to the Principality Stadium.

 The hold that this thinking has on the Welsh Government was made clear in a response to a question in the Senedd from Plaid Cymru AM, Bethan Sayed, in July by Eluned Morgan, Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, in whose brief cricket as an “event” project sits.

 Noting that any decision to establish a Welsh cricket team (or we can assume by extension to take part in events such as the European T20 league) is a matter for the governing body of Cricket Wales, she said: “Any discussion around this issue would need to be framed by what is best for cricket in Wales on both a participation and an elite level. For Wales to have representative teams of its own, it would have to break with the ECB and become affiliated to the ICC instead. This would have significant funding implications as Glamorgan Cricket Club and Cricket Wales receive funding each year from the ECB. If Wales was ratified as an associate member of the ICC, it may (my italics) expect to receive a significantly smaller grant.

 “The reduction of funding would undoubtedly (my italics again) have a significant negative impact on both the professional and recreational game in Wales. Both Cricket Wales and Glamorgan County Cricket Club are of the view that the establishment of a Welsh cricket team would not be of long-term benefit for the growth of the game in Wales.”

 So, there we are then, except that Cricket Scotland and Cricket Ireland, both of which have grown the game over recent years from a smaller base than existed in Wales appear to take a different view. Here is Malcolm Cannon, Chief Executive of Cricket Scotland: “Cricket Scotland is always looking for more fixtures against high-quality opposition to develop the talent in our national team. The proposal for a six-team European tournament featuring teams from Ireland and Netherlands provides an excellent basis for Scottish cricket to prosper. 

 “Off the back of our highest ever global T20 ranking of 11th, the tournament comes at a fantastic time for Scottish cricket. The chance to play alongside some of the best in the business will provide a great opportunity for our players to learn and develop their own skillset as we strive to achieve full membership (i.e. Test-playing status) and climb the ICC team rankings. 

 “The league also comes at an important time of year for Scotland, with the proposed timeframe presenting an opportunity to play quality competitive cricket ahead of the ICC T20 World Cup Global Qualifier in UAE in October. We are excited to bring the global phenomenon of T20 franchise cricket to Scotland, with our vision to have two city-based teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

 “Not only will the tournament help develop our players and coaches, we hope the tournament will increase public perceptions of the sport as well as engage communities around our franchise teams, with the opportunity to watch top cricketers from across the globe. …Cricket Scotland very much looks forward to watching Scottish cricket evolve over the next 10 years.”

 Compare and contrast this with Hugh Morris, who has responded in the past to suggestions of a Welsh cricket team operating within the ICC Cricket Board with the somewhat alarmist warning that such a development could threaten Glamorgan’s continued existence even.  “We would lose our stadium. We would lose our players. I have not seen a business plan to see how it can work. We are very much wedded to the England and Wales Cricket Board in terms of finances”, he said.

 He went on to declare he could not see how Glamorgan and Wales could be natural bedfellows. Wales, he argued, would be playing in an ICC league with other countries, and at the same time as Glamorgan.

 So, what is best for Wales? Staying close to nurse (the ECB) for fear of something worse (the ICC) or taking the bold move of declaring cricket independence? Cricket has been expanding internationally and the number of first-class international sides has grown. Twelve countries have full membership of the ICC – England, Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Ireland, and Zimbabwe. Ireland now plays full Test matches, famously out-playing England in the first two innings of their recent match before falling short on the final day.

 In addition, there are 93 associates in countries where cricket is firmly established but not yet ready for full membership. These include Scotland and the Netherlands, both of which regularly host international sides, though generally only for One Day International matches (ODI). Zimbabwe, for example, is touring the Netherlands and Ireland this year and Scotland has played ODIs at home against Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and has fixtures in August against Papua New Guinea and Oman in India.

 Before the present arrangements were in place Ireland famously defeated the West Indies side in its pomp at Sion Mills in 1969 and now play in the European Cricket Championship. Ireland and Scotland moved out of the ambit of “English” cricket, where like Wales they had previously existed, in 1993 and 1994 respectively to create separate associations for the development of the game in their countries, Before playing England in July this year, Ireland had already graduated to full Test match status with a fixture against Pakistan and is hence on a journey to appearing regularly at the highest level of cricket.

 In Wales we can only look back and reflect that cricket has been played since at least the first recorded match in Pembrokeshire in 1763 (several years ahead of Scotland). There are 230 amateur clubs in Wales compared with 140 in Scotland, (which like Wales has its own league) and an estimated 14,000 Welsh-based players. Yet, the highest level of representation Wales achieves is as “Wales Minor Counties” in the English Minor Counties, Western Division, a sort of second division to the County Championship.

