A chapter of local cricket history came to a quiet end last week when the Belvoir League folded after 104 years at the crease.
It shuffled off to the pavilion without fanfare or a great clatter of wickets, but with the quiet inevitability of a number 11 batsman duffing a catch to mid-on.
The league celebrated its centenary season just five years ago, but increasing struggles to attract players to Thursday evening cricket forced the remaining clubs and committee to call play to a close.
It’s another blow to grassroots sport in the town and echoes the demise of the once flourishing Melton Football League last summer which also dwindled away to a handful of teams.
“It’s sad, but I don’t think it was unexpected the way everything panned out,” said chairman Mark Bullimore, who in recent seasons also had to operate as secretary and treasurer.
“When a league has been around for over 100 years you like to think it will carry on forever, but it’s been difficult for the last few years to get enough teams to call it a league.
“At the start of last year we had six teams and we always argued that if you could get 10 matches a season that’s enough.
“But Wymeswold struggled to get a team together for most of the second half of last season and Thorpe said they may not put a team in next season.
“I sent an email out in November and the feeling was the league wouldn’t keep going.
“Those clubs who still wanted to play midweek cricket had to apply to other leagues so that’s why we’ve taken the decision now.”
At its pomp the league boasted up to 20 clubs, with most villages in the borough fielding a team in the 18-over-a-side competition which pre-dated the modern T20 phenomenon by almost 90 years.
The league was believed initially to have been built around agriculture, running from April to June, as it allowed farmworkers to play before peak harvest time began.
In later years Thursday night cricket was seen as an ideal chance to blood young batsmen and bowlers into senior cricket without the greater pressures of county league.
As well as the main title, the league had also been stong enough to support two cup competitions.
Colin Moulds had many ties with the league, as a player, chairman and as a former Melton Times sports editor.
“Once a league folds, rarely does it reappear and I’m very sorry this seems to be the end of an era,” he said.
“The Belvoir League holds special memories for me as it was there as a teenager in the 1950s I got my first taste of cricket, playing for Harby.
“And in my spell as sports editor at the Melton Times I always followed the ups and downs of the league with much interest.
“Weekend cricket is very popular, but I still think midweek leagues, such as the Belvoir and Burrough Leagues with a shorter format, have a lot to offer, especially to youngsters moving up from junior to senior cricket.”
In keeping with its legacy of supporting young cricketers, the league will split its remaining coffers – around £1,200 – to Long Field Academy, John Ferneley College and Priory Belvoir Academy to buy cricket equipment.
A donation will also be made to Thorpe Arnold CC as thanks for hosting league meetings and presentation evenings.
At the time of his Belvoir League debut for Ab Kettleby, around 40 years ago, Bullimore estimated the league’s strength at about 16 teams, with each side having a core of juniors.
But he said even the supply of young players had begun to dry up, and believes it is a problem not exclusive to midweek cricket.
“I talk to a few people involved in Saturday cricket and they think the county league will also shrink before long because clubs are struggling to put second and third teams out,” he added.
“Clubs that run junior coaching will survive, but apart from that I think it’s going to be a struggle.
“You need the fresh blood to come through and carry the sport in, but there doesn’t seem to be the commitment to play every week.”
* With perfect symmetry, Hickling were the first Belvoir League champions back in 1914, from an initial entry of 14 village teams, and were also the final name to be engraved on the league trophy, sharing the last-ever title with Thorpe Arnold.
Hickling also won the Frank Woodhead Cup last summer, and were one of only two teams able to commit to fielding a side next season.
But they and Upper Broughton will instead switch their midweek alliegances to the Tuesday evening Burrough League.
Hickling CC batsman Matt Winn said: “We are, of course, devastated to see the Belvoir League having to fold, but we totally understand the league has been struggling for a number of years.
“Cricket across the whole county has been on the demise in recent years with teams struggling to field 11 players on both the weekend and in midweek.
“At Hickling we have been in a fortunate position to use this competition as a way of developing players who are new to the game and giving youngsters an opportunity to play men’s cricket at a competitive level.
“Winning the Frank Woodhead Cup for the past two seasons has given the club great memories and something we’ll cherish as a team and community.”
He added: “Although the away games might be slightly further away from Hickling, we’re hoping that the quality of the matches will be of much more benefit to the players.”