Cricket goes street in England's inner cities

Cramped spaces, taped balls and policemen - a youth programme is using all three to make a difference to the lives of urban teens in England's inner cities

Sharda Ugra
Sharda Ugra
The sort of cricket you'd more often associate with the subcontinent  •  StreetChance/Bowles Associates

The sort of cricket you'd more often associate with the subcontinent  •  StreetChance/Bowles Associates

On a day in August, as the smoke from the urban riots that shook England in the summer began to thin, Farokh Engineer spoke to a group of children sprawled on a synthetic football pitch at the Ferndale Community Sports Centre in Brixton. The district used to be the old heartland of the Afro-Caribbean community in south London, The Oval only a few kilometres away.
Engineer asked, "Do you know Clive Lloyd?" There were a few murmurs in response. The kids had just been introduced to Street20: cricket in an unfamiliar form, full of noise, energy, fun and scampering between plastic stumps. Now this? Engineer told the kids a few tales about Super Cat, and a few then launched into an animated discussion about the rare species of cricket that was available free on English terrestrial TV - the IPL. On one side of the group was a long block of housing council architecture, and around the other snaked a string of terraced homes and automobile service shops.
English cricket traditionally, and in image, does not belong to this environment. Its more familiar surroundings are manicured outfields, pretty club houses with old photographs, history seeping out of their walls: the pictures of summer. Yet all year around, including in football-suffused winter, cricket is played in some parts of England. A sort of cricket that appears almost instantly South Asian; an improvised version, played in small spaces, with energy and vigour.
Street20 is six-a-side, five overs an innings, four balls an over, and can be found in inner-city neighbourhoods in five English cities. It is played in school halls, leisure centres, basketball courts and on indoor athletics tracks. Matches finish in 15 to 20 minutes. Sometimes they even tape the tennis ball over, like in Pakistan, and discover what magic it can do.
They once played Street20 in Waterloo Station's Eurostar Terminal, to get attention for StreetChance - the community-centric youth cricket programme that has opened the sport up to a layer of city life far removed from the pastoral idylls the English game has been associated with. In the long run, who knows, StreetChance may change English cricket's view of the inner city.
Street cred
Street cricket is familiar in South Asia, where kids grow up learning the game in tight, narrow spaces; not so in England.
"When kids come to play cricket, they bring with them issues. You can start talking about the weather and soon they begin to tell you more. Cricket can fill in some of the gaps"
Policeman John Markham about interacting with kids during StreetChance events
Richard Joyce, StreetChance's national operations manager, described what cricket looked like in England outside the tight circle of its faithful. "It is thought of as boring, about wearing white clothes and standing around all day doing nothing, and then crossing over now and then. We are trying to change perceptions a little."
The sport of the streets in England is football, but it requires kids to be both reasonably adept and fit to belong even at a casual level. In neighbourhoods without resources or access to formal clubs, those that are left out can find themselves isolated. StreetChance aims to reach into those neighbourhoods and fill the empty spaces in young teenagers' lives. Its cricket is not that of perfection, technique, orthodoxy; it is cricket for access, enjoyment, and the ripple effect that an inclusive sport can have on a community. "Cricket is an important tool, but for us it's a tool," Joyce says. "It's not the endgame."
StreetChance is the result of a five-way partnership between the charities Cricket Foundation and Cricket for Change, the British Home Office's Positive Futures national crime prevention programme, the Metropolitan Police Service, and principal sponsor Barclays Spaces for Sport. StreetChance began three years ago, taking community cricket projects into 10 of London's less affluent boroughs. It has now grown to involve four other cities - Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, and Dewsbury (south-west of Leeds). By 2012 it will extend to include Hull and Liverpool. It turns up in the rougher neighbourhoods, where conventional cricket clubs are distant or appear inaccessible, where there is time to kill and no leisure to kill it with. It is played in enclosed areas, aiming to break boundaries of class, race and also, authority.