 Interestingly, Wales has had international cricket sides at various points throughout the past 100 years and they have had some notable successes. Wales played England three times in 50-over matches between 2002-2004 and even managed to win the first encounter to the amazement of all. A Welsh side also appeared 16 times in the 1920s playing among others New Zealand (drawing) West Indies (winning) and South Africa (losing). A Welsh team also featured in the ICC Trophy in 1979, and in a Triple Crown championship with Scotland and Ireland between 1993 and 2001.

 Several attempts have been made over recent years to argue the case for a Wales cricket team, including not surprisingly by Plaid Cymru. In a Senedd debate in 2013 both Conservatives and Labour members lent their support to the idea of a revived Welsh side, and the case was also made again in 2015 by Bethan Sayed. In 2017, First Minister, Carwyn Jones, called for the re-introduction of a Welsh One Day team.

 The question is complicated to some extent, it must be admitted, by Glamorgan’s position as one of the eighteen first class county sides but would Glamorgan really have to leave or be forced to quit the county championship, as some fear?  There are currently non-represented English counties – Devon, Lincolnshire, Cumbria, Cheshire, Berkshire perhaps – which might welcome the chance to take the county’s place in the County Championship if Welsh cricket was separated from the English set-up.

 This sounds very much like special pleading, however. Wales has an international football side, and this has not prevented Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham from playing in the English football professional system so why need Glamorgan lose its place in the county championship?

 Again, would Glamorgan necessarily be weakened by the emergence of a Welsh side competing independently? Several decades ago, Glamorgan consisted mainly of Welsh players plus a few overseas stiffeners. Today the side is almost entirely composed of cricketers from outside Wales and a handful of Welsh players, so a Welsh team would hardly be drawing on the same resources. Nor need matches be played in Cardiff in competition with Glamorgan.  Swansea has a long tradition of support for cricket and lost out, much to its chagrin, to Cardiff when Glamorgan decided to concentrate most fixtures at Sophia Gardens. Swansea could be the new home of Welsh cricket. Matches could also be played in other venues around Wales, as was previously the Glamorgan practice.)

 Surely, with a genuinely Welsh side playing in Wales in fixtures against other nations interest in the game in Wales and participation (by men and women) could only grow? This could ultimately benefit Glamorgan and perhaps generate a larger cohort of players locally who might go on to play professionally for the county.

 A Welsh side would also give Welsh-qualified Glamorgan players – and there are still a few despite the internationalisation of the county side in recent years – the opportunity to play international cricket for a Wales team. Though they qualify to play for England at present it is only every few years that a Glamorgan player manages to break into the side and no Welsh player is currently in that position. The very best players might still choose to do so. After all, England’s One-Day captain, Eoin Morgan is an Irish national with a Welsh surname.

 And let’s face it Glamorgan has not been pulling up trees in the English cricket system since it last won the championship more than 20 years ago, finishing bottom of Division Two last year (i.e. eighteenth out of eighteen in English first class cricket) with just two wins all season. Perhaps too much time and effort has been put into creating a stadium fit for Test matches and ODIs to the detriment of cricket in Wales generally. (Thankfully, Glamorgan are doing a lot better this year and if current form is maintained could challenge for promotion to Division One.)

 England might stop playing Test matches or ODIs in Cardiff if there were a separate Wales side. But is the role of super-host the best we can hope for when Scotland and Ireland, both with smaller cricket-playing populations, build their game and international reputation? At least some of the revenue that would be turned away if Wales left the England and Wales Cricket Board to set up its own board (and lost the right to host England matches) could be recouped through Welsh international matches.

 The recent World Cup which brought together the ten best one day cricket countries, has shown how much pride can be derived by the smaller countries from appearing in tournaments such as these, and occasionally outplaying the more senior sides – Afghanistan came close to winning their match against India. Scottish, Irish and Dutch cricket are also going to gain a lot of media coverage – and income from attendance and sponsorship – from their tournament.

 Surely it would be good to see Wales attempting over time to appear in events such as the World Cup or to put forward teams for a league competition, as well as regularly playing versions of the game against comparable countries in Europe and some of the aspiring African and Asian nations? This could serve as an encouragement to young people to take up the game and help to raise performance standards throughout the sport in Wales.

 Who knows, one day we might like Ireland give England a run for their money?

 Rhys David is Chairman of Nova Cambria

July 27th, 2019