A game of tape-ball cricket at the Tape Ball World Cup in Leyton

A football ground in east London hosted the tape-ball "World Cup" last month

© John Sanders

Feature

It's tape-ball cricket, east London style

Played in car parks and football grounds, this casual version of the game is making its mark in England's capital

Alan Gardner |

Standing in the shade cast by the West Stand at Leyton Orient Football Club's Brisbane Road ground, it is possible to see a small round object through the transparent panels of the roof some 40 feet above. The tennis ball tightly wrapped in tape, which moments ago landed up there with a dull thud, begins to roll back towards the pitch before coming to a stop, caught in the guttering. There will be a few more lost before this particular day is over.

A replacement is quickly relayed to the middle - which, given this is a football pitch, is somewhere between the penalty area and the centre circle. Another delivery is whacked towards long-on (a cone just beyond the halfway line), where a good bit of fielding gets a "Shabash!" from a nearby team-mate.

Imran Safdar, who was born in Pakistan and now runs a car-breaking business in north London, has not played cricket with a hard ball in 20 years. The demands of working life don't leave much time for joining a club, but having grown up with tape ball, he was invited to join a group playing the game "six-seven years ago" in Waltham Forest in east London. "Now I can count 80-90 friends involved in cricket and we know each other very well."

Safdar is captain of Apex, named after his company; he finds it easier to arrange his playing commitments now that he's his own boss. There are six teams here, wearing a variety of kit (spot the Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts). Most of the players already know each other, and arrange to meet up regularly via WhatsApp groups.

"It is easier," says Irfan Younis, who is on the Baghi Raja team. "Back home in Pakistan, I played my whole life with tape ball - I never played with hard ball. Played first time hard ball in this country, when I came to the UK in 2005."

Play

Tape ball cricket in Essex: from a car park to a county ground

Fittingly, there is a hallowed ground on which to play. Forget Lord's: if you're involved with tape ball in east London, it's all about the 24-hour Asda supermarket in Leyton. With floodlights to allow all-night cricke… sorry, shopping, it is a favourite location, even if the store managers are not always so pleased by its popularity. Brushes with the UK's health and safety laws may be one reason why this form of the game has remained largely out of sight.

"It's always challenging, because in a car park there are cars as well, pedestrians walking - so it's not safe," admits Younis. "But we still play, because we know it's a tennis ball. If we hit someone, they're not going to get hurt. But it can be an issue."

His team-mate interjects: "We play at night time, start at 11.30 and finish at 2 in the morning, so no one is in the car park. Everybody is working 9-5, or maybe later shifts, but when they finish, we can play a couple of hours."

According to the 2011 national census, 5.7% of the UK population is ethnically South Asian (a definition that includes those of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Afghan and Nepali descent) and that figure is only likely to grow. By the ECB's estimate, South Asians account for a third of recreational cricketers and they are more committed, with 79% playing every week. The board's research also suggests there are 1m South Asian cricket fans in the UK, ploughing £121m into the game annually - although most of that spend goes on playing, rather than following a team or attending matches.

That reference to financial contribution might suggest to the cynical that "market" is as important a word here as "community". But if the ECB does want to sell more tickets to the South Asian population, while also providing a boost to flagging participation numbers, then it will have to do a better job of engaging with it. To that end, last month it launched a South Asian Action Plan, spearheaded by Lord Patel of Bradford, an ECB independent director and the first British Asian to sit on the board.

Arfan Akram (centre) explains the rules of the tournament to the participating teams at Leyton Orient

Arfan Akram (centre) explains the rules of the tournament to the participating teams at Leyton Orient © John Sanders

The plan has a number of measurable aims: installing more non-turf pitches (NTPs), supporting a greater variety of formats, establishing mentoring and talent-identification programmes, and making coaching at the top level more representative.

These efforts will be focused in urban areas, since that is where the majority of British Asians reside. Ten core cities have been identified - three in Yorkshire, four in the Midlands - but one looms largest of all: London.

For Essex County Cricket Club, the swathe of suburbia between Barking and Walthamstow has always held great significance - call it Gooch country or Nasser's manor.

The driving force behind the work they are doing in London's outskirts is a man called Arfan Akram. "Whatever goes on in terms of cricket within those London boroughs, he knows about it," says John Childs, the former England spinner who ran Essex's academy until 2016, when he took on a new role as head scout.

This, it seems, is no overstatement. After playing first-class cricket while at Cambridge and being involved with Essex's 2nd XI, Akram went into banking in the City of London, before realising he "needed to find a way back" into the game that he loved. Now, working as Essex's cricket coordinator in east London, he oversees efforts to develop the game in the area where he grew up; his father, originally from Pakistan, played for Ilford - still synonymous with the Hussains - while Akram turns out for Wanstead & Snaresbrook, one of the traditional clubs ploughing a productive furrow.

Elegance isn't a prerequisite for tape-ball cricket, but it's welcome if you're scoring big

Elegance isn't a prerequisite for tape-ball cricket, but it's welcome if you're scoring big © John Sanders

Akram well knows the challenges cricket faces in England, but he is optimistic about its ability to grow in built-up areas that many have seen as inhospitable to the game, reeling off the projects that he and Essex are involved in with a rat-a-tat enthusiasm. Lack of free time and opportunity, and of access to facilities and equipment are issues that affect not just the British Asian community, but he believes that while "there is an assumption the numbers have dropped", in reality participation is on the up.

"Cricket works in east London because they get what they want to get out of cricket," he says. This does not necessarily mean playing 40-over games in traditional kit on a Saturday or Sunday; some Asian teams may not want to play in affiliated leagues, with the associated fees and bureaucracy, but if they ask to share facilities with an established club, then Akram and his colleagues are there to assist. A lot of urban recreational cricket takes place a long way from rolled turf pitches, between multiple jobs and calls to prayers - and, until recently, beyond the understanding of officialdom.

"We were quite surprised at the amount of cricket that's played in London," Childs says, "but a lot of it is indoors, a lot of it tape-ball cricket - a huge amount." It is this realisation that is partly behind the South Asian Action Plan, and what prompted Essex's increasing engagement with tape ball.

"Tape-ball is enormous," Akram says. "We've embraced it. We don't make the rules up, we talk to the community who play it and ask them. And a lot of credit to local authorities, because in the past it's been 'Thou shalt not come on our land unless you've booked it', but they understand that casual play is a critical part of cricket.

"Without looking at the buildings around you, or the facilities - because we obviously are in London - but you can close your eyes and go, 'I could be in the subcontinent here', seeing some guy with his traditional clothes on, whacking it out of the park."

Other benefits have begun to dawn on those in charge of public funding.

Not quite sarnies and tea: for tape-ball, it's samosas and pakoras all round

Not quite sarnies and tea: for tape-ball, it's samosas and pakoras all round © John Sanders

"Cricket brings communities together, but it also enables authorities and other groups to provide additional services, around health, getting people active," says Forhad Hussain, a former councillor who is now a board member for Essex Cricket in the Community. "There's the community cohesion side of things, but also things like skills development, CV workshop, encouraging people to get into employment."

Essex have run three tape-ball events in the last year, including what was billed as the Tornado Tape Ball World Cup at Leyton Orient, which also saw children from local schools, including a visually impaired group, invited to play in the morning. Much of the organisation is done through Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups rather than traditional channels of communication, and that forward-thinking approach was taken for a festival held at the club's ground in Chelmsford at the end of April. Footage was streamed online and registered over 11,000 views.

So what exactly is tape-ball cricket, east London style? As I was brought up nearer to Kelvedon than Karachi, I am going to need to some help.