Every StreetChance project, says Joyce, runs all year round, once a week, for three hours after school hours. It is open to children 8 to 18, and the core group is between 12 and 15.
A member of the local Metropolitan Police is present at every StreetChance event, almost always in uniform. It is the policeman's chance to communicate with an age group that tends to steer clear of the police, and the teenagers' opportunity to get used to the idea of the men in uniform being approachable. John Markham, a project manager of the Metropolitan Police's youth engagement programme, who has been a policeman for nearly three decades, says, "When kids come to play cricket, they bring with them issues. You can start talking about the weather and soon they begin to tell you more. Cricket can transgress differences, fill in some of the gaps."
At the Brixton event, several members of the England women's team turned up, including the captain, Charlotte Edwards, Caroline Atkins and Beth Morgan. Edwards said she had been apprehensive about coming to Brixton but had enjoyed the energy with which the teenagers took to the sport in its most basic, fun form. When a rifled throw from her toppled the plastic stumps, her team ran shrieking towards her for high-fives. In the course of a single afternoon, StreetChance had shrunk some entrenched distances that may exist in English cricket.
Postcode revelry
A few days after Brixton, StreetChance turned up in another form: in a council estate in Islington, Arsenal country in North London. Crouch Hall Estate staged a four-estates Street20 event in an attempt to dilute the completely peculiar "postcode rivalry" that exists in London's more dispossessed areas.
Policeman Tosun Gulakdeniz, who was at the event, says, "It is purely territorial gang mentality between young guys - where you see someone from another neighbourhood, another postcode, you want to chase them out." At the very least, postcode gangs turn into street bullies of young people. At worst, the rivalry leads to knife crime, and communities and neighbourhoods close in. "Parents don't want their teenagers travelling in the school breaks, don't want them out of the house," Gulakdeniz said. To get four council estate teams from varying and "rival" postcodes to play cricket together in Crouch Hall was significant.
The playing area - a basketball court-sized, caged area - had no banners. There was a DJ, loud music playing out of speakers, cricket on in the enclosed space, with high-pitched voices and shouting, activity and movement around it, and food for all competitors. The lack of banners or logos was deliberate, says Tim Mathias, StreetChance project officer for London. It was intended to prove that what was happening was not a commercial venture. The sound system was powered by electricity through a length of cables plugged into the nearest ground-floor apartment, whose owners were warmly thanked for their help at the end of the evening.
Perry Sophocleous, a StreetChance community coach, is one of the project's mascots. He came to it by accident when he was looking for a chance to develop work experience, after having held a series of directionless jobs largely for "short-term financial gain". The StreetChance coaching apprenticeship drew on his natural skill for communicating with young people and gave him a purpose. He now works the estates projects and says a competition of the kind found in Crouch Hall can change a "mentality". "Priory Court estate kids going out for a game of cricket at Crouch Hall and playing cricket together sends out a very different message," he said.
Priory Court is where StreetChance went first. Not the sort of place that generates the best of news, it has a gang problem. Sophocleous tells of a teenager from there, a heavy smoker, who came to StreetChance on a lark. When the session finished the boy was astonished that he had not smoked for two hours. He kept returning to StreetChance, cut down to one cigarette a day. "If it's not smoking, it would have been drugs, or worse," Sophocleous said.
These are small stories, but significantly each project has them. Each project makes a difference to someone involved in it. There are 20 mixed community projects, seven (council) estate projects and four specialist projects for girls. The multi-estate competitions have encouraged teenagers to travel beyond their estates, increased their self-confidence and encouraged them to mix with young people from other areas.
At the Brixton event, several members of the England women's team turned up, including the captain, Charlotte Edwards, who said she had been apprehensive about coming to Brixton. When a rifled throw from her toppled the plastic stumps, her team ran shrieking towards her for high-fives
Among the kids gambolling around at Crouch Hall is a group of three siblings from Priory Court. The youngest, eight-year-old Oliver Vaughan, says he likes StreetChance "because you don't just stand around, you can get to run about. If you get out, then soon enough you get another chance."
