In the sports hall at Birmingham’s Joseph Chamberlain Health & Fitness Centre, a one-day cricket tournament with a difference is under way.
Small boys bounce excitedly in front of plastic stumps and jostle at the doors to get a look at the action; older ones saunter coolly to the crease, before unleashing ferocious shots that ricochet off the walls, to roars of approval from teammates.
There’s no dress code here: players sport a happy mix of football shorts, tracksuits, baseball caps on backwards, cricket shirts and acid-bright trainers. Competition is certainly in the air, but nerves not so much. The overwhelming sense is one of fun.
This is tape-ball cricket, a fast, frenetic and accessible version of the game, that does away with the need for expansive green spaces, pricey equipment, such as pads and helmets, and long hours waiting for a turn to bat or bowl.
“It’s more intense,” says Kennard, 15, from Leicester – and that makes it more enjoyable. “You get pressure built up from the start of the game.”
Tape-ball cricket takes its name from the tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape that it’s played with – the tape makes it behave more like a cricket ball, but without the potential for bruising.
Teams in this Midlands-wide tournament come from some of the 154 community cricket clubs run by the charity Chance to Shine’s street cricket programme in deprived communities across England. Professionally coached, they play in enclosed spaces, such as leisure centres and fenced-in areas in local parks and estates, with rules adapted to fit the settings: balls that hit the back or side walls score one run, while hitting the far wall earns you a four – or a six if it’s high enough. Hit the ceiling – or get caught off the wall – and you’re out.
Bilal and Ihtisham, both 14 and from Nottingham, are avid new recruits, jiggling in their seats and talking over each other in their eagerness to explain their enthusiasm. “Street cricket gives the game a bit more suspense,” Bilal says. “It makes it more alive.”
Ihtisham agrees: “More people get to bat and more people get to bowl.” And then there’s the social side: “Since I started this two months ago, I’ve made five new friends,” he says.
Like the majority of the boys here, most of whom are from south Asian backgrounds, Bilal has played cricket with his family for years, but says joining a traditional club had never appealed to him. “Some clubs are cheap, but then they’re farther away,” he says. “The closer ones are more expensive.”
Bilal and Ihtisham worry about playing traditional hardball cricket around small children, or dogs that are prone to making off with the ball – so the tape-ball has been a revelation for them. “We want more of this,” Bilal says. “Because we’re like a community, we’re all coming together.”
Since the scheme began in 2008 it has reached 10,000 young people, 84% of whom were not members of traditional cricket clubs when they joined up.
“The idea was to break down any barriers that might exist for young people to get involved in cricket,” says Chance to Shine operations manager Richard Joyce.
“It’s in the heart of their community, it’s free, and the format is stripped back to a really fast-paced game. So, for people who might think ‘cricket’s boring, cricket’s standing in a field’, actually we play six-a-side and just 20 balls an innings, so the games take five or 10 minutes.”
For Siraj Ali, a coach with the club in Saltley, Birmingham, getting involved at the age of 12 or 13 proved to be a turning point. “It kept me off the streets,” says the 21-year-old. “I come from a very deprived area where there’s not much opportunity out there and it’s easy to get pulled into the wrong crowd.
“I was one of those kids and doing wrong things, but playing cricket has given me a separate life and kept me away. I know a lot of people who’ve chosen the wrong way and ended up in jail.”
When participants were asked to rate how much they enjoyed the sessions on a scale of one to 10 last summer, 86% gave them eight and above. For Mehroze, aged nine, and Ali, eight, from Sparkhill, Birmingham, it’s not just about having fun – the scheme also helps them grow. “They motivate us,” says Mehroze, legs dangling from the chair the pair are sharing. “They care about us,” adds Ali.
The day ends with victory for the Leicester teams in both the under-12 and under-15 competitions, and – after some initial disappointment among their opponents – the same relaxed, friendly spirit. “Cricket is always there,” says Bilal. “You can go to the park and play there with your mates whether you’re 50, 60 or 14.”
This article was first published on the Guardian website and is copyright of Guardian News & Media.