DEBATE ahead of a new cricket season normally centres around which club has the best professional or who has assembled the most competitive squad.

But those concerns ahead of the new Greater Manchester Cricket League (GMCL) campaign, which begins on Saturday, have played second fiddle to umpiring.

The fledgling league has been running a recruitment drive behind the scenes ahead of its second season after adopting a new policy on how umpires are provided for games.

While the GMCL remains committed to providing two neutral umpires for every match in the top four divisions, clubs below that level – in Divisions Four and Five – have been asked to supply their own officials.

That means matches involving a handful of first teams, such as East Lancs Paper Mill and Tottington St Johns in the Bury area, as well as some of the top clubs’ second teams will not have neutral officials at every game. Meanwhile, willing volunteers have been given training to bring them up to speed.

Other than concerns over potentially difficult situations due to umpires’ perceived loyalties, there were also fears not enough umpires would come forward to ensure there are two at every game.

But the league has confirmed that would not be the case, for the first two months of the season at least.

A statement read: “The GMCL Umpires and Scorers Association have advised the GMCL board that, following the great work by clubs to register club umpires and the association’s own recruitment efforts, all GMCL Saturday matches in the first round of allocations for the whole of April and May should have two umpires from the appointed panel or the club umpires. 

“This is a huge achievement and our clubs and the association have done brilliantly to bring us back from a very difficult situation.

“Everyone at the clubs involved should be proud of their contribution.

“The decision to go down the route of club umpires was a tough call to make but it was made early and the GMCL board would like to thank everyone for their response.

“Obviously, emergency situations can arise that may leave us suddenly short so we ask all clubs to contact us immediately if that is the case. We also ask that all clubs continue to try to recruit as many panel and club umpires as possible to ensure we have complete coverage across the whole season.”

Alan Naylor, who heads up the league’s Umpires and Scorers Association, added: “Club umpires who required training attended an introduction to umpiring course.

“Three courses were delivered by LCB ACO tutors. For the remainder, clubs have recruited experienced and qualified umpires who don’t need further training.

“It has been a great effort from all clubs who have been asked to recruit a club umpire.”

As is the modern way, the debate raged on social media all summer, but Prestwich captain Andy Bradley, who is on the GMCL board, believes it will prove to be a storm in a teacup.

“All we have done is looked at the way other multi-tier leagues have managed umpire provisions and followed suit,” he said.

“It works well in other leagues and I am sure it will be a success in the GMCL.

“The perceived shortage of umpires is nowhere near as drastic as some people fear.

“We have enough umpires to cover every game, but that can change during the course of a season, when holidays kick in.

“This way, every semi-professional match will be covered by two panel umpires and club umpires will come into their own at a lower level when needed.”

ELPM captain Paul Hewart says his club, who are in Division Four West, struggled at first to recruit a club umpire but now have two, although they still need to complete the training course.

He added: “As far as I understand it, we have been allocated two panel umpires for our first and second teams for the first couple of months of the season, but we will have to see how it pans out.

“We are aiming for promotion, and it looks like there will only be one spot up for grabs from our division, so some games could get quite tense near the end of the campaign.

“It is human nature things get heated in those situations and you could see some of these club umpires in the firing line.

“Players get annoyed by decisions made by neutral umpires, so I can only imagine how things might pan out.

“The onus will be on the captains to keep their players in check, but I think the club umpires will need to have broad shoulders.

“My only fear is that they might have a bad experience and are put off umpiring for good, which would defeat the object.”

This year's GMCL will see Woodbank and Walshaw join Bury in the Premier League, with Greenmount and Unsworth dropping down to Division One.

Elsewhere, Brooksbottom, Edenfield and Elton will play in Division Two, Elton Vale and Radcliffe go head-to-head in Division Three and East Lancs Paper Mill and Tottington St Johns remain in Division Four West.

GMCL opening weekend fixtures

GMCL Premier League: Clifton v Bury, Flixton v Walshaw, Glossop v Prestwich, Woodbank v Roe Green.

GMCL Division One: Stand v Greenmount, Winton v Unsworth.

GMCL Division Two: Brooksbottom v Astley & Tyldesley, Edenfield v Whalley Range, Prestwich Second XI v Elton.

GMCL Division Three: Deane & Derby v Elton Vale, Radcliffe v Littleborough Lakeside.

GMCL Division Four West: East Lancs Paper Mill v Winton Second XI, Greenmount Second XI v Tottington St Johns.

Lancashire League