It’s a blustery evening in Manchester. Grey clouds stack the sky. I’m hoping for the sun to appear, for the city to play against stereotypes. But this hardly matters to the kids scattered across a wide, crescent-shaped green.
There are around 50 boys and girls here, aged between five and 15. The youngest play with plastic cricket bats and softballs, the oldest stretch their muscles before breaking out into a game. The remainder line up in front of the cricket nets and practice their bowling.
This is Chorlton, one of the most desirable areas of inner-city Manchester. Down a leafy side street is South West Manchester Cricket Club (SWMCC). Houses ring the outer edge of the green. Distant skyscrapers poke out from the crowns of trees. You wouldn’t know this place existed unless you went looking for it.
But SWMCC has been here since 1882. It was established on some farmland (the club itself is an old barn) to provide a social and recreational space for the area’s traditionally white working-class. It once boasted tennis courts, lacrosse and hockey teams. In the 1930s, it hosted some of the earliest all-female county cricket matches in England.
“I’ve been a social member for many years,’ says Phil, 51, the club secretary and junior lead. “I’d come down and play snooker, watch the cricket.” He soon noticed that the club’s facilities were barely being used. “There was a [senior cricket] team on Saturday, a team on Sunday, no junior section to speak of. Odd weeks where nothing was going on at all.” Unless it was used to its full potential, he feared that the club, which had already sold its tennis courts to cover building repairs, would be lost to developers entirely
So, 10 years ago, Phil decided to set up a junior division at the club. He began with half a dozen kids and grew quickly. Now, over a hundred children can attend practice on Monday evenings. The junior teams are divided by age and gender and play weekly matches with another 23 clubs in the South Manchester Junior Cricket League. The club subsidises membership to keep the facilities accessible.
Juniors are encouraged to make what they want of practice sessions. “You’ve got the kids who want to push their level and those that want to float around and socialise,” one of the coaches, Rab, 29, tells me. “Only a small number will ever make it professionally, so we just want to instil them with a lifelong love of the game.”
It would be fair to say that youth cricket is having a moment. Its popularity has undoubtedly been fuelled by the sport’s determination to reinvent itself through the Twenty20 format (a punchier version of the game where each side bats for twenty overs each) and Indian Premier League (a Twenty20 league involving the world’s best players – it’s the most watched version of the game). England’s victory in the ICC World Cup in 2019 has also played its part in renewing interest in cricket among young people – and so has the team’s cultural diversity.
“I do some work in schools and [English cricketer] Moeen Ali constantly gets mentioned as their favourite player. It’s the resonance of someone who looks like them, who sounds like them, who shares the name as their community,” Rab explains.
But while we celebrate this diversity, cricket does have a long and well-documented problem with racism. That issue has resurfaced again since former-professional player Azeem Rafiq accused Yorkshire Cricket Club of institutional racism last November (an incident that has since been followed by a separate review from Cricket Scotland). Rafiq’s experiences are emblematic of a sport that has repeatedly hidden behind its reputation of being gentle, fair-minded and respectful to avoid dealing with its prejudice. They also have much to do with white club committees refusing to expand their culture of scotch eggs, ham sandwiches and post-match drinking sessions to include a broader demographic of players.
Watching the easy camaraderie between the U15s at SWMCC before they head off to play a match at another club, dressed in their cricket whites, junior cricket feels like an antidote to all that ugliness. When Rafiq’s story came to light, the club strengthened its code of conduct, though, one parent assures me, Phil has always had a “zero tolerance” policy towards all forms of prejudice. He’s also tried to address the club culture, by organising inclusive social events for the juniors, such as halal barbeques and film nights. As Rab says: “Today’s juniors are tomorrow’s future. They’ll be running this club one day.”
It’s colder now, as practice draws to a close. Parents are drinking the last of their beers and forecasting how the Test match between England and India might play out as it moves into its fifth day. Tired older children head to the changing rooms, dragging their bats behind them. The youngest continue to play around the adults.
“There’s a great feeling you get from finishing a session during the summer holidays,” Phil says. “You take a breath and look onto the field and see kids you wouldn’t necessarily put together, playing and forming relationships. It’s too dark to see them anymore, but they’re still out there, having fun.”
When did you get into cricket?
Probably when I was like a baby! My dad, growing up in the Caribbean, played a lot of cricket. So he taught me.