Rules vary but there are usually no lbws - no pads either - and in some cases four stumps are used, as compensation for the bowler. These matches feature teams of eight players facing four overs, bowled to one end. The dimensions of the pitch at Leyton Orient mean shots that land in the stand behind the corner flags (roughly third man to fine leg) will counts as dot balls. Batsmen retire at 25 runs, and bowlers can't bat in the top four.

Celebrate like your heroes

Celebrate like your heroes © John Sanders

Teams have to provide their own balls to bat against, for obvious reasons. What if the tape gets a tear in it, I ask? "That's the magic," comes the reply from one bowler. "You just hide that trick." However, most seem to prefer a hard, freshly taped ball to one that is misbehaving, since batsmen can ask for it to be changed at any time regardless.

Twock!

"That's not coming back…"

"New ball!"

"These are big-boy hitters," grins Hasan Ali, a 21-year-old signalman with London Underground, after we have watched the ball being deposited on the roof of the West Stand, roughly over midwicket. Hasan also plays hard-ball cricket, bowling left-arm seam, but says that this is a different game.

"You think you're the best bowler on Saturday, but if you come down here, you might get hit for a lot of sixes. That's what happened to me first time.

"I've learned. Don't bowl a line and length, you're going to get whacked massively. Toe-crushing yorkers, heavy length - anything above the chest or belly. Nothing easy for him to pick you up."

Some of the players bat right back in the crease, a few inches from the stumps, in order to get leverage. "Certain people can hit the yorkers, the MS Dhoni shot - the windmill - goes far," Hasan says. "To be honest, you don't even have to middle it and it goes."

The Tigers players pose with their winners' medals

The Tigers players pose with their winners' medals © John Sanders

One of the attractions of holding this tape-ball event at Leyton Orient is the offer of playing under proper floodlights, says Akram. We'll soon find out whether it matches up to Asda. For now, it is still afternoon, but perhaps the perfect vignette of the competition is about to take place: the bowler, wearing a Manchester United shirt, charges in, only to be launched out of the ground - no bouncing on the roof this time - and then smashed for six more over midwicket. A single comes off the next ball, before the turnaround: wicket, dot ball, wicket; stumps rattled both times.

The batting side, having scored 12 off the first two balls, end up with a total of 36 for 6 from their four overs. Later in the evening, once the lights do come on, the death-or-glory approach continues.

Anyone is welcome, I'm told, but apart from a few Afghans playing for a college team, there is a strong Pakistani flavour to the competition. That much is evident from the choice of celebration by Tigers, the eventual winners: push-ups in front of the stands. Misbah would be proud.

Watching on from the sidelines is Feroze Khushi, an 18-year-old batsman who is already making his way in the game with Essex. Khushi has Pakistani blood, too - his father was born in Jhelum before becoming a police officer in east London - and gets asked the usual questions about allegiance, but he has a ready answer: "I would want to play for England, because that's where I was brought up. I played all my cricket in England, I play for an English county, so that would be an easy choice for me."

Khushi is a hard-ball player, having joined Wanstead & Snaresbrook at seven and progressed through the age groups with Essex, but he has learned about the passion for tape ball from his relatives. He also knows Hasan, who was his captain at college, and the two sit in the dugout to catch up over food.

Hasan Ali (left) and Feroze Khushi at the Leyton event

Hasan Ali (left) and Feroze Khushi at the Leyton event © John Sanders

There is no real pathway from tape ball to playing professionally, although Essex believe it could soon play a role in their talent ID process. "The fruits will probably start to come in the next two, three, four years," Akram suggests. Some think that it could become a viable game in its own right; the ECB has been mocked in many quarters for its 100-ball concept, but for a simple version of cricket that appeals to the South Asian community, you needn't look much further than tape ball.

Essex hope to make this an annual event at Orient (which literally means east), and it's not much of a creative leap to imagine where someone like Barry Hearn - the snooker and darts impresario, and former chairman at Leyton Orient FC - might take the idea.

Floodlights, camera, action? The ICC Tape Ball World Cup? If so, just remember where the first one was held.

Alan Gardner is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick

 

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