Ollie Goodwin discovers the grass roots of our summer sport – as well as the problems and potential solution to England’s cricket crisis – in the bumpy nets of Brixton’s Brockwell Park
English cricket is in a precarious place. A smashing down from the Australians, a rolling racism scandal, arguments about the structure of county cricket – there was a lot to digest this winter.
So it’s important that we don’t forget about the roots of the game.
If you’ve ever been to Brockwell Park, you might have spotted the AstroTurf nets up the top of the hill, but over the years they have deteriorated.
As anyone who has batted in them will tell you, the surface can be a little, how should we put it … unpredictable.
But it’s there, it’s free and on a summer afternoon it’s always full. It doesn’t come more grass roots than places like this.
Surely if the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Sport England are hoping to tackle the bigger issues of the game, the place to start is its roots.
Some of the local users of the Brockwell nets recently decided that enough was enough and, led by Alex Bigham, a Herne Hill local, a petition for much needed repairs was launched. It currently has more than 1,200 signatures.
“We really need to improve it for the new season,” Alex told me. “I started playing there with my brother when we moved to the area, and we met a few other players who practised there.
“I added one of them on WhatsApp and it’s now grown to a group of over 70 players.” Alex is really the driving force behind the revamp project.
I began heading to the nets last summer. The first person I met was Giordy, who added me to the group chat and from then on I got chatting to the rest of the lads who were all welcoming.
The appropriately named “Brockwell Nets” group chat is always buzzing with cricket chat, game offers and people organising meetups for a net. They’ve a proper community feel going and it’s great being involved.
“From teenagers who are getting into league cricket to retired fast bowlers who will fire down an occasional bouncer in between cans of Red Stripe,” is how Alex describes the diverse community.
Cricket in England just isn’t accessible enough.
There’s a clear lack of facilities for people coming from less advantaged backgrounds with what’s essentially a pay wall stopping people who might otherwise be keen to get involved.
However, the bigger picture is an absence of representation and a huge pool of untapped potential. As we’ve seen over the past months at Yorkshire Cricket Club, this leads to huge problems and the time for change is now.
“The ECB and certain county cricket boards could learn a lot from inner-city nets such as Brockwell Park. I’ve never seen anything but good vibes. I think it is a wonderful chance to pass on enthusiasm, regardless of age, gender or race, and in this day and age, you rarely get that opportunity.” Hector, a Herne Hill local, told me. He’s spot on.
The accessibility of spaces like this is really important for involving people who might not normally get the opportunity.
As Giordy told me: “These facilities have been a lifesaver. They’re free, so you save costs in renting out a net. Plus you can use them as much as you want. For anyone who wants to develop their skills, having a free net is beneficial.”
Last year the ECB received a share of the £300m “summer sports” bailout from the government. It’s interesting to see where the money goes. While it might be easy to pump more money into organised cricket’s county and age-group setups, making the game accessible must surely be a priority.
Alex spells it out: “If you’re keen to get involved in sport, cost shouldn’t be a barrier. We need more people from state schools, more women and girls and more players from BAME backgrounds in cricket.
“Lambeth is an incredibly diverse borough, so we need to ensure our sports facilities are open to all.”
As it stands, this just isn’t the case. Despite welcome efforts from local clubs and charities like Lambeth Tigers football club and Dulwich cricket club, there is a huge wealth of untapped potential in people who just don’t get the chance.
While having it’s great having a space where everyone can have a knock for free, Brockwell nets can be a dangerous place to play.
With a concrete base and thin layer of felt over the top, after years of use they are ridiculously bouncy. At our house we call it the Gabba, after the Brisbane Cricket Ground in Australia and its notoriously hard pitch that has seen generation after generation of English batters humiliated by Australian fast bowlers.
If I’m being honest, it’s a terrifying place to bat.
People who play there regularly bear the scars. Most batters end up wearing a couple.
Giordy explained: “The condition of the nets is not up to standard. The metal nets ruin balls and, if hit at the incorrect angle, the ball can turn into a missile hitting people on the other side of the nets.”
The group are worried that it’s only a matter of time before something serious happens.
“I saw a young child being hit in the chest by a cricket ball that had flown out of one of the many holes in the cricket nets,” Hector told me.
The condition of the nets t epitomises what’s going on in English cricket. There’s so much potential here in South London. A culturally diverse place with the Oval, one of England’s major international grounds, just down the road.
“Maybe we can find some opening batters to help us in a future Ashes series!” Alex said, tongue in cheek.
It looks like, thanks to Alex and the rest of the group who have worked really hard, these facilities are going to get the attention they need.
A Lambeth council spokesperson said: “We have a rolling programme of investment and improvement to Lambeth’s much loved parks, sports facilities and open spaces.
“That includes work to repair the cricket nets at Brockwell Park that have been highlighted.
“The council has secured quotes for the work on the nets, and the required repairs will follow.”
With luck, I’ll be batting on a decent surface in a few months’ time.
And with some more luck, places like the Brockwell Park nets will be buzzing this summer, helping the next generation develop their skills, without any cost.
Big thanks to Alex, Giordy, Hector and everyone from Brockwell for their help and continued good work!