SSaturday, mid April. You can feel the pre-season buzz, the sun inducing chemical smiles, and kids and adults just as excited to be out of the house. At Catford & Cyphers Cricket Club, the pub tables are lined with talk of today’s friendly and the all-important importance of EastEnders Christmas special. A local derby with Catford Wanderers causes a bit of a stir but this time there is a distraction playing for the home team and Wanderers have not yet forgiven him.
An older member on a mobility scooter tests the new brick path laid by one of the Cyphers players in front of the pavilion. Bill Perera, the club’s chairman, looks at the bright white picket fences he recently paid for and the beautiful green of the trees flowing behind them and sighs: “It’s like paradise.” This is not something you often hear said Lewisham. But this institution, hidden behind a suburban street, is a small glimpse of heaven – and offers a hopeful counter-intuitive to the racism and classism that has dominated English cricket over the past year.
Players from the second, third and fourth teams are all here for the crack. Ferred Ahmed travels over from Ilford several times a week to relax his friends. “Saturday is very good,” he says. “There are some other local clubs that don’t have their own bar – West Indian clubs, Sri Lankan clubs – so they come to ours and it’s a great scene.”
In the middle Sachithra Serasinghe spanks 53 in a total of 210, then a 15-year-old blonde works his way through the Wanderers’ wickets. Everyone is excited about the arrival of Serasinghe – who has been chasing a club since moving to south London from the leagues in Lancashire, where he played for Bacup – and extremely proud of Tom Purcell, who plays for Kent Academy. . “It’s usually brave boys from public schools who do that,” says one member. “So it’s a big achievement for us.”
As the only inner-city cricket club in the Kent league, Catford & Cyphers is on the far edge of the county, an anomaly in a cricket region more than usual filled with the product of private schools. Over the past ten years this incredibly diverse and dedicated cricket community has only thrived. Now, against all odds, they are making a comeback. Talk to anyone here, and they’ll tell you how Asher Roberts is turning his fortunes around.
Roberts is only 24 years old. Born to a pair of passionate West Indies supporters, he was fortunate to have primary school teachers who loved the game and knew how to teach it. A Lewisham district coach named John Palmer saw his talent and he was soon developing his game at Catford & Cyphers, and with the London Schools Cricket Association, the only black child in any team he usually played for . His dream of a professional career never came to fruition but Roberts still wanted to spend his life in the game, taking up a position as Catford & Cyphers coach in 2020.
The first XI started in Division Four this year. They flirted with relegation for several years before finally going down last season. Roberts’ biggest concern on taking the job was the state of the junior section: “We could barely field an under-11 team,” he says. “I met parents who live five houses down from the club who told me they didn’t even know it was here.”
Last summer he launched a recruitment campaign, offering coaching sessions to local schools, in most cases introducing the pupils to the game for the first time. “The majority of these schools have good facilities but the teachers don’t know how to teach cricket so they tell the kids to play football or bowlers, whatever is going to keep them busy.” Its appearance in some of the most deprived areas of South London is a source of joy. “Not to be dominant,” Roberts said, “but they want me back.”
Catford & Cyphers have reached the harvest. Last season’s junior membership increased from 30 to 81; Keeping the game accessible and affordable has been key, from trial periods and subsidized fees to redistributing club kit to those who can’t afford to buy new. “It’s an expensive sport,” says Roberts. “From head to toe you can be wearing a great deal of gear. But we shouldn’t be turning people away because they can’t afford it.”
Friday, end of August. Purcell is in the nets, preparing to bowl to a kid barely half his height wearing a Paris Saint-Germain kit. Nine-year-old Dominic had only been playing cricket until a few weeks ago; now he is practicing air shots further forward. Purcell lobs one gently, lands it wide. “That’s two push ups!” screams the tiny merciless child from the head.
For Wilf Brooke, who has been helping Roberts coach the juniors since he finished his final term at university, it has been a busy summer. Today is the fifth and final week of the all-day cricket camps being run by the club over the summer holidays. They average 20 kids a day, “and a lot of them are new faces,” says Brooke. “The standard from when they first started to now – it’s a transformation.”
Meanwhile, Friday night training for the colt section is drawing a crowd of about 150 kids. It was smart to change it from Saturday morning, Brooke says, because now the parents stick around to use the bar, and the food trucks parked up in the driveway create a festive atmosphere. Community has always been a powerful feature of this club and is part of the attraction. “Everyone grows as a family,” says Roberts. Junior membership is now around 200, well ahead of the targets he set in his five year plan for the club; His next target is a girls team.
At a time when so many people are bemoaning the lack of diversity in cricket it is encouraging to see a club where the mind, the action and the result are just as good. The mixed demographic of the neighborhood is well represented within the teams and on the club committee. “I see a lot of clubs in league cricket that are predominantly white, and their leadership is predominantly white,” says Roberts. “Our chairman is Asian, our secretary is white, our finance officer is black, our defense officer is female, so everyone has a voice.”
When the younger kids go home for the day, the older kids stay on for a “master class” with Serasinghe, who averaged 47.07 in 137 first-class appearances, and even captained Tamil Union, Muttiah Muralitharan’s old team. He is currently 91 short of 1,000 league runs for the season. His experience has been a huge help to the first team, who have already been promoted back to Division Three and need one more win to reach the top.
For Roberts, the improvements over the past two years confirm his belief that cricket needs more community coaches, and better structures linking schools and clubs. He is doing similar work for Essex and the ACE programme, and is keen to share what has worked at Catford & Cyphers with other clubs struggling to recruit and retain younger members.
“One thing our club is good at is communicating with each other, understanding where we’ve all come from and how we can help those who come from similar backgrounds,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I could never leave.”