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‘The crux of my summers’: volunteers’ mission to revive friendly cricket

·7-min read

Hungry: it’s a word a lot of recreational cricketers have used to described themselves recently. And no, this isn’t the set-up for some convoluted joke about the Sussex Cricket League voting against the provision of teas – even if there are now players sewing secret compartments into their kitbags to give them somewhere to hoard sausage rolls and wagon wheels.

No, the hunger has been of an altogether more metaphorical kind. The eagerness to get out and play. The yearning to fill the gaping chasm of boredom carved by the glacial progress of lockdown. For all the well-founded fear and utterly understandable concern that the game would be dealt yet another mortal blow by this pandemic, the enthusiasm to actually play cricket has rarely felt more tangibly alive than these past two summers.

Related: England cricketers told internationals take priority over IPL duty

The Spin does not often devote itself to grassroots stories, but today we’ve a couple that are too good – too damn encouraging – not to share. We’ll start with Rob Eastaway, author of the cricket book What is a Googly?, who has decided to channel the royalties from its latest edition into a UK fund to invest in friendly cricket for adults.

As a young man, Eastaway’s summers revolved around playing for fun. “Friendly cricket was the crux of my summers,” he says, “the centre of so many of my friendships and my happy memories.” It’s this casual end of the game he sees dying, particularly among younger people. “It’s the thing I get most angry about. As children grow up, they want to keep playing for fun – but unless you’re dead keen, by the time you’re in your 20s there’s not much for you.”

Club and league cricket can be alienating when you don’t have the skills to hold down a place in the team. If you’re the 11th best player in a side, there’s often little to do but stand around awkwardly at mid-on. The Googly Fund, which launched this month, hopes to reinspire the ethos and inclusivity of the friendly fixture by offering small-scale grants to players and teams who want to play but are struggling to meet basic requirements.

It can help you out with money towards ground hire, for instance, or whatever shared equipment you are missing – a bat and a ball, perhaps some pads. Its first grant – to a group in Alfrick, Worcestershire – was £150 to build a scoreboard. The gesture, says Eastaway, was as significant as the sum. “They were so thrilled and excited that you could tell this will be the catalyst for doing more stuff on their own. Just saying ‘we believe in you’ can be enough to encourage people to play.”

Eastaway can offer proof from his own sporting experience. A school-gates conversation with “another cricket nut” resulted in a couple of dads challenging parents from another local primary school to a game. That was in 2009. Twelve years later, that game has spawned a busy programme of informal matches with 200 players involved, many who hadn’t held a bat since they were at school, and some of whom had never played at all before.

In Eastaway’s friendlies, good club cricketers can play alongside absolute novices and still enjoy a meaningful contest, not least because they favour declaration-style games over limited overs. Batters have to retire at 25, and every team must use six bowlers. It’s also important, he says, to offer a net in advance “so that on the day people don’t get embarrassed, or pull their shoulder the first time they touch the ball”.

A cricketer from Ashford in the Water Cricket Club.
Even the donation of a scoreboard can galvanise enthusiasm among grassroots cricketers. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Friendly cricket may have fallen out of fashion but if the game is serious about diversity, inclusivity and encouraging people to play, it’s of no less value than the brand-lingo-bingo of the Hundred. “Cricket lovers have been taken advantage of by the system and have felt unloved in the last few years,” says Eastaway. “This is a fightback that says ‘this is what cricket should be’, and I hope it will resonate with a lot of people.”

Our second story comes from Dorset, where Parley Cricket Club’s fourth-XI captain, Rob Franks, was one of those quiet lockdown heroes who, when he saw a need, got on and met it. The husband of a primary school teacher, he realised there would be many pupils in his area who lacked any computer equipment for learning from home. So he collected as many old laptops as he could lay his hands on, and fundraised for more. He ended collecting £10,000 worth of computers that, with the help of the school’s IT manager PJ Oulton, were reconditioned for remote teaching and distributed to families who needed them.

“He’s just such a positive person,” says Alan Graham, the Dorset cricket administrator who oversees Parley CC’s youth cricket. Franks is a district head coach, and manages Parley’s under-11s; he has ambitions to coach at county level. Graham met him six years ago, when Franks first brought his family to a children’s session.

“Rob’s an all-rounder,” says Graham, “but it was about the time he was starting to get pain in his leg, and that was restricting his ability to play.” Tumours were hollowing out Franks’s left leg. He was batting in only his second game for Dorset Disability CC when he went to turn a gentle delivery off his hips and his femur snapped and splintered. “You know when you’re in a forest and you stand on a branch and you hear it break?” recalls Franks. “That’s what it sounded like – my wife heard it from the pavilion.”

After two years of constant pain and waiting in vain for the leg to heal, Franks had it amputated above the knee. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he smiles, “apart from marrying my wife, obviously.” He retaught himself how to bat using the electronic prosthetic provided by the NHS. “I’ve had to physically change everything about my game,” says Franks. “Going on to the front foot and driving a ball through covers is a bit difficult, for instance, because I haven’t got a knee.”

Franks is happy with his batting now – he averaged 68 over 12 games in his first season back, and plays both disabled and able-bodied cricket for his club and his county. But what he’d really like is to be able to run between the wickets again. To run at all. “I was obsessed with running before the amputation,” says Franks, “and it’s a big part of coaching, being able to get involved with the fitness work and keep up with your players. I want to take my coaching as far as I can but this is holding me back a little bit.”

It’s impossible to run on the electronic prosthetic – “it locks, so you end up falling over and looking a complete fool” – and he can only walk in to bowl, because the action doesn’t allow for a jump and gather in his action. But every grant Franks has applied for to purchase a running blade has been turned down because it doesn’t count as necessary equipment.

Unable to meet the £10,000 cost himself – Franks, like so many, lost his job in lockdown – he has set up a GoFundMe page and is extremely grateful to the friends, fellow players and cricket teams who have supported him and edged him closer to his goal. “Middlesex have retweeted it, some ex-players have donated, it’s been fantastic,” says Franks. “It’s just that last push to get over the line. And anything we do get over the goal will go towards maintenance.” It might, he laughs, even help his bowling too.

The Googly Fund is accepting both donations and applications for grants. And you can donate at Rob Franks’s GoFundMe page here.

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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