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The England board's recently announced plans to revive old cricket grounds in urban areas was greeted with suspicion. Is the cynicism justified?
April 3, 2014
It is a cloudy Friday afternoon in Nottingham and out of curiosity I decide to drive to King Edward Park in Sneinton, an inner-city area a couple of miles from Trent Bridge, wondering what had become of something called the npower Urban Cricket arena.
It is a facility that was opened in May 2009, when Stuart Broad turned up to wield a plastic bat and pose enthusiastically with a bunch of smiling kids bedecked in sponsor's t-shirts, holding up red sponsor's cards with the number six on them.
Journalists were invited to note the sponsor's commitment to grass-roots cricket development while they awaited a chance to tease a few lines out of the England bowler with an upcoming Ashes series moving closer to the top of the news agenda.
Media calls of this type are routine, invariably taking place in a socially deprived neighbourhood into which players - along with an entourage of officials from the England and Wales Cricket Board, sponsors' representatives, and press officers - are parachuted for an hour or two to hit some balls, shake some hands and share some wisdom with the assembled cricket writers before disappearing again. Rarely does anyone return to see what happened next.
Journalists tend to regard such events with a slightly jaundiced perspective, suspecting that what they are witnessing is largely window dressing, as a sport's governing body tries to demonstrate that the substantial sums of money being handed over by their sponsors have a purpose beyond merely providing bigger pay packets for their players.
Little wonder therefore that a certain amount of suspicion greeted the announcement last month from Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, that as a result of "the new financial arrangements at the ICC", under which England wrested a larger share of international revenue, there would be new money available to revive old cricket grounds, or perhaps even provide new ones, in urban areas.
Is such cynicism really justified? It is a question I ponder as I find the entrance to King Edward Park and pull up nearby, expecting the npower Urban Cricket arena by now to be a graffiti-daubed, vandalised, and generally neglected shadow of its shiny former self.
More of what I found later. But a few days on, I put the question to Wasim Khan, once an inner-city no-hoper himself - in the view of his peers and elders, at any rate - and now the chief executive of the Cricket Foundation charity and the driving force behind the Chance to Shine and StreetChance schemes that have done much to reverse the decline in cricket in state schools and to foster enthusiasm for the game in the most disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods.
|Sometimes the problem is the ECB's own rules - rules devised for good reasons, to set acceptable minimum standards, but which can further reduce the options available|
"At one time, perhaps," he says. "I think cricket suffered in the past from what you could call 'initiative-itis', where things have come and gone quickly and therefore lost a lot of credibility.
"They would ask, 'Is this just here for show? Will it be here today, gone tomorrow?' It seemed the most important thing was to be seen to be doing things, and communities would get a bit fed up with being used for commercial purposes.
"But there has been a change of mindset, a genuine feeling that cricket wants to do something more meaningful with urban communities. The ECB has recognised that not enough was done in the past and has become much more proactive, and Giles Clarke's announcement that a lot more is going to be done around inner cities can only be a great thing.
"But as ever the local authorities face the same challenge: is there enough green space to provide people with hard ball opportunities?"
It is the dilemma facing every development officer in every county with a substantial urban population. Take Newham, for example, one of the London boroughs for which Essex is the parent county. Formed from the old boroughs of West and East Ham, Newham had a population of 310,500 at the last census, squeezed into an area of 14 square miles. Enormously diverse, it is also among the most deprived urban areas in Britain, although land prices hardly reflect that.
A search for any plot for sale in the borough found only one, roughly one eighth of an acre in size, for £950,000. A cricket field requires around 3.5 acres. That is not far short of £3.5m before you even start transforming the area.
The area is not without green space. Newham Council's website boasts that Newham has 22 parks. Yet not one of them contains a cricket pitch.
"There are only two cricket squares in the whole of Newham," Graham Jelley of the Essex Cricket Board explains. "There is one in a public park, West Ham Park, although that is owned by the Corporation of London and nothing to do with Newham Council. The other one is in a ground leased from the local authority by the Bonny Down Community Association." Newham Cricket Club, the only club in the borough, plays there.
"If you go back 20 or 30 years most of the parks had one or two cricket squares," Jelley says. "If you go on Google Earth you can see where some of them were. In South Beckton Park, for instance, there clearly used to be two. But gradually over time those have basically disappeared."
