Lord’s was quiet, and the shout from the Tavern Stand carried right across the ground. “Girls! Girls!” A reply from the first floor of the pavilion came back just as loud. “Yes mum?” Then “Come back out on the balcony, your dad wants to take a photo.” Three giggling teenagers filed out of the home dressing room, where they had been taking turns to sit in what the attendant had just told them was Joe Root’s usual spot.
Alastair Cook says he used to dream about playing at Lord’s when he was a kid. In his mind’s eye, Harold Pinter always saw it the way he did when he skipped school to watch Yorkshire and arrived in time to see Len Hutton hit a cut up the slope. In Tarsao prisoner-of-war camp, Jim Swanton used to entertain the other captives by conjuring accounts of the matches he saw at Lord’s before the second world war. Charlie Watts wanted to take John Arlott’s commentary along as one of his Desert Island Discs because it reminded him of “going along with Mick to Lord’s, and England in summer”. For a certain type of English fan, Lord’s has always been home.
None of them ever saw the place look quite like it did on Monday, when the MCC Foundation hosted the finals of its first national hubs competition. There were two matches, one between girls teams from Bradford and the Cotswolds, one between boys sides from Slough and Manchester. The players were all state school kids, 15 and under, the spectators all families and coaches. For years, England’s women have struggled to get games at Lord’s, there are current internationals who have never played a match there and a few days ago a bunch of happy schoolkids had the run of the place.
“Maybe you need to know some of the history to understand how great this is,” says Isa Guha, a former England cricketer and now a commentator and presenter. “Watching these girls from Bradford walk into the Long Room when for almost 200 years women weren’t allowed into the pavilion.”
The MCC used to run the game. Until 1989, their chair also served by right as the chair of the ICC. It sometimes feels like the club has lost an empire and are looking for a role. The foundation seems the closest they have come to finding it. It supports overseas projects in Lebanon and Nepal, but does most of its work at home, running a network of 65 hubs for nearly 3,000 state school children, mostly in underprivileged areas. The foundation’s director is Sarah Fane, who used to run Afghan Connection, building schools (and cricket pitches) in Afghanistan.
For all the obstacles the women’s game faced, and still faces, in Afghanistan, Fane says, in her experience, “people had total belief that it could be a game for them, they never questioned it, however disadvantaged they were and whatever background they came from. They’d pick up a bat and they’d play. I don’t think that’s the same in the UK.”
Guha says: “When I go to places like India, Australia, everyone knows what cricket is. In England, you don’t have to go far beyond your circle of friends to find out quite quickly that cricket is not on everyone’s radar.” Guha got into cricket through her brother. To play at school, she had to set up her own girls team.
In the box next door, I spoke to Cordelia Griffith, who plays for Middlesex and the Manchester Originals. She is the only child of Frank Griffith, who spent almost a decade at Derbyshire. She was the only female player in her school year and played on an all-boys team. “Some of my female friends would have loved to have tried it, but would have been more comfortable playing with other girls, like you can at MCC Hubs.”
The hub project is about opening up a pathway into the game for people who aren’t at private school, who don’t have parents who play or can’t, or don’t want to, join local clubs.
Mark Roach, CEO of the Berkshire Cricket Foundation, was there watching Slough. “Seventy per cent of that side don’t play any club cricket,” he says. “There’s one club in Slough borough, and none at all in Reading borough, so you’ve got a quarter of a million people with one club.”
Roach has worked in the sport for the best part of 20 years. “When the hub project was proposed we weren’t quite sure what to do with it. Now I’m not sure how we’d do without it, it’s become an integral part of what we do.”
In the background to it all, and everything else in English cricket, is the Hundred, a competition with the same sort of aim, on a bigger scale. Everyone I talked to swore by it, Griffith, who played in it, Guha, who presented it, Roach, who watched it.
“Having it on terrestrial TV was immense,” Roach says. “I took kids who aren’t interested in cricket to the Ageas and they came away absolutely buzzing. The beauty of it is there was a Hundred game on TV the next day and they could buy the Match Attax cards from the shop, watch clips online and they got bitten by it.
“That’s what the game was trying to achieve with the Hundred, bringing it to people who don’t do cricket.”
Guha says: “The biggest thing now is building that connection between the Hundred and the rest of the cricket in our country. How do you harness that interest and make people want to come back for more?”
The foundation are already planning 10 new hubs, all for girls, all dreaming of Lord’s, which is beginning to look, at last, like a home for all English cricket.