What do you like about playing?
I meet new people every day. It doesn’t matter where you come from. If someone just came and played, you could just get along with them instantly.
Do you have a particular team that you support?
Probably West Indies. Lancashire as well.
How have you felt about the racism stuff that’s taken place in club cricket?
Probably more sad than anything. What’s happening in the news, it’s not nice is it really? Everyone can play, everyone should be welcome to play. People shouldn’t have to deal with it.
What about your own experiences in cricket playing – how’ve they been?
Brilliant – [I’ve] not had any problems at all. Love playing cricket with my friends here.
What do you think professional cricket could learn from youth cricket?
Letting everyone have a chance. Not judging people by what you first see. Letting new people into the game.
George L, 12
How old were you when you first started playing cricket and how did you get into it?
Five years old. My older brother began going to indoor nets, I kept asking for a go and eventually they let me.
What do you like about it?
Cricket has something for everyone, each player brings a different skill and it all helps the team. It’s like an individual sport but you are still part of a team. I love bowling the most. When I’m not out on the field, I also like to help with the scoring.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a player?
I’ve been practising turning over my wrist so I can bowl off-spin [a technique of spinning the ball with your fingers to turn the ball from the off-side to the leg side]. I think that is my main strength. I have a colour vision deficiency so I sometimes find it hard to pick out a red ball when batting – but I don’t feel it limits me playing cricket. SWMCC plays matches with a pink ball which helps.
Who do you support?
Lancashire and England.
Have you paid much attention to the racism scandal at Yorkshire cricket club?
Yes, my Dad is from Yorkshire and follows the cricket club. I think the way Azeem Rafiq was treated was disgusting – racism isn’t acceptable in any part of life. Cricket is and always should be a culturally diverse sport. People should respect other peoples, race, religion and beliefs. Cricket is for everyone.
George R, 13
How old were you when you first started playing cricket?
12 years old after watching Lancashire for several seasons.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a player?
Strengths – competitiveness and sporting enthusiasm. Weaknesses – poor loser, only been playing for one year.
Have you paid much attention to the racism scandal at Yorkshire cricket club? Do you have any thoughts or feelings about it?
If people want to be racist they are the ones that have the problem.
What could professional cricket learn from youth?
A very good cricketing environment with a team manager that leads by example. I think I have made a lot of friends since joining SWMCC.
When did you start getting into playing cricket?
I’ve been playing cricket with my dad for a long time, since I was about like five.
What do you enjoy about it?
I love the way it looks. You feel great after you’ve played a shot and hit it quite hard through the field. Just seeing it rolling to the fence is one of the greatest things you can see.
Have you paid much attention to the racism scandal with club cricket in the UK? Did you have any thoughts about it?
I think that while it’s bad, it’s good that we’ve come a long way and that we’re giving a lot of attention to it. Now we can minimise how much damage is being done by it and slowly remove it. Bit by bit.
What do you enjoy about playing cricket?
It’s quite a nice place to be around because they’re nice people and you all like the same thing.
Have you paid much attention to the stuff that’s going on in professional cricket to do with racism?
I think it’s not acceptable. It’s a game where everyone should be able to play, everyone should be able to do what they want and it shouldn’t be restricted to only certain people.
How do you feel about playing at South West Manchester Cricket Club? What’s it like?
It’s very inclusive and everyone is just friends.
When did you get into playing cricket?
Probably when I was about eight.
My grandad actually played cricket when he was quite young for a school team and my dad quite likes cricket as well. Plus you get to play with mates as well.
How long have you been playing cricket?
I’ve been playing only three months at SWMCC. I’ve always played cricket in Afghanistan [Sajid arrived in the UK in January this year] but I started playing properly and more seriously from the age of 10.
What do you enjoy about playing cricket?
I just love hitting the ball and volleying, but actually, I’m good at everything, batting and bowling.
Do you watch lots of cricket?
Of course – I watch Afghanistan on television. They are my team. But sometimes I watch Pakistan too – we’ve had a competition with them for a long time, and I like this.
What do you like about playing at SWMCC?
It’s a good team. We’re all such good friends. When I arrived in England, I was in Margate first and I wasn’t happy there. The people weren’t as nice and there was no place for me to play cricket. I needed to move. But since coming to Manchester, I’ve been able to play – I like this city so much better.