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Cricket club refuses to abandon its young

Michael Prestage on a battle to save a glorious past and a hopeful future. John Major dreams that the school fields of England will one day resound to the crack of ball on willow as cricket makes a welcome return.

In south Bristol his ideal was being made real by Bedminster Cricket Club and its determination to involve local schoolchildren in the game. But the stark reality of the 1990s is set to intervene.

Developers have taken over the club's lease and cast covetous eyes on the six-acre site in the shadow of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Plans are afoot for a nursery, car park and children's playground to appeal to parents shopping in the nearby city centre.

To add insult to injury, the cricket club members are currently busy constructing themselves a Pounds 30,000 pavilion. They are angry that their building is being incorporated into the developers' plans.

Bedminster Cricket Club was founded 148 years ago and boasts the great WG Grace among its past players and chairmen. It has played at its present ground, the Clanage, since 1912. Now that historic link is under threat.

The club has never owned the site, but has leased it from a succession of landlords. In the 1940s it had a chance to purchase the land for Pounds 4,500 but could not raise the money. The sale to developers Gabriel Estates took place without the club's knowledge and it had no chance to make a bid.

For schools in the largely deprived south Bristol area it will be a mortal blow to fledgling attempts to re-establish the game. Pupils at Hartcliffe, Merrywood, Ashton Park and Bedminster Down schools are all coached by the club and are backing its fight to survive.

Members of the youth cricket team at Bedminster took to their bicycles to deliver more than a thousand letters to people living near the ground warning of the threat to the site and mobilising support against the developers.

It was four years ago that coaches from the club answered an appeal from Hartcliffe school. Teacher Vic Ecclestone had been approached by a group of 14-year-old pupils who wanted to play cricket and form a team.

A 10-week course was arranged and now Hartcliffe runs three teams, has employed a full-time coach who sees more than 80 children a week, and many youngsters have gone on to join local clubs.

Every Tuesday a minibus travels from Hartcliffe taking youngsters to be coached at the Clanage. About 50 youngsters will be practising over the summer while in the winter there are indoor net sessions at the Gloucester County ground.

Vic Ecclestone said: "Leaving aside the romance involved in losing 150 years' of cricketing history we would be losing a club which at the time was the only one that worked for youngsters in this area.

"The coaches at the club accepted these kids on how they played cricket rather than where they came from. Cricket gives the chance for youngsters to not only play sport but also have a social life. The loss of the club would be irreparable."

John Budd, Bedminster Cricket Club chairman, joined in 1947 and has been a stalwart since. He took those first coaching sessions at Hartcliffe and was amazed at how little the youngsters knew "There were children who didn't know what 'lbw' or 'off stump' meant."

"Cricket has largely been lost in schools," said Mr Budd. "But we are managing to instil a love of the game in young people. Parents get involved as well. Such an asset and focal point in the community should not be lost."

Gabriel Estates claim cricket can still be accommodated on part of the site. But the club disagrees, and fears that once planning rules dictating its use as a sports field have been changed, further development will inevitably follow.

The club is seeking legal advice, and has in the meantime contacted that great advocate of the game, John Major.

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