Mark Jackson reports on how the home of English cricket is pitching in to help revive the game in state schools.
Khadija Begum has something to write home about to her relatives in cricket-loving Bangladesh. The 12-year-old can tell them she has played at Lord's, home of the Marylebone Cricket Club and the centre of the cricketing world.
The MCC has a history of encouraging juvenile talent, and has long had links with London's expensive prep schools and the public school establishment. But Khadija is a pupil at its local comprehensive, North Westminster, and Bangladeshis are London's most deprived minority group.
Khadija and her fellow pupils are being welcomed on the Lord's nursery ground and at its indoor cricket school because the MCC, once the citadel of class distinction between gentlemen amateurs and working-class players, has become heavily involved in attempts to create a level playing field for inner-city school cricketers. In London it is joining the capital's four county cricket boards in backing a programme to revive the sport in state schools and enable them to compete with the private sector.
Cricket, once a thriving sport throughout the London school system, all but died in most schools after the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority. For years right-wing demonologists and saloon bar pundits blamed trendy teachers who, they alleged, could not abide competitive sport.
But John Jameson, the MCC's assistant secretary, like the professional coaches, volunteers, and sports teachers carrying out the programme, has little time for this myth. "It's the usual thing of finding someone to blame. School cricket costs time and money, particularly in the big cities where state schools don't have playing fields and teams have to travel to pitches. It's more difficult in London because of the distances involved."
Cricket continues to flourish in the independent sector, he says, because most schools have their own facilities close at hand and their own transport. They are also in a position to select teachers with cricketing skills, and are not hedged in by the time constraints of the national curriculum.
John Smith, co-ordinator of the London School Cricket Project, and a former Hackney teacher, says that ILEA provided well-maintained cricket facilities within easy reach of most of its schools, and available to them free. "Now there's a scarcity of good pitches, and the cost of getting to them on top of the hiring fee is a heavy burden."
The shortage of facilities has been worsened, he says, because of recent developments which have made teachers and match organisers much more safety conscious. Pitches which have been acceptable until now are being ruled out because they are too hazardous, increasing the pressure on the grounds that are well-maintained.
The project, funded by the county boards and by charities, has been concentrating on introducing primary schoolchildren to the game. Now, after seven years, nearly every primary school in the 19 boroughs covered has regular sessions provided by professional coaches, and fitting in with the requirements of the national curriculum. The project is now moving into the secondary schools, starting with Year 7 youngsters, and plans to move gradually up the age range.
Paul Dillon, cricket teacher at Khadija's school, says that they welcome the help the school is getting from the project and the MCC, which have provided instruction at the indoor school and facilities for matches. The school is hard-pressed to find the money to use public facilities, at Pounds 100 a time for coach hire and Pounds 20 to Pounds 40 for a pitch.
John Smith says that the MCC, while careful to avoid duplicating the work of the county boards, has been "immensely encouraging" and provided practical help, not only by offering facilities to schools, but by donating, so far, around Pounds 5,000 worth of equipment.
John Jameson says that the club is only too glad to do so."There's a tremendous pool of talent in London's state schools, and we can't afford to waste it. I am sure that we can find other ways to help - we might even be able to persuade the independent schools to offer the use of their facilities during the holidays."