by Kenny Paterson
IF a psychologist wished to make use of the well known word association test with a client, they would expect to hear rain after Glasgow, Catholic following Pope and rugby with the Scottish Borders.
But the rural region has a longer relationship with cricket than the oval ball, despite its current lowly ranking in the thoughts of the sport’s hierarchy.
For instance, Kelso Cricket Club, arguably the Borders most successful club, was established in 1821, making it the oldest club in Scotland.
And current Border League champions Gala CC, founded by mill workers in 1853, have lasted longer than its more illustrious neighbours Gala RFC (1875) and Gala Fairydean FC (1907).
Yet it is a sport that has been in severe decline for at least the last decade. Teams such as St Michaels, Berwick and Penicuik have dropped out the league, with falling player numbers among the remaining sides and some clubs’ very existence being threatened.
The first and second team league have been without a sponsor for a number of years, thanks to its low profile, highlighted by the disappearance of match results in Monday’s national press.
Even the local press struggle, and were unable to print a final league table last year as all the season’s results were not known.
Efforts are being made to rectify the latter issue, but it is a long time since the Borders was held in high enough regard for Scotland’s cricket officials to award Selkirk’s Philiphaugh ground the national team’s fixture with Pakistan 40 years ago, when the tourists included a young Imran Khan in their side.
Overseas professionals are a thing of the past also, with the likes of New South Wales batsman Jason Arnberger and former Zimbabwe captain Stuart Carlisle featuring in the league as recently as the 1990s.
Andy Goram was another professional who performed in the Border League for Kelso, though his full time trade was between football sticks for Hibs and Rangers rather than in front of cricket stumps.
With no pro to spur on the rest of their side to greater things, standards have dropped, and the likelihood of a player like David, Robert or William Nichol from Gala CC or Andrew Ker of Kelso being capped for Scotland while playing in the league is almost zero.
St Boswells and Kelso have joined the Scottish National League in recent years, the winner of the Border League is entitled to a play-off against other regional league champions for the SNL spot, but both were relegated after just one season.
However there is still talent produced in the Borders, an area which has an extraordinary record of breeding sporting internationalists despite its paltry population of just over 100,000.
Indeed Scotland’s Intercontinental Cup final squad in December last year included two Borderers, the talented opening batsman Ryan Flannigan from Kelso, and Hawick all-rounder Stuart Chalmers.
The problem is emerging players seep out of the region like water through a sieve, with the standard of the league – along with further education and a lack of job opportunities – at fault.
There are plenty from the south currently featuring in the Scottish National League alongside Watsonians pair Flannigan and Chalmers. Scotland A spinner Ross Paxton is also at Myreside, while ex-St Boswells all rounder Greg Ruthven at Penicuik.
And there is hope that the talent pool can be revived and kept in the Borders. Two youth leagues are now in place, and the pick of the youngsters progress to the area’s age-group teams to take on the rest of Scotland.
Ths set-up has helped the likes of Gala’s Kris Mein gain national recognition at under-15 level, while his club-mate Josh Irvine has trials at the same age-group this month.
As for the other gender, a newly formed St Boswells women’s team took the Scottish indoor sixes title in their debut appearance in March, with Kathryn White (St Boswells), Rebecca Waldie (Kelso) and Caitlin Ormiston (Gala) set to appear for their country at various levels this season.
Another positive note is an increase in the number of teams in the Reserve League, with Berwick and Manderston joining for 2011.
But it will take time if the Borders is to see more and better players throughout its league. It is unlikely either Gala, Kelso or St Boswells will make an impression past the first round of the Scottish Cup where they face Edinburgh Accies, Glasgow Accies and Ferguslie respectively.
All three teams are likely to battle it out again for the league title, with Gala’s clash with Kelso on the opening day of the season (April 23) going a long way to deciding the trophy’s destination.