The cricket celebrities who are making a difference July 15, 2006

Humbled and harrowed

It's Sport Relief day today, where thousands of people will be running a mile for the charity which tackles poverty and disadvantage across the world. Great work is already being done, as discovered by a team of celebrity cricketers including Phil Tufnell, Jack Russell and Rosalie Birch, who went out to India to see how the money was helping

Cricket celebrities line up for a contest in Mumbai © Comic Relief

When the tsunami struck Sri Lanka and India 18 months ago, the cricket world was quick to respond with charity fundraisers which raised millions. The Sport Relief project, a charity that works in conjunction with the BBC, went a step further. As well as raising hundreds of thousands of pounds, the charity sent an English team of 13 celebrities to India for a manic eight-day tour.

The team, including Jack Russell, Phil Tufnell and Rosalie Birch, played three charity matches and had a first-hand emotional experience of poverty: at an orphanage in Cuddalore, with the so-called Railway Children of Villapurum and with some children in Chennai who search rubbish dumps looking for bottles and sacks they can sell for food.

But the team also saw how the projects were helping to assist in the rebuilding of lives. Even Russell, not a man moved easily to tears, found himself welling up when he headed to a school which has been built to help children orphaned by the tsunami.

"What hit me quite hard was thinking of my children in that position. I had visions of my youngest daughter, who is nine-and-a-half, terrified. Parents died in the water - it was something out of a horror film."

Russell and team took a train through Madras, where they saw children who lived on board. "It was quite dirty and uncomfortable. The young kids cleaned carriages with their shirts - that was sad to see."

But, thanks to the charity, 12 of the children were taken out and given an education, and Russell plans to return there. He may even get them painting. "Maybe they can get rid of any trauma. I don't know, I'm no psychologist."

Rosalie Birch meets some of the fishing community who are rebuilding their lives after the tsunami © Comic Relief

Tufnell found the rubbish dump "a very harrowing experience" and yet it was both zenith and nadir for him. "Watching these people live and survive in a place I can only describe as Hell - then to see them in the afternoon washed up and brushed up. The kids had to be taught how to wear shoes for two weeks before the game because they didn't know how to run in shoes. That was the high by a mile."

Another match was arranged against some fishermen who were affected by the tsunami. "They were just so happy to be involved," recalls Birch.

Like the other England players in the party who have been used to hotels, coaches and comparative luxury on previous tours of the subcontinent, this was a new experience. "I saw a different side of India, the poverty. But it was really nice to go into the villages and help."

In one of those villages she met a woman named Eluta, whose husband died in the tsunami, leaving her to bring up their three girls. "She's by herself now, it's just devastating." But Sport Relief has helped Eluta to have a new start, which helps her buy fish she then sells on at a small profit for her family. Every day Eluta makes a 10-kilometre journey for her work, but she still finds time to make lunch for other children beside her own. "Even though she is desperate need, it's inspiring how they all club together."

Birch recognises the important role that cricket can play - not just raising money, but in lifting spirits. After the match against the fishermen she says, "It shows sport can make everything go away for a bit of time."

To donate to Sport Relief click here

This article first appeared in the July edition of Cricinfo magazine

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo