Saturday, mid-April. You can feel the pre-season buzz, sunshine triggering chemically-induced smiles, kids and adults equally excited to be out of the house. At Catford & Cyphers Cricket Club, the pub tables lining the boundary are all taken and today’s friendly is being talked about with the outsized significance of an EastEnders Christmas special. A local derby with Catford Wanderers always brings a bit of grudge but this time a defector is playing for the home side and Wanderers have not quite forgiven him yet.
An older member on a mobility scooter tests out the new brick path that one of the Cyphers players has laid in front of the pavilion. Bill Perera, club chairman, gazes at the gleaming white picket fences he recently paid for and the gorgeous green of the trees rustling behind them and sighs: “It’s like paradise.” This is not something you often hear said of Lewisham. But this ground, secreted behind a suburban street, is indeed a little glimpse of heaven – and it offers a hopeful counter-narrative to the ones about racism and classism that have dominated English cricket for the past year.
Players from the second, third and fourth teams are all here for the craic. Ferried Ahmed travels over from Ilford a couple of times a week to hang out here with his mates. “Saturdays are really good,” he says. “There are some other local clubs who don’t have their own bar – West Indian clubs, Sri Lankan clubs – so they come to ours and it’s a great vibe.”
In the middle Sachithra Serasinghe spanks 53 in a total of 210, then a blond 15-year-old works his way through the Wanderers’ wickets. Everyone is excited about the arrival of Serasinghe – who had been looking for a club since moving to south London from the Lancashire leagues, where he played for Bacup – and incredibly proud of Tom Purcell, who plays for the Kent Academy. “Usually it’s only posh boys from public schools who get to 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 exist on the far periphery of that county’s consciousness, their entire existence an anomaly in a cricketing region more than usually stuffed with private-school product. For the past decade the mere survival of this unusually diverse and deeply committed cricketing community has counted as success. Now, against all the odds, they are staging a comeback. Talk to anyone here, and they will tell you how Asher Roberts is turning their fortunes around.
Roberts is only 24 years old. Born to a pair of passionate West Indies supporters, he was lucky to have primary school teachers who also loved the game and knew how to teach it. A Lewisham district coach called John Palmer spotted his talent and soon he was developing his game at Catford & Cyphers, and with the London Schools’ Cricket Association, usually the only black kid in any team he played for. His dream of a professional career never came true but Roberts still wanted to devote his life to the game, and took the job of Catford & Cyphers coach in 2020.
The first XI began this year in Division Four. They had been flirting with relegation for several years before they finally went down last season. Roberts’s greatest concern on taking the job was the state of the juniors section: “We could barely make an under-11 team,” he says. “I’ve met parents who live five houses down from the club who’ve told me they never even knew it was here.”
Last summer he launched a recruitment drive, offering coaching sessions to local schools, in most cases introducing the pupils to the game for the first time. “There are good facilities in the majority of these schools but the teachers don’t know how to teach cricket so they tell the kids to play football or rounders, whatever’s going to keep them most busy.” His appearance in some of south London’s most deprived areas has been met with delight. “Not to be big-headed,” smiles Roberts, “but they do want me back.”
Catford & Cyphers have reaped the harvest. Last season junior membership climbed from 30 to 81; keeping the game accessible and affordable has been key, from trial periods and subsidised fees to redistribution of club kit for those who cannot afford to buy new. “It’s an expensive sport,” says Roberts. “From head to toe you can be wearing a grand’s worth of equipment. But we shouldn’t be turning people away because they can’t afford it.”
Friday, late August. Purcell is in the nets, preparing to bowl at a child barely half his height wearing a Paris Saint-Germain kit. Nine-year-old Dominic had never played cricket until a couple of weeks ago; now he is practising air shots over long on. Purcell lobs one gently, lands it wide. “That’s two press ups!” the tiny, ruthless kid shouts from the crease.
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 the club has been running over the summer holidays. They have averaged 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.”
Friday night training for the colts section, meanwhile, has been drawing a crowd of around 150 children. It was a smart move to change it from Saturday mornings, says Brooke, because now the parents stick around to use the bar, and the food trucks parked up in the driveway create a festival atmosphere. Community has always been a powerful characteristic of this club and it has become part of the attraction. “Everybody gets on like family,” says Roberts. Junior membership now stands around 200, well ahead of the targets he set in his five-year plan for the club; a girls’ team is his next goal.
At a time when so many are agonising over cricket’s lack of diversity it is heartening to see a club where intention, action and outcome are so well-aligned. The neighbourhood’s mixed demographic is well represented both within the teams and on the club’s 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 safeguarding officer is female, so everyone has a voice.”
When the younger kids go home for the day, the older ones stay on for a “masterclass” 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 boon for the first team, who have already secured promotion back to Division Three and need one more win to finish top.
As for Roberts, the improvements over the past two years confirm his belief that what cricket needs are more community coaches, and better structures linking schools and clubs. He has been doing similar work for Essex and with the ACE programme, and is keen to share the things that have worked at Catford & Cyphers with other clubs that are 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 that come from similar backgrounds,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I could never leave.”