Supporting the finest traditions of wandering cricket
More than any other sport, cricket has undergone a revolution over the past 30 years. A game once associated with genteel, lazy summer days has become an extravaganza of colour and noise. The most dramatic changes have been at the very top of the sport, where everything from the coloured clothing to the shortened Twenty20 format are designed as an assault on the senses, a frantic plea for attention.
It is a comfort, therefore, to know that there are still teams who insist on playing according to traditions handed down through the generations. The Sussex Martlets – a club established in 1905 and little changed since – are one such institution.
The principles of the club are simple: players join by invitation, giving up their weekdays to play against local schools and clubs in one-off matches typically defined by a high standard of cricket and good sportsmanship. As a so-called “wandering club” The Martlets have no home ground. They are guests wherever they play, relying on the hospitality of their hosts and repaying them with cricket played according to the spirit of the game.
“There’s definitely something special about Martlets cricket,” says Hector Loughton, one of the match-managers whose job it is to convince team-mates to take a day of holiday in order to turn out for the club. “Maybe it’s because you know you and your team-mates have usually taken a day off simply to play cricket. Once you’ve done that, you pretty much have to make sure you have a good time.”
“Obviously we turn up wanting to win — and we can put out a ridiculously strong team if we need to — but Martlets matches have a different atmosphere from the league cricket many of us play at the weekend. We’re competitive, we play to win, but we do it in the right spirit — and make sure we have a pint or two afterwards!”
“I suppose it helps that we tend to play at some of the prettiest grounds in this part of the country too.”
The vast majority of Martlets fixtures are “declaration cricket” – meaning that the team batting first must judge when to declare their innings closed in order to give the team batting second a fair amount of time to chase down the runs for the win. The format itself necessitates an ethos of fair play: bat on too long and you risk irritating the opposition and killing off the game.
Although the club has no official home ground, a handful of fixtures each year are played at Arundel Castle – widely regarded as one of the most picturesque grounds in England, where more casual cricket watchers may find themselves distracted by views over the South Down and the River Arun.
There may be no league system to the matches, but many fixtures have been on the calendar for decades, creating natural rivalries. The annual fixtures against wandering clubs from nearby counties – the Hampshire Hogs and Kent’s Band of Brothers – are particularly traditional. There is also a marquee fixture each year against Marylebone Cricket Club (owners of Lord’s cricket ground). Last year’s encounter with MCC was the closest for years, with the Martlets losing by just one wicket on a typically glorious day at Arundel.
Founded in 1905, the club was originally known as the Hove Long Vacation Club – a name which reflects its original purpose: to provide a high standard of cricket during the summer holidays for schoolmasters, undergraduates and officers in the armed services. Two years later the club was renamed after the heraldic bird from the county crest.
One of the founders was the author Arthur Conan Doyle, who was living in Crowborough at the time, and among the earliest members were the great C B Fry and Ranjitsinhji, both of whom played Test cricket for England. Over the years, the Martlets have also been represented by 15 other England Test cricketers, including Ted Dexter, David Sheppard and John Snow.
In 1935, the Cricketer Magazine declared that there was no finer club side in Sussex and by the 1960s, the fixture list had swelled to an improbable 113 games in a season, often with multiple matches on the same day. These days, the matches are numbered in the 30s (a full fixture list can be found online at www.sussexmartlets.co.uk).
It has been a while since a Test cricketer last turned out in the distinctive Martlets colours: dark blue, pale blue and pink. Nevertheless, the standard remains high enough to attract some of the best club players in the county.
A supply of fresh talent is provided by the Junior Martlets side, who each year play the senior team in the annual match between young and old at Arundel Castle Cricket Club. In recent years an over-40s side has been established in order to prolong the playing careers of some of the most dedicated members and goes from strength to strength.
Cricket may have moved on, but at 116 years not out, the Sussex Martlets are proof that some traditions cannot easily be dismissed.