It is a story with echoes around the country. In Sheffield, which is Yorkshire cricket development manager Gareth Davies' patch, the struggling east side of the city, once the thriving hub of the steel industry, recently lost nine cricket pitches within a one-mile radius, while the works grounds that were once the pride of Firth Vickers and Forgemasters and the other steel giants have long gone.
And in Nottingham, while there is a vibrant amateur cricket culture with 24 clubs in the city, only a third of them have their own ground.
"There has been a continual loss of grounds," Tracey Francis, Nottinghamshire's head of community sport, laments. "Nottingham has a huge industrial heritage. All the big employers - Players, Plessey, Pretty Polly - had their own sports ground, but they've largely gone. Nottinghamshire bought the old Boots ground at Lady Bay, but most of the others were sold off for housing or development.
"We have been developing secondary school sites and looking at where we have the potential to bring fallow cricket wickets back into play, and where we can marry up schools with clubs."
In Sheffield, Davies has a headache anytime the issue of somewhere to play is raised. He does not disguise his pessimism. "If a new club came to me now, I don't think there is a facility for them in the whole of Sheffield," he says, before listing the kind of obstacles he has to overcome in trying to meet the demand for outdoor cricket.
"You can put them in somewhere like Graves Park, but what is there is basically a field, with no changing room and an uncovered, unmaintained pitch. The council has no money to employ skilled groundsmen, so maintenance consists more or less of cutting the grass and painting the lines and that's it.
"The testing they do is minimal, not to the standards recognised by the ECB. They don't do anything about the bounce, the carry, the pace of the ball - it is virtually just what the ground looks like, what the access to the pitch is like, not actually what the performance of the square is like."
Buying redundant land for cricket might not be quite so prohibitive in cost terms in Sheffield than in London, with prices roughly a quarter of those in the capital, but as with any urban, post-industrial area, there would be issues such as potential land contamination to be addressed, at extra cost, before a site could be redeveloped for sporting use.
"We have a distinct lack of facilities, and where there are some the pitches are so poor people don't want to play on them," Davies said. "I have a team from Tinsley, in the east part of Sheffield, that travels 45 minutes to Hatfield, on the far side of Doncaster, for a home game. And even then the pitch they are playing on is substandard."
The modern stumbling block of health and safety is another issue. Davies says: "One thing that councils do possess that clubs cry out for is access to machinery -- loamers, cutters, mowers, scarifiers, aerators -- but because of the red tape around training and safety, they are scared that if someone gets injured then the council gets sued.
"I've asked the leagues if they always have to play on grass wickets. Could we not put a non-turf pitch down in the middle of a park space? The bounce will be consistent, it will be safer. But the leagues don't want to entertain it.
"I can understand it might result in teams winning leagues because they have a better pitch, and when it rains you are more likely to play if you have an artificial pitch. But really, if you are talking about Division Seven of the South Yorkshire League, is it not more about a group of people playing a game of cricket and enjoying it?
"You want to provide them with something that will make them want to come back next week, not being bowled out for 37 and the other team knocking them off seven down. That's not a game of cricket."
Sometimes the problem is the ECB's own rules - devised for good reasons, to set acceptable minimum standards - which can further reduce the options available.
"When Sheffield Works got kicked off their ground two or three years ago, a group of us including myself and Dan Musson, the regional funding manager from the ECB, together walked round all the green spaces in Sheffield and we could not find one that was adequate," Davies says.
|You can set up as many street initiatives as you like to entice inner-city children to play, but what if the only grass cricket squares are miles away, in more well-to-do areas?|
"There is a minimum boundary distance required and that seriously stuffs a lot of clubs because a lot of the grounds we play on are not big enough. A lot of the green spaces we looked at fell short of being able to receive funding by about five yards."
In other cities, though, the picture is more encouraging. In Birmingham, the ECB's Grounds to Play strategy, the development plan put in place in 2010, has delivered tangible benefits, as Ed McCabe, one of Warwickshire's cricket development managers, explains.
"There is still considerable room for improvement in the facilities available but to be fair to ECB they have put their money where their mouth is," he says. "John Huband, who is their facilities manager for the Midlands, has really shown some faith in Birmingham, building relationships with the council and local politicians.
"And we are starting to see a difference. At Perry Hall Park, which has 13 pitches used by teams in the Birmingham Parks League, they are putting in three shelters and toilet areas, and subterranean water tanks, so that if we have a dry summer the pitches can be watered more. They are also putting in two new pitches.
