Can Cricket Help Fix Society?

As cricket faced its darkest week, many people questioned whether the spirit of the game is still relevant in this day and age. Despite the scandal, some still cling to the gentlemanly values of old and are using the game to help society, says Safi Thind.

“Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.”

So said Robert Mugabe. The irony of the comment being uttered by the archetypal modern-day villain cannot be lost at a time when the issue of match-fixing has soiled the front pages of every newspaper in the country this month. It’s a sad turnaround from a summer when sporting triumph and on-field sportsmanship saw the game reach an apotheosis of prestige and respect in the public eye.

England’s success, India’s gentlemanliness—epitomised by the Ian Bell run-out incident at Trent Bridge — and the wide acclaim given to efforts by ex-cricketers to promote the game in deprived communities, saw the sport lauded as never before. Prominent figures like Boris Johnson and Sir Ian Botham were effusive in their advocacy of using cricket as a way to inspire young people and build positive social values in the wake of the riots.

Fast forward four months and the dream, if not dead, has morphed into an awful nightmare. As three Pakistani Test players received jail sentences for spot fixing, what chance that cricket can help society?

Some do still believe in the gentleman’s game. Richard Joyce, operations manager for StreetChance, a community programme which uses cricket to help young people in inner-city areas affected by crime and poverty, is one who holds faith.

Joyce said: “Cricket does have a reputation for fostering a certain spirit. We ask kids to follow a code of conduct— don’t give someone a hard time if they are out, shaking hands, not talking back to umpires, and so on. We would like to think that this would help them have a better understanding of the choices facing them in life and deciding what is right or wrong.”

StreetChance organises matches on hardcourt surfaces using tennis balls wrapped in tape, making it ideal to play in areas lacking green spaces. Sessions often attract local police officers who come to speak about issues in the community— one of the areas that StreetChance has worked in is the Ferry Lane Estate in Tottenham, the same estate that Mark Duggan, whose death sparked the summer riots, came from. And it is seeing success. The programme has instigated coaching projects in 20 London boroughs and four other UK cities, having just opened in Bristol this month, and will begin in Hull and Liverpool in 2012.

Another charity, Cricket for Change, has been at it longer. The programme was set up in the wake of the Brixton riots in 1981, as a means of resolving problems in ethnic minority areas using a sport loved by youth in those areas. Andy Sellins, chief executive at Cricket for Change, who has worked at the organisation since its foundation, said his work is as relevant today as it was back then. “In a lot of ways I see similarities to what happened in Brixton thirty years ago,” said Sellins. “We try and remove barriers to participation and offer children an alternative way to get into the game. You just need to put a bag over your shoulder and do it, its simple.”

Thirty years after achieving hero status against the Old Enemy at Headingley, Sir Ian Botham is not about to break the habit of a lifetime and go on the defensive. He lent his prominent presence to Cage Cricket, the latest cricket charity initiative, which was launched in June. The programme is designed to help young people in deprived inner-city areas, and Sir Ian’s backing has garnered it a huge amount of interest already.

These and other initiatives being led by the MCC and the Lord’s Taverners charity continue the good work being done by supporters of the game. While Pakistan’s spot-fixing scandal may have destroyed a generation of role models, there is still enough good being produced through the sport to focus on.

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