Shropshire County Cricket Club chairman John Hulme shares his thoughts ahead of the start of the new season this weekend

The start of the new season which is eagerly awaited by one and all following the last two years of restrictions is a time to look forward with much anticipation. It is also a time to reflect on the events of the last 12 months.

Whilst it is often said with a measure of truth that statistics tell only half a tale, they can, nevertheless, provide valuable markers.

So it proved with Shropshire’s campaign last season.

A side still largely in transition produced a number of highly encouraging performances, including a thrilling run chase against Northumberland in the 50 over Trophy competition, a spirited draw against a talented Wales side in the Championship, followed by victories over Cornwall and Devon in the final two games of the season.

Graham Wagg made an outstanding contribution with both bat and ball, topping the respective averages in the Championship. Those who were privileged enough to witness his spectacular century at Sidmouth will long remember an extraordinary exhibition of batting as the Devon bowlers were dispatched to all corners of the ground, including the neighbouring tennis courts and hotel gardens. Even those enjoying a quiet stroll along the promenade and beach were not safe from harm’s way!

As was to be expected of a young side – a good number of whom had very limited experience of three-day cricket – there were occasions when levels of concentration dropped and momentum was lost at crucial stages, but to finish second in the newly-formed Western Division Two of the Championship under the leadership of Sam Whitney and Graham was, indeed, a worthy achievement and showed the measure of progress made over 18 months. Above all, the side remained competitive for much of the season and in so doing proving some naysayers wrong!

The emergence of young players such as Xavier Clarke, Sam Ellis, George Hargrave, Ben Lees, Matt Simmonds and Ben Parker all augurs well for the future as the county looks to build the next generation of cricketers.

The committee remains resolute in its policy to select home grown/based players wherever possible and at all times, strictly in line with the new ECB County Partnership Agreement. The recruitment of those from outside will once again be used very sparingly and only where it might be considered to be of potentially significant advantage in the overall composition of the side.

There have been very significant winds of change in the administration and structure of Minor Counties and National Counties cricket over the last two to three years which I fully appreciate and understand will not necessarily be known to all.

The progress made last season was also in no small measure due to the input of both John Abrahams and Jason Weaver. Their professionalism, deep knowledge of the game, together with organisational skills and attention to detail, were evident at all times. Players and coaches alike will all have significantly benefitted from their time with the county

As a good number of you will be aware, the pandemic has seriously impacted upon crucial fund raising and hospitality events over the last two years. To continue to support our senior and academy programmes, we have had to dig deep into our reserves in the absence of full funding from the ECB.

In order to balance the books, regrettably, we have had to significantly scale back the winter programme given financial restrictions and tailor our resources accordingly. This has meant a major restructuring of our coaching programme. Graham will now oversee all cricketing matters, including selection. He will head up the coaching programme, assisted by local coaches Dave Nock and Ian Roe. Ian will continue to run the Academy, assisted by Dave and Ed Ashlin. The county also welcome back Rod Jones who has enjoyed significant success in nurturing young talent at age group level and at Ellesmere College.

Our considerable thanks go to both John and Jason for their efforts and assistance over the last two seasons and we wish them well. We very much hope to see them back in the county in the not too distant future. Our best wishes also go to our former sports therapist Tom Maundrell who has taken up an appointment with Wolverhampton Wanderers FC.

Looking ahead, after two truncated seasons owing to the pandemic, we have a full fixture list with over 20 days of competitive cricket including four games each in the Twenty 20, Trophy and Championship competitions together with a full Academy programme.

A special date for your diary is July 31 when we shall be hosting Derbyshire CCC in a Showcase game at Shifnal. This is seen as a possible precursor to a new FA Cup-style knockout one-day competition, muted as part of a general overhaul to the domestic game. The competition, to be played during the Hundred, would involve first class and national counties sides and potentially teams from Ireland, Scotland and Holland. I am sure I speak for many who would dearly love to see a return of the old Gillette Cup and NatWest Trophy days and the added spice of competition they brought. Nothing stirs the imagination of a club cricketer more than competing against first class opposition and taking part in the veritable David and Goliath contest.

Off the field, we continue to work closely with the Shropshire Cricket Board and towards a proposed merger. The administrative burden now resting upon National Counties has increased inexorably over the last three years with the introduction and implementation of the County Partnership Agreement and raft of new regulations cascading down from Lord’s. The burden of increased regulation continues to fall heavily and not always proportionately upon a small band of volunteers who already lead busy professional lives themselves.

If we are to continue to satisfy the demands of our Governing body and ensure continued funding, then the need to formally join forces with our partners at the Board is now an administrative priority. To this end and for the overall betterment and continued prosperity of Shropshire cricket, we are now working closely with specialist lawyers towards the anticipated union which will satisfy the needs and requirements of all concerned and safeguard everyone’s position.

The last 12 months has sadly seen the passing of former Shropshire players Laeq Chishti and Dave Vart. Laeq played for the county alongside his brother Attiq in 2008 and 2009. Dave, the Oswestry stalwart, represented Shropshire in the late 1980s and in latter years won many tributes for producing pitches of the highest quality at Morda Road.

We also bid a sad farewell to committee member John McIntear, responsible for registrations and the administration of scorers and umpires. John was an inspiration to so many.

Barry Bacon, Bob and Colin Mapp, all highly respected cricketers in their own right and long supporters of the county, have also sadly passed on and we shall miss their their good humour and insight into the game.

We remember them all with affection and will not forget their respective contributions to Shropshire cricket.

My thanks go to the committee, in particular secretary Richard Lees for his indefatigable work behind the scenes. The considerable administrative burden he has to carry is always born with good grace and humour. Similarly, my thanks go to our treasurer Simon Aucott for keeping his pencil sharpened at all times! This will continue to be very much the case in the months that lie ahead, as we face the increased financial challenges of rising fuel costs with long away trips to the north, east and west of the country together with associated hotel expenditure, not to mention the rise in catering charges for home fixtures. Cricket is far from immune from the global rise in the cost of living.

In passing, warmest congratulations to our very own committee member, Eve Jones, who enjoyed an outstanding year for Central Sparks and Birmingham Phoenix, richly deserving to be named the PCA’s player of the year. Surely, a full England cap must now lie in waiting.

As ever, a special word of thanks to all our sponsors and donors for their generous and vital support. Without their continued financial assistance, the core funding we receive from the ECB alone would be insufficient to help us strive to attain those standards to which we aspire, and fulfil our objectives, in particular providing home grown players the opportunity to perform at the highest level of recreational cricket, and follow the pathway into the professional game, should they be good enough and so desire it.

Thank you also to our loyal band of followers who journey far and wide during the course of a season. The encouragement and support shown to the team both home and away is greatly appreciated by one and all. The broad smiles on the faces of those who travelled to Sidmouth for the final game of last season was a fitting reminder of how much enjoyment and pleasure Shropshire cricket can bring to many!

I very much look forward to meeting up with you all again in the coming months, as we slowly begin to return to normality after the challenges of the last two seasons and wish you all good health.

I am sure at the same time you will all join me in wishing Graham, Sam and the team every success and the best of luck for the new season.