Andrew Cecil considers the opportunities and practical challenges that would face a national Welsh cricket team.
Over the past year, Welsh national sides have participated in the FIFA World Cup, the Rugby League World Cup and the Rugby Union World Cup – but last November, at the Cricket World Cup in India, the Welsh were nowhere to be seen.
There would be no shame in failing to qualify – if that had been the case. The Cricket World Cup was a much criticised and highly exclusionary affair, with just ten teams making the grade.
Twelve countries took part in a thrilling qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe earlier this year for the final two spaces, which Sri Lanka and the Netherlands claimed. The West Indies – former World Cup winners – lost out. Ireland couldn’t manage qualification either and – at the very last – Scotland, too, fell by the wayside.
But for all of those countries, there was at least the joy of taking part – not so for Wales, who did not participate. Despite a large support for cricket in the country that far exceeds many of its neighbours, despite a 16,000-seater international cricket stadium in Cardiff, despite the enormous success and popularity of other Welsh sports sides – Wales have no national cricket team.
Indeed, some of the greatest England cricket teams of all time have had a Welshman aboard
Officially, of course, Wales do have a representative side – Wales are part of the England and Wales Cricket Board. And therefore, though no Welsh players themselves took part, Wales did participate in the Cricket World Cup, with the success (or failures) of the English players in the tournament that of Wales, too. Every Welsh player is, after all, eligible to play for England – and though the team wears the three lions on its shirt and stands for their anthem underneath the cross of St. George, they are – nominally – the England and Wales Cricket Team.
Indeed, some of the greatest England cricket teams of all time have had a Welshman aboard. Swansea-born Simon Jones was an integral part of England’s famous 2005 Ashes victory, Phil Salt of Denbighshire batted in the T20 World Cup Final last year and took a medal home with him. The first woman to score a century in a One-Day International, Lynne Thomas, was born in Llanelli and combined her 1973 World-Cup winning efforts for the England cricket team with playing hockey for Wales and teaching Physical Education in Neath.
The phenomenal individual achievements of these Welsh men and women are extraordinary – but they are exceptions – glimmers in an otherwise challenging structure for Welsh cricketers.
In county cricket, the highest form of domestic cricket in England and Wales, Glamorgan are the only Welsh team. Below them, in the National Counties League, the Wales Minor Counties Team (effectively everywhere in Wales but Glamorgan) compete with the likes of Oxfordshire and Cheshire. Two teams, then, effectively represent professional cricket for an entire nation. Overseeing this all is Cricket Wales who, along with Glamorgan, take the view that the financial benefits of participating in the English domestic structure (and hosting England international matches in Cardiff) far outweigh the funding they would receive as an independent cricketing nation.
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At an amateur level, Wales does have its own cricket leagues – one for North Wales and one for the South, but competition is lacking. The 2023 Welsh Cup Champions, Colwyn Bay, don’t even play their league games in Wales – preferring instead the nearby Liverpool District Cricket Competition, where they can test themselves against stronger teams from Merseyside and its surrounding areas. Colwyn Bay’s wicket keeper, Luke Russell, was fortunate enough to earn a scholarship this winter to play in New Zealand – but for most young Welsh cricketers outside of Glamorgan there are strikingly few opportunities to develop.
Wales would have to start at the bottom, in associate cricket – where most cricketing nations ply their trade. There are a number of positive examples to draw on.
The financial benefits of participation in the English structure keep this structure, however imperfect, floating along – and there is an inherent risk in going it alone. As part of England, Wales enjoys all of the privileges and funding of a full member of the International Cricket Council – and has done since the organisation’s founding in 1909. It is highly unlikely that in the event of secession Wales would retain its full member status – the International Cricket Council would no doubt worry that such a precedent may extend to the West Indies, a cricket board made up of nearly twenty sovereign nations and territories – who may all demand their own team with test status and an equal share of funding.
Wales would have to start at the bottom, in associate cricket – where most cricketing nations ply their trade. There are a number of positive examples to draw on. Jersey’s team, who played their first T20I in 2019, have gone from strength to strength and become one of the strongest sides on the continent. Narrow 2023 defeats against superior opposition in Canada, the USA, Scotland and Ireland demonstrating how close they are to further success.
The Netherlands, whose qualification to this year’s World Cup this year was a shock upset to many, went on to defeat both Bangladesh and South Africa – and they did it with a far smaller player and fan base than Wales has. Both the Netherlands and Scotland – who they defeated to secure qualification – would kill for the player base and grassroots support Welsh cricket already enjoys.
But by far the most encouraging example for Welsh cricket has been set by their near neighbours Ireland. Since they and Scotland chose to separate themselves from the English Cricket Board over thirty years ago, Cricket Ireland have risen up the ranks at record pace. They and Afghanistan became, in 2017, the first new full members admitted to the International Cricket Council in almost twenty years. They’ve played England in two Test matches at Lord’s since then, and earlier this year embarked on an exciting first Test tour of South Asia, playing three Test matches in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Cricket Ireland’s main challenge is finding domestic fans for a sport not traditionally played in Ireland, and trying to carve out a niche for themselves behind football, rugby union, hurling and gaelic football in the national consciousness.
This is not a problem for Wales, where the fanbase already exists. Cricket fans in Wales may not be as passionately nationalistic as the younger generation of football fans in the country (yet) – but they do exist in numbers not seen in any of the aforementioned examples. In the long term, Welsh cricket can only grow from the success of an independent team – it will continue to be stunted if it remains a bit-part in the English structure.