, south London and immigration have a long and fertile shared history. Albeit, in recent years this connection has receded decisively, just as the sport itself continues to retreat from its urban spaces. Looking back on the peak years of The Oval as the hub of Caribbean cricket in England, when the old colonial sport could also feel like a balm, glue and armature for the best bits of being in a city, it can all seem like a distant, pork pie-hatted dream.
Not that these things ever disappear completely. The Oval may have lost its Brixton pulse, Surrey have barely produced a black British cricketer since Michael Carberry and Ebony Rainford-Brent, although George Edwards played a few games, but the fading of that connection shouldn’t lessen its significance in its own time.
For the first “Windrush” generation of West Indians, London could be a pretty bleak kind of place. As recently as the late 1970s, British citizens from the Caribbean were still being portrayed by some as harbingers of a disastrous alien influx. The battle of Lewisham, 40 years ago this summer and just a short 36 bus ride away from The Oval, saw anti-racism protestors and local youths fighting on the streets with National Front marchers, and south London cast as a fraught, divided, dangerous place.
In the middle of which cricket continued to lurk significantly. Right up until the turn of this century the traffic heading into Kennington from the south – Brixton Road, Peckham Road, New Cross Road – seemed on match days to be plugged directly into the western terraces of The Oval. This was always the West Indian side, to the extent one knot of locals would regularly emerge from that part of the ground and wander across to advise, congratulate and generally cajole Surrey’s West Indian players, Sylvester Clarke and Monte Lynch.
It was here I sat to watch my first day of Test cricket in the blackwash year of 1984 (by chance – and this is true – next to off-duty glam-pop hunk David Essex, who was very nice and shared his sandwiches). There was a fair mix of Island accents around then, as well as every shade of south London. The famous fug of marijuana smoke appeared intermittently through mid-afternoon. At one point Viv Richards ambled back from the covers resembling if not the most handsome human being of all time then certainly the most handsome yet, and gave a regal wave, drawing a purr of celebratory approval. In contrast to some parts of the world beyond those gates, everything felt pretty good, pretty safe, pretty cricket in there.
Times may have changed but cricket still flickers through south London’s mixed and shifting population. It so happens south London and cricket are at it again right now, albeit in a more targeted and indeed far more urgent way. This week Guardian video journalist Lindsay Poulton published a about the Refugee Cricket Project, an initiative based in Brixton that aims to help young Afghan men integrate, learn English, process their asylum claims and recover from the assorted traumas that have led them here.
Antonia Cohen helps run the scheme as a volunteer. She says the Refugee Council were struck a few years back by the passion for cricket among even the most disorientated young Afghans. Playing the game was initially just a way of assembling in the same place, providing some social glue. These days the RCP runs coaching all year, arranges fixtures and provides these isolated young men, separated from their parents, with pastoral care, advice and in many cases something close to a surrogate family.
Watch the video and you can’t help but notice the filial affection of these junior cricketers for Antonia, previously a non-cricket fan but now the RCP’s chief selector, tactician and team psychologist. This summer she took “the boys” (as they seem to be known) to a match in Brighton after which the team rushed off to go swimming in the sea, three of them for the first time, quite a few running straight into the water in their cricket whites.
Quite where this could end up heading is another matter. Nobody is suggesting the boys at the Refugee Cricket Project are about to start zooming up through the ranks towards a fairytale professional career. Watch the film and you see a bunch of hugely enthusiastic kids for whom simply having something stable and joyful in their lives is progress enough. Still, though, the project can do with all any help it can get. The smallest donation or help with the basics of staging and running cricket, whether from the ECB or a kindly county, could make an immediate difference to the people involved.
On a micro level the chance to integrate further could perhaps be made a little easier. Local clubs have grown used to getting calls asking if there’s any chance of a game for a talented all-rounder with an asylum application in train. New recruits are always welcome, not least when they bowl ripping inswingers and smash it miles.
But there is also a note of confusion over the Surrey leagues’ strict limits on what are technically overseas players. Most clubs already have one. There is a case surely for an ad hoc exception, a temporary pass for those in the asylum system. Cricket has a chance here not not just to spread itself a little beyond its heartland, but more importantly to do something nice.
There is probably something wider to be learned from all this. This year the ECB released an impressive-looking consultation called “Engaging with South Asian Communities” headed up by Lord Patel of Bradford, who himself came to Britain as a cricket-loving migrant in the 1960s. It is an excellent and vital initiative, albeit couched as ever in the language of market-share, growing the game, spreading the product and all the rest.
Engaging with the Afghan diaspora, a tiny and by definition impoverished slice of the pie, is unlikely to make too much of an immediate business case. But then perhaps the lessons of English cricket’s Caribbean disengagement might be handy here.
Many reasons have been put forward for this. Most obviously it is simply a function of cricket’s societal move away from state schools, cities and those without outside space, a car, money or a TV subscription. If there is a lesson in this, or indeed in those familiar groups of south Asian amateur cricketers who in the summer occupy patches of free ground or play their own leagues, it is that the urge to watch and play should be seized upon in any form, a hunger for the sport nurtured and fed while it can still be found.