October 18, 2012

Will cricket live in Brixton?

Richard Browne
The heartland of London's Jamaican community isn't as big on the game as it once used to be

Brixton, just down the road from The Oval in south London, has long been a home from home for Jamaican expats in the UK. The West Indies' victory in the World Twenty20 recently did not quite invoke street parties or memories of Caribbean exuberance of the '70s and '80s, but there was a certain amount of celebration all the same. "We [Jamaicans] love our cricket and we always will," Blacker Dread of Blacker Dread Records, a local reggae music store, said. "We had ten people in my living room watching and we had a party. Cricket, music and dominoes. Just like the old days."

Things are not quite like the old days, though. Tony Moody came to England from Jamaica in 1967, when there were ten cricket clubs in the borough of Lambeth, which Brixton belongs to. Now Tony and his son Jordan run the Lambeth Cricket Academy on a shoestring budget and without a pitch to call their own. Other than The Oval there is no specialist cricket pitch in Lambeth, and not a single cricket club left. West Indian faces in the crowds at international matches at The Oval have also all but disappeared, and Tony Moody is in no doubt as to why.

"First they banned block booking, then drumming, and then there was the big crackdown on short-pitched bowling. The rhythm of the drums and the courage that short-pitched bowling requires is a huge part of cricket for people from the Caribbean. For us, watching cricket at The Oval lost its humour and fun."

Of the people I spoke to in Brixton's pubs, markets and barbershops in the days following the T20 win, there was a clear split in enthusiasm for cricket between the over-35s and the rest. The older people were almost unanimously elated and proud of West Indies' success, the younger ones indifferent at best. Most of the fans watched with friends at home or listened on the radio. Two pubs on Brixton high street showed the cricket rather than the Premiership football, as they otherwise would have.

Chris Gayle's return was applauded, as was Marlon Samuels' new-found dominance. Darren Sammy was compared to Clive Lloyd ("A real man, with manners and all, he's got everyone together and when the West Indies are together, no one can live with us.")

One gent made the point that if Dwayne Bravo was fit to bowl and Dwayne Smith replaced Johnson Charles, the team would be the only international outfit in the world with ten bowling options. "We won without our death bowler [Dwayne Bravo] being fit," he said. Elsewhere, the elder Bravo was described by one lady as being "like a silly little boy, who has eaten all the sweeties" in his post-match interviews.

A long-retired former fast bowler bemoaned the lack of aggression in Kieron Pollard's bowling ("If God give you a physique like that, he is telling you to bowl fast"), while a table of drinkers in the Beehive pub, worried that "kids today are too lazy to bowl fast" and questioned why the tall men in the team generally bat and the shorter ones bowl fast.

A general gripe in a part of London that is not flush with cash is the lack of cricket on English terrestrial TV. Since Sky got the rights to all England cricket in 2006, the resultant money has produced many tangible successes, but for those who can't afford the subscription fee, the annoyance of not being able to watch any cricket reigns. "How can we get our kids into the game if there's nowhere to play it and no chance of watching it? Cheapest seat at Oval Test is £55, and to take my two boys, too much," moaned one frustrated punter.

Be that as it may, Surrey, and the Moodys for their part, are trying to use cricket in the community to create strong characters and to get kids off the street, in a borough that has its fair share of gang and drug problems.

I met the Moodys when they were conducting a coaching clinic at Sudbourne Primary School in Brixton, under the apologetic autumnal London sun. Thirty or so children were taking part, virtually all of whom would have no chance to play cricket if it were not for the intrepid duo, as there is no fixed place for the sport in the state sector curriculum.

"For a lot of youths around here, life is a cul de sac, and for those interested in cricket, it's the same," Moody senior said. "We have no pitch, but oodles of talent." He points out that Lambeth Academy have defeated the Surrey U-19s.

"I want cricket and my coaching to reflect life. Cricket can teach so much. Life is also tough and when I'm coaching cricket to kids, I pick [only] the best players for the team. Often teachers and parents are enraged that their child has not got a chance to play, but that's not life for me," he said.

Kennington United used to be the local team, and according to George Foster, now head of marketing at Surrey, and previously community manager at the county for six years, the team had issues that reflect the general problems of cricket in Lambeth. "English clubs are driven by membership subscriptions and by using their ground for fundraisers and the like. Kennington United shared a municipal park and a lot of the players were from low-income homes."

However, Surrey are totally committed to cricket in the community, he said. "We continue to run ten-week courses at The Oval and do everything we can, both financially and practically."

Foster admitted that marketing campaigns and cheap tickets for T20 cricket have not changed the mostly white middle-class demographic of the Oval spectatorship, which shows how much work there is still to do.

As race issues festered in Brixton, leading to the infamous riots of 1981, the success of the West Indian team was, according to one retired pub dweller, "the only thing that gave us our pride"

The Chance to Shine charity has done much for grassroots cricket in England in recent years, but as Foster said, "Shine's big push is to get players from the clubs to come to the state schools and coach. It has worked, but as we have no clubs, no good for us."

While the dream of a cricket pitch in Lambeth essentially rests on a political decision, both Foster and Moody are enthused by the prospect of a big cricket and music extravaganza next year.

In the 1980s, when West Indies were dominant, Jamaican sport appeared to feed off it. Their track-and-field stars came to the fore, global success was found in the boxing ring, and their netball players lived up to their potential. The tables have now turned. Moody is hoping cricket can feed off the track-and-field glories.

"Jamaican track stars are role models, and both [Usain] Bolt and [Yohan] Blake love their cricket. I want to get them and Samuels and Gayle together in Brixton Park. Damian Marley has expressed an interest to sing. Michael Holding, a great man, is the academy's patron, and I know he will do what he can to make this happen."

The most obvious example of the decline in the interest in cricket among England's Caribbean community can be seen in the lack of English players of West Indian origin in the national team. In the '80s and '90s, the likes of Gladstone Small, Chris Lewis and Devon Malcolm, to name a few, were mainstays of English cricket.

Moody, a charming and charismatic man, is clear why this is so. "Our folk still do not feel like they belong, and when they get the chance to show their stuff, they are under so much pressure because they have to work harder to get there. A lot of those guys learnt their stuff back in the Caribbean.

"Secondly there are too many kids in the community without father figures, and hence they lack the guidance and support they need to push on in their careers."

The famous 1950 win at Lord's immortalised in a Lord Kitchener calypso was perhaps the first expression of West Indian culture and exuberance that the British public at large saw. The Notting Hill Carnival, now Europe's largest street party, had its origins partly on the back of this cricketing success.

In later years as race issues festered in Brixton, leading to the infamous riots of 1981, the success of the West Indian team was, according to one retired pub dweller, "the only thing that gave us our pride. We were treated second class but at cricket we were first class." It would be a real shame if the pride, history and talent were to disappear from the Brixton community altogether.