"They have also put about £120,000 into a facility at Holford Drive in Aston, that lay fallow for six years, and have put money too into Mitchells and Butlers Cricket Ground, of which Warwickshire are taking over the lease this summer.
"Finally there is a ground at Belchers Lane in Bordesley Green, which is a disused former school playing field that lay fallow for 20 years, which the ECB have put money into, bringing it back into use if not this season then in 2015."
Bordesley Green neighbours Small Heath, the area of Birmingham in which Wasim Khan grew up, living in a two-bedroomed house with "five or six uncles" as well as his own family. He played schools cricket at Belchers Lane, having first put bat to ball in the street, and his talent earned him a trial with Warwickshire, although with little encouragement from his own community.
"They kept telling me I was wasting my time, they said I'd got no chance," he says. "'It doesn't happen to people like us' was a classic quote I heard from a lot of people."
Of course, it did happen to him. He was the first British-born Pakistani to play professional cricket, an achievement of which he is rightfully proud, as he is of the 18 professional cricketers to have emerged in the last 15 years from within a three-mile radius of where he grew up. It is fortunate for the current generation that he has spent his post-playing career working to create opportunities for those whose potential faces even more barriers than his did.
Chance to Shine has taken the game to two million young people since it was launched in 2005 on a mission to rekindle cricket in schools, largely by strengthening school links with clubs, but if nearby clubs do not exist, the challenge becomes more complex.
There are now 50 StreetChance schemes across seven UK cities, with more than 70 teams playing the tape-ball version of cricket, imported from Pakistan, in which a tennis ball wrapped in electrical insulating tape takes the place of a conventional hard ball.
It can take place in leisure centres, youth clubs or in open spaces in housing estates. City police forces across England support the scheme, which seeks to engage young people in areas often affected by youth crime and anti-social behaviour. Giving inner-city youngsters the chance to continue playing cricket beyond 16 - the age at which the game suffers its largest drop-out numbers - is seen by Khan as critical.
"Derelict grounds could be restored relatively easily which is why it is exciting to hear this news of significant money coming into cricket over the next ten years with inner-city cricket," he said. "The county boards have already identified facilities that could be reused with the right investment."
His enthusiasm, however, comes with a concern that money is spent only after careful research, and not based on assumed needs.
"There is a school of thought that everybody from an Asian background wants to play club cricket in any conditions, where the reality is that all the majority want is to play on good wickets where the ball pitches in a certain place and is not going to knock your head off, to play with their friends on good-quality wickets without fear of getting hurt.
"For example, if you look at the inner-city parks leagues, in Birmingham but also in London and Yorkshire and elsewhere, the facilities are there. What I'd like to see is an enhancement of those facilities to provide quality cricketing opportunities for people, but also to spend money on sustainability, creating and developing groundsmen from the communities, for example, which would provide employment too. It has to be a holistic strategy."
But what of the npower Urban cricket arena in King Edward Park in Nottingham? Is the pessimism about being little more than a photo opportunity justified? Five years on, when I take a look, there is no sign of activity, but it is far from vandalised, and if cricket might not always be prominent, it is still serving a vital purpose within the community.
"It is a great asset," Tracey Francis says. "In an area of high deprivation, there are nine primary schools, some of which do not have playgrounds big enough or any grass spaces, and a number of those schools walk their children to the urban cricket centre for PE."
Sheffield has an npower Urban Cricket arena, too, in Abbeyfield Park in Burngreave. Ryan Sidebottom was sent along to launch that one.
"It is still well used, even though the local community has changed from being a quite high Pakistani concentration to Eastern European," Gareth Davies says.
"The problem is that the areas we put these facilities down in tend to be highly deprived and there are no clubs nearby and that is a barrier, to get the children from there to a club, which is why you need good parks pitches nearby.
"Whatever direction this initiative goes in, for me, working with the local authority pitches to enhance and develop the green spaces that they have access to: that will be key."
Wherever you look, the ECB faces a huge challenge, with barriers to be overcome and questions to be answered. You can follow Nottinghamshire's example and link schools with clubs, but what do you do if there are no clubs? You can offer your expertise to the local council, as Yorkshire would willingly do in Sheffield, but what if health and safety issues make this impossible? And you can set up as many street initiatives as you like to entice inner-city children to play, but what if the only grass cricket squares are miles away, in more well-to-do areas?
One thing is certain: with England's limitations so painfully exposed in Australia, the Caribbean and in Bangladesh over the last few months, the need to build for a better future has rarely been so acute.
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