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The Spin | ‘New lease of life’: how walking cricket is giving the over-50s a taste of Bazball
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The Spin | ‘New lease of life’: how walking cricket is giving the over-50s a taste of Bazball

In Lawrence Booth and Nick Hoult’s terrific book on the subject, James Anderson is asked what Bazball means to him. “Bazball is trying to encourage people to get back to the kid in you,” he says. “How you imagined the game would be: exciting, fast and fun.”

Some of the purest forms of Bazball are being played in leisure centres up and down the country. Walking cricket has given thousands of older people the chance to reconnect with their inner child, to remember how exciting and fun (OK, maybe not fast) cricket can be and, like any self-respecting Bazballer, to hit sixes. While 50-over cricket is having a bit of an existential crisis, over-50s cricket is thriving. If he’s not still taking wickets at Test level, Anderson will be eligible to play himself in September 2032.

The one fast thing about walking cricket is its growth. Participation numbers are rising rapidly and last year The One Show sent Angela Rippon to Yorkshire to do a feature on it. More recently, in March, the Indoor School at Lord’s hosted the inaugural inter-county walking cricket festival. “It was an amazing day at Lord’s,” says Aimee Illidge, a project officer with Kent Cricket Community Trust, the charitable arm of Kent CCC. “We realised then how big walking cricket is becoming. All the counties have thriving teams.”

Walking cricket being played by a community group of over 50’s gentlemen at Three Hills Sport Centre, in Folkestone, Kent on the 22nd of April 2024. Walking cricket has been developing across the UK over the last 10 years, with the aim to make cricket accessible for all ages and abilities. It is still the traditional game but has been adapted to a slower paced version.View image in fullscreen

At the end of last month, on a brisk Monday morning, The Spin visited the Three Hills Sports Centre in Folkestone, Kent, to see how walking cricket works. As you’d expect there are a few adjustments to the official rules, but it is recognisably cricket. The main thing is that everybody has the same involvement – if you are out, you keep batting but the bowling team are awarded five runs. At local level the rules are made of plasticine, which allows each group to manipulate them for maximum enjoyment.

Aimee Illidge has a background in community-based theatre, and instantly recognised the best thing about the game. “Walking cricket,” she says, “is just a different form of community engagement.” The group we watched was exclusively male, but that was a coincidence – there are women players at all the other Kent hubs – rather than a representation of a diverse, testosterone-free sport. The oldest player in one of the Kent hubs is 87, and none of the usual barriers of an implicitly ageist society are in place. There’s an organic purity and infectious positivity to the whole thing. In a way the most important player is the least talented, because they represent what those involved cherish most: inclusivity. While everybody uses that word, it is spoken with enthusiasm and pride rather than opportunistic cynicism.

In Kent there are players who are hard of hearing, have mobility issues (they only need to complete half a run), live with dementia or learning difficulties. Nobody feels the need to mask or hide. When the BCCI launches the Walking IPL, we hope each player profile will proudly state the relevant medical abbreviations: R Smyth RHB RM DVT OSD.

“People have limitations that might prevent them from being selected for a cricket team,” says the team captain Mark, 62. “I’ve got my own limitations – my natural batting position is No12. All that matters is that people want to play.”

At first, Graham didn’t particularly want to play. In 2022, after an operation on both knees, he needed two walking sticks. A few months later his wife saw an advert on Facebook for the first Folkestone session and suggested he try it. Graham had played only a handful games of cricket in his life, but a talent for walloping the ball back over the bowler’s head revealed itself very quickly. On the day The Spin was there he became the first person to hit six sixes in an over. In the 18 months since he joined the group, Graham has lost nearly a quarter of his body weight.

For many it is a gateway, whether that’s to other forms of exercise, greater health-consciousness or just developing the confidence to use public transport. If your first image of walking cricket is Father Ted, specifically the Craggy Island All Priests Over-75s Indoor Football Challenge Match, erase it. It’s more tiring than it looks and there are some high-class players. And while there are certain Father Ted touches, they only add to the charm. The Sittingbourne group has to share the hall with an Aerobics group, which means the background noise is not polite applause but pumping, percussive dance music.

Rob SmythView image in fullscreen

Walking cricket offers the perfect hat-trick of health benefits: physical, mental and social. “It gave me a new lease of life after I retired,” says John, a classical technician who opened the batting for Malta during his army days and now plays twice a week. “The chat after the game is as much fun as the cricket.” Players need a very good excuse to skip the post-match gathering for tea and cake, there are community days with the opportunity for the whole over-5os squad to watch Kent play and a WhatsApp group where the moment of the match is awarded each week. What nobody really talks about is which team won; some people don’t even know.

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As the game grows, there will be challenges. The first is the dreaded F-word; one of Kent’s centres is currently inactive because of a lack of funding. The second is the the delicate balance between community and competition. At Lord’s, some counties picked their strongest first XIs while others spread the best players evenly “Eventually there might be two separate streams, one focused on community and the other on competition,” says Aimee. “It’s something that needs to evolve.”

Right at the end, having fielded for a bit, I faced the last three balls of the day from Paul, a left-arm bowler. “He swings it in, be careful,” said the non-striker Nigel, as I visualised an elegant drive over mid-on. The first ball was on me faster than I could say ‘high front elbow’, but I managed to defend it awkwardly. The next two, replicas of Wasim Akram’s delivery to Chris Lewis in the 1992 World Cup final, sent my plastic stumps flying, or at least wobbling.

Three balls, minus 10 runs, game over. As we shook hands I expected to feel embarrassed but I realised I was smiling. Not nervously or awkwardly, just naturally. Like a kid.

  • If you are interested in walking cricket, contact your local county or u3a group. More information about the great work done by the Kent Cricket Community Trust, including their First Change program for refugees, can be found here.

  • This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

Source: theguardian.com