The Wisden City Cup

A fast track to the top

Scyld Berry

Launching the inaugural Wisden City Cup last summer was an attempt - one of many, of course - to revive cricket in Britain's inner cities. Where it differed from other projects, schemes and initiatives was that it offered a fast-track opportunity to the top.

It seemed consistent with the values of John Wisden. Back in mid-Victorian times he promoted matches and tours in addition to playing, making and selling sports equipment, and publishing an almanack.

The template was simple. Divide a city into four geographical areas; let the four teams play each other twice each in 20-over games on midweek evenings; hire good, accessible, club grounds (in inner cities they are in such short supply that many youngsters who cannot afford to belong to a club are condemned to mediocre pitches and facilities, if any); and let players between the ages of 16 and 25 (with two exceptions) play - with a pink ball, which stands out as the evening darkens, with or without sightscreens. Then have a meal together afterwards, so that each game is a social occasion as well as a sporting one.

Our inaugural year saw Middlesex pilot the scheme, brilliantly, under their chief development officer Phil Knappett. When Angus Fraser had first played for Middlesex in the 1980s, there were five players of Afro-Caribbean origin at the club. When he took over as the county's director of cricket in January 2009, they had none, and only one Asian, Owais Shah, even though half of some of the county's age-group teams are Asian. Middlesex's professional cricketers were predominantly white middle-class, reflecting the decline of cricket in our inner cities; and Fraser was ready to do something about it.

London, north of the Thames, was divided into West, North-West, North- East and East. A county match at Hornsey in 1959 was about as close as Middlesex had come to Tower Hamlets and Brick Lane, where there are thousands upon thousands of people from Bangladesh who are hungry for the sport. Yet there is not one grass pitch in East London for them to play on.

Trials were held, open to anyone, though there was little point in those already playing for a premier league club turning up. At one of those trials, held in Hackney's Victoria Park, a 22-year-old ran in. A fortnight later Maaz Haffeji was bowling against the Australians in the nets at Lord's, and he is now one of two WCC players training with Middlesex. Only then did I fully realise how damaging it is to have no live cricket on free-to-air television: he had never been able to see how fast bowlers use the crease.

The generous competition sponsors were the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, who enabled us to hire the grounds at Hornsey, Southgate, Brondesbury and Eastcote, and to provide food and colourful kit. Each team had its sponsor: Barclays, The Times, Freshfields and W. H. Ireland. The London Mayor's Fund put up match awards worth £100 for each qualifying game, and £250 for the final. Brit Insurance provided £1,000 in batting and bowling prizes.Wisden put up £1,000 in fielding prizes (the best fielder in each match was awarded three points, the second-best two, the third one). Even the last qualifying game, the only dead match, had intensity because of the prizes and opportunities on offer.

London West - Barclays Eagles - set the pace by winning the first four of their six qualifying games. They selected their coach, the recent Middlesex allrounder Chris Peploe, although a coach could bat no higher than No. 7, and Shaftab Khalid, still the only doosra bowler produced by county cricket, who toured India with England A in 2004. But while these two former first-class players were the stars, they did not dominate, such was the overall standard. North-West - WHI Nomads - lost their first four games, then won their last two. To decide the other finalists, the second game between the North-East (Freshfields Flyers) and East (The Times Tigers) was the crunch, and East squeezed through after winning both head-to-heads. Mostly but not exclusively of Bangladeshi origin, half of the East team had not played regularly on grass before; they were learning fast.

In the final at Hornsey, The Times Tigers made 129 for seven. After a powerful start, Barclays Eagles collapsed on a wearing late-August pitch against the Tigers' spinners. The scenes, on a reduced scale, were reminiscent of England winning at The Oval a few days before. Is any community in Britain keener on cricket now than the Bangladeshis of London's East End? Well, perhaps Afghan refugees who have come to this country; and this summer, Middlesex are organising a junior WCCcompetition as well, to which any 14- to 16-year-olds will have access, except for those who already have an opportunity to perform.

Finally, the representative match, a real showcase: a WCC XI, drawn from the four teams, played a Middlesex XI at Southgate, again a Twenty20 game. Amateurs v Professionals. Half the Middlesex team were Academy players, but half had played for the first team - and the WCC XI won, with several wickets and balls to spare. Which only goes to show what talent there is in Britain outside the traditional club and county structures; and what fun can be had, and what multiracial harmony achieved, in promoting it.

Wisden City Cup Played Won Lost Points
West . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 4 2 8
East . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 3 3 6
North-East. . . . . . . . . . . . 6 3 3 6
North-West . . . . . . . . . . . 6 2 4 4
Leading run-scorer Mylo Wilkin, 225 runs at 45.00.
Leading wicket-taker M. R. Qureshi, 11 wickets at 8.36.
Leading fielder Farokh Chodhry (11 points).

The Wisden City Cup seeks a variety of sponsors to help achieve its aim of expanding beyond London to other British cities. For all details, visit www.wisdencitycup.com.

© John Wisden & Co.