Cricket's best pitch: Broadwater Farm

'We found that this was the perfect sport, even more than football. There's a certain discipline that you get with it'
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The Independent Online

Broadwater Farm. The very name still evokes nightmarish memories of the riots of 1985 and the October day when a London bobby, Keith Blakelock, was butchered by a hate-fuelled mob on a Tottenham estate. Back then, with its eyesore tenements grim, grey and foreboding, it was a no-go area; a couple of decades on it has become an all-systems go area, the spruced-up tower blocks housing a multi-ethnic, multi-cultured community with its own schools, shops, kids' playgrounds and even a bit of parkland, albeit somewhat overgrown, where the only raised voices that rend the air are likely to be cries of: "Owzat!"

One afternoon last week, just a few yards from the pathway where PC Blakelock was hacked to death, a group of a dozen youngsters, mainly black but some white, were having nets. Only there wasn't a net. The backdrop was a run-down, graffiti-splattered amphitheatre, occasionally the stage for rap and reggae disco nights, with an orange compo ball, yellow plastic stumps, and a blue bat that goes with the sort of set you buy in Woolies rather than Lillywhites. No matter. Cricket has come to Broadwater Farm, and it seems to be going places.

The estate is one of several where the game is now the thing, thanks to the splendid work being done by the London Community Cricket Association, a largely unsung and certainly underfunded organisation which is fruitfully engaging the most English of pastimes as a catalyst to promote not only racial harmony but also to enhance the lives of those youngsters with special needs, the physically and mentally impaired. One such school is on Broadwater Farm.

Last week, the LCCA president, Phil Tufnell, took his blistered feet to Wallington, Surrey - he was in the middle of his 500-mile charity walk - to open the association's new £500,000 cricket centre where the handicapped and the underprivileged can be coached - and indeed, schooled, for there are also classroom facilities in the new pavilion.

The LCCA was founded 20 years ago, after the Brixton riots and just before those in Tottenham, to set up inner-city cricket projects, including leagues for the unemployed. It had been promised Lottery funding but had the giant cardboard cheque ripped from its grasp when New Labour took over and decided that such money could be better spent elsewhere. Not a penny from the Exchequer, Lottery or cricket establishment has gone to assist the LCCA, although London mayor Ken Livingstone has chipped in five grand to support the inaugural Inner-City World Cup which will be held at Lord's next month, featuring 16 national teams, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Blind cricket - there is a Test series here against Australia this summer - also comes under the multi-spoked umbrella of the LCCA, whose funding is drawn largely from donations and charities. But it is the pioneering work in places like Broadwater Farm which should shame Blair's pinch-pennies.

There you will find the Big Daddy of inner-city cricket, 40-year-old Mike Thompson, "Mikey" as he is known on the estates, a large, jolly Jamaican who has inspired a generation of young players from deprived backgrounds. Here is a coach who is missionary, not a mercenary.

He says: "We wanted to do something for kids in the deprived areas of London and decided to target estates like Broadwater Farm. Some had a few problems at home and others had got into a bit of trouble with the police, but we found that cricket was the perfect sport, even more than football where there is always the opportunity for a spot of aggro. It is much more a social game. There's a certain discipline that you get with it that you don't get in most other sports, and it translates into what they do off the field, too.

"This is a sport that teaches you to believe in yourself. When you come out and give the ball a good whack, it's as satisfying as reading a good book, and it can also get some of the anger out of you.

"Even the language of the game demonstrates its discipline, 'playing a straight bat', 'it's not cricket' and things like that. They actually seem to understand that it's all about sportsmanship. Honestly, without cricket I don't know what would be happening to some of the kids on this estate."

Usually the coaching sessions involve around 10 to 15 youngsters once a week. Some are now good enough to attend the cricket academy at Hackney Community College, the best of its kind in London.

Among them is Neneto Davis, 19, originally from Jamaica, who now plays for Middlesex Under-19s and has been 12th man to the First XI. His talent as a medium pacer was nurtured by Thompson. "Mikey has been a big influence on me. I'd like to follow him in what he is doing in coaching one day," says Davis. He has lived on Broadwater Farm for three years, and has heard about "the bad old days" but finds it hard to reconcile what happened then with the togetherness now. He admits: "Before I got involved in cricket, I might never have spoken to some of the other lads, but we are now part of a team. We enjoy being together."

Thompson believes that the future of English cricket lies on estates like this, and predicts that one white lad, fast bowler Adam Hall, 16, will play first-class cricket. There are Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians and even the occasional Chinese and Turkish youngsters who turn up for coaching. Soon they will start a Midnight League. "It wouldn't surprise me if, in the next 10 years, we had a fast bowler playing from England who comes from Somalia. These guys are 6ft 6in, fast and powerful," Thompson said.

Although he was brought up in Jamaica with his 14 brothers, and played club cricket there and in Dublin, Thompson says now he would never leave England. "My work is unfinished. I feel very proud of what we are achieving, and my dream is to see more of these kids playing sport, and fewer police on the streets."