Inner cities pledge could hit £50m
The England and Wales Cricket Board is planning to spend up to £50 million in a massive programme of investment aimed at providing full-size outdoor cricket fields in Britain's deprived inner-cities.
The commitment to reviving cricket in the inner cities was announced six weeks ago but only now has the immense scale of the ECB's ambition become clear.
Existing facilities will be improved, derelict grounds revived and even new ones created where none exist at all, using money available from the increased revenue share that England will draw from the world game following the shake-up at the International Cricket Council.
Speaking exclusively to ESPNcricinfo, ECB chairman Giles Clarke said that the investment would dwarf the sums spent previously, even though the Board is already funding millions of pounds worth of development projects.
If successfully implemented, it will create opportunities to play in parts of the country where none currently exist, a boon for recreational players but also broaden the pool of potential talent at a time when, in the wake of a disastrous winter for the senior England team - the men, at any rate - it has never felt more needed.
"It is a fantastic opportunity to do something that I believe is vital to the future of the game," Clarke said. "Cricket will not flourish, it will not survive unless we ensure there are new generations playing.
"In the inner-cities there is a significant challenge, obviously, because so many playing fields have been sold off and built on.
"But if you look around it is surprising how many opportunities still exist, even in London, many of them sites owned by local authorities. We want to work with those local authorities to find places where we can get rid of the concrete and put playing fields back in again."
Sport England figures about active participation in sport show the extent of cricket's challenge. Closing grounds and changing social habits have caused a marked fall in regular participation in team sports. The research measured active participation any time in the previous 30 days in October 2013 compared to a period seven years earlier (therefore covering the end of the English club season) and suggesting, startlingly, that cricket's numbers had declined from 195,000 to 148,000.
Football and both codes of rugby showed similar falls, fuelling the belief held by some after the London Olympics that a greater share of government funds should be committed to individual sports.
Clarke said that many projects are already under way across the country to improve existing facilities and bring derelict ones back into use but that the new investment would enable substantially more to go ahead.
"At the moment there is approximately £3.7 million being invested in 46 different projects in inner city areas," he said. "In the last four years we have managed to pump-prime £66 million investment in total, working with local authorities, the government and government bodies, of which about £9 million is cricket's money.
"We are now looking at substantially more. We expect that we ourselves will be investing between £25 million and £50 million over the next eight years in these types of projects.
"It is impossible to give a more precise figure. That depends on how many projects actually take place. But people are already starting to come forward with ideas and we are keen for county cricket clubs to put forward proposals. But we also need to look at cities that may not be the headquarters of a county cricket club and may not even be in first-class counties."
There are already many examples, Clarke said, to show what can be achieved.
"At Alexandra Park, two miles to the south of Manchester city centre, there is a Manchester City Council project for a community sports hub that will open in 2015. ECB have put £206,000 into building a pavilion and a cricket ground there," he said.
"In London, on Hackney Marshes, we have put £800,000 into building three turf squares and seven non-turf pitches as part of a Middlesex Cricket Board project.
"In Leicester, where we worked with the council and with Crown Hills Community College, a new school, we have invested £920,000 into a new sports hall and Crown Hills will have cricket as its specialist sport.
"At Perry Hall Park in Birmingham, which has 70 cricket teams playing there, there are 13 cricket squares and two turf squares not in use - but no mains water, no sanitary provision, no changing facilities or shelter for anybody. We are investing £200,000 towards a total cost of £300,000 to put in changing facilities, lavatories, shelter and access to rain water, as well as improving the quality of the pitches."
Clarke said that working closely with local councils was essential to the long term-plans bearing fruit, regardless of the scale of investment, however large.
"Local councils want to provide parks and places for people to play sport, there is no question about that," he said. "So it is as much about improving and enhancing some of the parks and facilities, like Hackney and Perry Hall in Birmingham, that are already there but need to be more user-friendly, with water and lavatories and secure places to store equipment.
"But we have also been asking councils, who are frequently the owners of property or land in inner cities, if we can go into those places, demolish buildings that are not fit for purpose or, where there is nothing going on, put these areas back to grass. In areas where there are no cricket clubs, we want to create them."
Clarke cited the importance of the Chance to Shine and StreetChance projects, run by the Cricket Foundation charity and part funded by the ECB, in rekindling interest in cricket at schools and in inner-city communities. He wants the Board to provide the opportunity for a new generation of cricket enthusiasts to keep playing into adulthood.
"Chance to Shine has been enormous for cricket, the biggest project of its kind in the world. We've seen two million schoolchildren involved and we need to build on it," he said.
"But the success of Chance to Shine has generally not been in inner-city areas. It has been driven by the growth of ECB Focus Clubs, which have club facilities and green playing fields. That is not a criticism of Chance to Shine and is not denigrating in any way at all the fantastic work that has been done to enable children to play with soft balls and soft bats in school playgrounds, but we need to have them with the ability to play on grass, eventually.
"We have a situation in inner-cities where many parents cannot provide transport for their kids and even if they had the money for public transport it would take them an hour to get to play on a grass pitch because there is just nothing locally.
"We also have a generation of girls who have had the opportunity to play cricket. That's not to say they will continue playing it and the challenge for all sports is to get people to carry on when they complete their education. But with good facilities clearly there is a better chance.
"There are opportunities now for boys and girls to play professional cricket: we want to create routes for them to go down.
"The visible part of the ECB is the England team. They are up and down with the fortunes of whoever is playing, as with every sport. But the base for a successful sport in the long-term is about creating facilities for people to play and without that we don't have a successful sport.
"So the opportunity this new money offers is colossal. If you look at the scale of our inner-city population, we are going to give ourselves more people that are interested in the game, more who want to participate and be spectators and, most critically, want to be players."