Two England captains join fight to save village cricket club

ROBERT HARDMAN: Not out yet! Two England captains join fight to save the 118-year-old village cricket club under threat from Nimby neighbours who complained about balls landing in their gardens

How could anyone possibly claim they weren’t warned when they bought a house overlooking this spot? They must have noticed the well-tended green field bordered by a clubhouse with a scoreboard on the wall — the one which says ‘Runs’ and ‘Overs’.

Did they not wonder why so many neighbouring houses have names like ‘The Outfield’ or ‘Wicket Cottage’?

Did it not ever occur to them, for that matter, to ask why the road running down one side is called Boundary Drive?

Even in midwinter, without a stump in sight, you don’t need to be a police detective to deduce that this is a village cricket pitch.

However, I still feel as if I might have strayed into an episode of Midsomer Murders as I walk through the charming Dorset village of Colehill.

How could anyone possibly claim they weren’t warned when they bought a house overlooking this spot?

No one has been bumped off, it must be said. Yet everyone remains baffled by a mystery which has made headlines across the land and beyond: how could a cricket club, at the heart of village life here for more than a century, be forced to give up cricket on the basis of three complaints about cricket balls?

That’s right. Three people have complained to a club which has given immense pleasure to thousands of people since cricket matches started here in 1905. Yet, on that basis alone, regular cricket now faces the chop.

Here, it seems, is a perfect morality tale for our self-centred, risk-averse times.

No wonder there are whispers about who might have done such a thing and why. No wonder that the prime suspects have gone to ground and are refusing to comment when I come knocking.

As things stand, only youth cricket and children’s games will be allowed to continue here at Colehill, on the basis that young players are not going thwack a six into a neighbouring garden. However, adults have been told they can play no more, in case they chip a roof tile, crack a window, hit a car or, worse still, a person — by reluctant order of the club’s trustees.

It goes without saying that a club without senior cricket will, in short order, see its junior players vanish elsewhere if there is no way to progress. It is then just a matter of time before the club withers away.

I still feel as if I might have strayed into an episode of Midsomer Murders as I walk through the charming Dorset village of Colehill (Pictured: Robert Hardman at the ground)

At first glance, this looks like yet another case of health and safety paranoia quashing common sense and the happiness of the majority. It is certainly reminiscent of those ludicrous stories of churches being ordered to silence their bells — as in Wrington, Somerset — or farmers fined for noisy cockerels as was the case in Finchingfield, Essex, after a new arrival complained to the council.

What makes it so absurd is that when I skim through any recent estate agents’ blurb on houses hereabouts, all of them trumpet the charm of the village cricket pitch — which may explain why the average house on Boundary Drive now goes for upwards of £1 million.

No wonder people are furious that newbies want the rural idyll and then threaten the rural reality. It’s like buying a house by the sea and then complaining about the seagulls.

Ask anyone to describe a classic English country village and they will probably mention a pub, a church, a cricket pitch and maybe an oak tree. Colehill’s cricket pitch has six oak trees along the boundary (planted in memory of the daughters of a long-gone squire).

Its clubhouse-cum-pavilion, the Colehill Sports and Social Club — which owns the pitch — is no beauty, admittedly. But it is the beating heart of the community and supports darts, pool and skittles teams plus many other village activities. All that could face the chop if a stray ball incurred a court case.

That is why, with great sadness, the trustees have concluded that in today’s litigious world, the tiniest prospect of legal action cannot be ignored.

‘It’s your classic English cricket ground and it will stay that way as long I have a beating heart,’ says Shane Blackley, 58, a trustee who has played here since he was a boy.

‘But a ground like this depends on understanding neighbours who accept the occasional inconvenience. Now, though, we are up against a compensation culture. Our sports and social club is a not-for-profit organisation and it’s not all about cricket. We have a duty to everyone else.’

He says that the problem started when the club received a complaint from a house on one side of the ground about broken roof tiles. So the club had the tiles repaired, moved the wicket further away from the house and imposed a rule that any ball landing there would not score a single run.

Its clubhouse-cum-pavilion, the Colehill Sports and Social Club — which owns the pitch — is no beauty, admittedly. But it is the beating heart of the community

The trustees also applied for planning permission to erect some netting in that corner of the ground and began raising the money. However, a complaint arrived from the opposite side of the ground.

Since then, a developer has knocked down a house on a third side of the ground, secured permission for two swanky new £1.6 million homes in its place and built them much nearer to the pitch. One of these houses has also installed a row of shiny new solar panels.

These new residents have started complaining about balls and submitted a hefty repair bill — which the club are now questioning. When one complainant started talking about legal action, the trustees felt they had to act.

Shane explains that the club’s insurance premiums have lately trebled and there would barely be enough to pay the excess on a claim, let alone the rise in premiums which would follow. As for a court case, the cost would be unthinkable. The only answer is netting 25ft high around much of the ground to shield all the grumblers from the sloggers.

But there was no way a tiny voluntary outfit like this could afford the £35,000 bill for that. A request for help from the ECB, the body which runs cricket, fell on deaf ears.

That is why, last month, the trustees ruefully decreed that adult cricket would have to stop.

This, though, is where the story suddenly takes a very different turn — and for the better — thanks to the combined efforts of one cricketer and the power of the Press.

Just a week ago, George Taylor, the captain of Colehill’s midweek side (one of the three adult teams here), started a petition urging the trustees to think again.

He hoped for a decent response around the village and maybe a spot of interest in the local paper. Then something else happened.

These new residents have started complaining about balls and submitted a hefty repair bill — which the club are now questioning

This has been one of those sagas which triggers G. K. Chesterton’s ‘Secret People’ from their slumber. Writing a mere two years after the creation of Colehill Cricket Club, the novelist and poet lauded the ordinary country folk of Edwardian Britain in a famous poem: ‘We are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet.’

Well, they’re jolly well speaking now, among them the England cricket captain, Ben Stokes, who tweeted in support of the Colehill cricketers: ‘Checked to see if it was April 1st … it’s not so means this is real.’

Stokes was echoing the sentiments of former skipper Michael Vaughan: ‘What an utter joke…You buy a house next to a cricket ground. What do you expect?’

That is exactly what almost everyone in Colehill — or almost everyone — tells me as I walk around. Cricket-mad TV presenter Piers Morgan has gone further still: ‘These pathetic home-owners should be told to stick their complaints up their whiny killjoy backsides.’

‘We couldn’t believe it when all these big names started getting involved,’ says George Taylor, 27, an accountant by trade. ‘It’s been a pretty intense few days but it only goes to show that village cricket is not as obscure as people might think.’

The swift response to the petition has indeed persuaded the trustees to think again. They have now given their blessing to a crowd-funding appeal to pay for the £35,000 netting.

It only kicked off on Thursday. By last night, it had already reached £26,000. Village cricketers everywhere are rallying to the cause, as are many more for whom this is simply a quintessential element of what being English is all about.

Emotions are certainly running high in the village.

‘The whole thing’s absurd. How can people move in next to a cricket ground and then stop it?’ says a middle-aged man walking his dog.

He tells me that he has played for the club many times, as has his son, and that it is the cricket which binds the whole place together. He won’t give me his name because, he says, the whole thing has become toxic enough already.

However, it has reached the point where he almost feels sorry for the neighbours who kickstarted this saga. ‘They probably had no idea that it would go this far. I just can’t think why they had to start talking about lawyers.’

Near Boundary Drive, I meet Alan Coombes and his wife Sheila. They have lived by the ground for more than 50 years and can’t imagine Colehill without cricket.

‘We can watch it from our bedroom,’ says Sheila.

Locals tell me how the surrounding homeowners always leave their gates open during the summer so that players can run in to retrieve a ball.

When I drop in at the clubhouse after dark, the bar is busy but the locals politely decline to comment. One explains to me that everyone is full square behind the cricketers but they don’t want to inflame things any further.

One of the alleged complainants is a former mayor of nearby Wimborne, Kelly Webb, who, according to club members, has since offered to contribute towards the cost of the netting. There is no one in when I call at her home. When approached by email, she says that she is not trying to stop cricket and been the victim of media ‘lies’ and even death threats.

She has since issued a statement saying that she is not ‘petitioning the club to stop playing cricket’.

Locals tell me how the surrounding homeowners always leave their gates open during the summer so that players can run in to retrieve a ball

I head for the new houses on the boundary. The occupant of one of them declines to comment when I press the intercom at the gate (we may be deep in Thomas Hardy country but there are an awful lot of intercoms and electric gates around here).

Next door, the other brand-new home is still being completed. One of the builders tells me that he has little sympathy for the cricketers.

‘We had twelve tiles broken by balls last summer and we had to repair them at our own expense,’ he says (the club say it was nothing like that number).

Further round, I meet a very different sort of neighbour. If all the residents were like Phil Lewis, there wouldn’t be a problem. Having retired here with his wife 16 years ago, Phil soon realised that summertime brought the odd flying ball. He didn’t complain.

Instead, he applied for planning permission and put up some temporary poles and netting at his own expense. The cricketers come round to help him put it up at the start of the season and take it down at the end.

‘We love living next to the ground. It’s part of country life,’ says Phil, who even loves the sound of Carl the groundsman mowing the pitch. ‘It’s the sound of summer — and Carl’s become a good friend.’

Over the road, I meet a pensioner who declines to give her name but she has lived here for 30 years and would hate to see the cricket stop.

‘A ball once landed on my car but it was only a little dent,’ she says. ‘What do you expect if you live next to a lovely cricket pitch?’

As of last night comes further news. ‘I’ve just heard that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) are now coming to meet us next week,’ says Shane Blackley, who wants to thank the media for transforming the club’s fortunes.

‘Given where this all started, I really don’t think things could be any better now.’

So, for now, the cautionary tale of Colehill cricket seems to be heading for a happy ending.

If not, one of the club stalwarts tells me he has an alternative plan. ‘There’s always a Plan B. If the killjoys want to get rid of the cricket, let’s stick in a planning application for affordable housing. Then see how they fancy looking out on to that!’ 

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