Joyce says cricket went into the estates because it was "less combustible" than football. When a StreetChance event begins in an estate, the coaches say, within minutes it gets everyone's attention. To parents it seems like fun for the kids. Better than them hanging around street corners. In Tottenham, StreetChance works alongside the Kickz programme with Tottenham FC Foundation, which involves three nights of football and one night with another activity, which in this instance happens to be cricket.
Going the distance
During the urban violence witnessed in some parts of England in the summer, the reactions from the StreetChance community were, Joyce says, "a bit of a mix". Some of the children in the boroughs that witnessed vandalism and arson had even being invited to take part in the looting. "Some said to us that in the past maybe they would have," Joyce said. Their rootedness now was elsewhere. Among the kids who turned up to play, the StreetChance coaches found "anger and disappointment". "The kids felt [they were] just being tarred with the same brush." A six-week focus project was drawn up, which would involve two hours of coaching and an hour of "outreach" time to talk to the StreetChance players about their reactions to the events of the summer.
The total number of StreetChance participants, says Cricket Foundation chief executive Wasim Khan, will reach 20,000 within the year. The project will by then have created 1500 young leaders in training and development. "We want to give kids the opportunity to make the right choices in life," Khan said, at the national StreetChance launch in Manchester, which brought together six StreetChance teams for a day-long competition. The Greenwich Gladiators, Manchester Lightning, Dewsbury Tangoes, Birmingham Bashers, Lewisham Lions and Tower Hamlets Tigers were given tips by Wasim Akram and Graeme Swann. Mark Nicholas was master of ceremonies.
Shahidul Alam watched the rapidly moving matches, waiting for his Tower Hamlets Tigers to step into their games. Tower Hamlets, in East London, is now the heart of the city's Bangladeshi community. Alam runs two StreetChance sessions and knows just how far cricket in the inner cities can go. He has driven the growth of the Tower Hamlets Cricket Club, now in its third year, and says lots of the StreetChance participants move on to signing up with real clubs, which participate in the junior leagues. Tower Hamlets CC is made up of mostly Bangladeshi members with a few players of Afro-Caribbean descent, and plays out of Victoria Park, which now suddenly rubs shoulders with London 2012 venues. It competes in Under-13, Under-15 and Under-17 competitions, and last year finished runners up in the Middlesex Colts Under-17s competition.
Another centre for StreetChance has been the Feltham Young Offenders Institute, which has hosted sessions for three hours every Wednesday for more than a year. The Young Offenders Institute was famous for housing Pakistani cricketer Mohammad Amir for two nights, before he was moved out, after he was sentenced in the spot-fixing case. Feltham houses offenders between 17 and 25 for minor offences.
When StreetChance coach Alex Bassan went there for the first time, he said: "I was nervous myself. After the first three-four weeks I was struggling." The young offenders offended Bassan, a cheery 20-year-old, with their indifference, and he threw it back at them. He laughs now. "I told them, I'm getting up at 6am to get to them every week, and [you] can't be bothered? I'm off, see you around, you handle this."
Giving the inmates responsibility in an environment where they were mostly ordered about did the trick. There was the basic framework of rules, but the inmates could alter the degrees of difficulty involved in scoring runs or taking wickets. They learnt how to umpire and keep score. "Now I have to turn up on Wednesday - and it runs itself," Bassan says. The next step, he believes, is to give any of those in the remand prison, a StreetChance "Level 1 opportunity" - to become an assistant at any of the StreetChance projects, and work with the Level 2s like Bassan. He has seen several inmates serve time and then return to Feltham but believes someone will come out of a cycle of petty crime and turn to cricket, and the project, for an anchor.
Cricket - and StreetChance - gives everyone second chances.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo