Lancashire League champions on the pitch and going from strength to strength off it: the rise of Darwen Cricket Club

One local cricket club is perhaps looking forward to the new season more than any other, Lewis Heyn reports.

Spring is in full swing, and that time of year that every cricket lover up and down the land has spent all winter yearning for – the start of the season – is here.

Whether player, coach, or spectator, it’s a time of hope and optimism for all who share an interest in the game – and this year, there is an extra sense of excitement, with Ben Stokes’ England side looking to regain the Ashes from Australia.

Nowhere, however, is the hope and optimism more prevalent than at Birch Hall, the home of Darwen Cricket Club.

Darwen’s 1st XI are reigning champions of the Lancashire League, after securing last year’s title with a game to spare away at Ramsbottom, and as ‘The Towers’ began their defence last weekend, they unveiled their new, renovated clubhouse.

Inside Darwen’s brand new, refurbished and expanded clubhouse / Credit: Darwen Cricket Club

The club’s Chairman, Chris Lowe, thinks the facility will lead to further on-the-pitch success for Darwen.

Lowe said: “The things that happen off the pitch ultimately make the things on the pitch happen. We want the club to be thriving both on and off the field, [and] we do need that successful clubhouse to make things happen here at Darwen Cricket Club, like any grassroots sports club.

“It’ll be a legacy. It’ll be a sustainable future, our community, and the town. It’s going to be the best venue in town, and, hopefully, it will lead to us welcoming lots of people to the cricket club.”

The clubhouse is only one part of Darwen’s plans to overhaul Birch Hall. In February, it was revealed that the club had been granted planning permission for the next phase of the ground’s redevelopment, which will see the construction of state-of-the-art nets. Lowe believes the nets will be a “game changer.”

A computer-generated image of what the state-of-the-art nets will look like / Credit: Blackburn with Darwen Council

“It will allow cricket training to go [at Birch Hall] for probably nine [or] 10 months of the year. It will involve local schools, it’ll be open to coaching for individuals and small groups, other clubs will be able to come and use it, and we’ve also got a link to the MCC hub site as well.

“It will allow us to do a lot more cricket, and it will allow us to do cricket of a higher quality, so it will be a game changer.”

The redevelopment is being funded with money from the Darwen Town Deal – a £90m government programme that aims to regenerate Darwen town centre and its surrounding areas.

The Deal is also supporting improvements to Darwen FC’s WEC Group Anchor Ground, and Junction4 Skatepark.

Once work is complete, the three upgraded sites will form the new, £4.6m ‘East Lancashire Sports Village’.

In recent years, now-former Lancashire wicket-keeper batsman Alex Davies has come through the ranks at Darwen to go on and achieve great things playing for the Red Rose, including being awarded Man of the Match for his performance in the final of the 2015 Vitality Blast, as Lancs defeated Northants Steelbacks by 13 runs at Edgbaston.

Lowe says everyone at the club is “extremely proud” of how far Davies has gone, and thinks the transformation of Birch Hall, where Darwen have played since 1920, “can only help” the club fulfil their aim to support talented young players realise their dreams of making it as a professional.

Lowe said: “It will get more people down here; it will hopefully get a lot more people playing the game, so that will filter through to [our] thriving junior section.

“As we know, it’s extremely difficult to get into professional sport, [but] we’ve got to provide pathways for any aspiring boy or girl and everybody who wants to play cricket. We want to produce professional sports people.”

As well as the clubhouse and nets, Lowe says that the club is also has ideas to build a new score box, and a new car park to accommodate all the new visitors to Birch Hall that the club is expecting.

The Towers’ professional, Punit Bisht joined from Northern Premier Cricket League champions Garstang over the winter, and the Indian batsman is delighted to have come to a club with such big ambition.

Asked whether he was excited to join Darwen, Bisht responded: “Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of new facilities being built over there [at Birch Hall] and it’s one of the biggest clubs in the Lancashire League, things are looking up, so it’s a very exciting time to join the club.

Bisht believes that if the government were to invest greater amounts in grassroots cricket, then the standard of it would only increase.

“When you have great facilities – good clubhouse, good nets, good wickets – it really matters.

The 36-year-old thinks the overhaul of Darwen’s set-up will lead to great things for the club in the future.

“I think Darwen will win more trophies at senior level, and young players will come through to play for Lancashire and maybe even England.”