Sandfield Park School, Lancashire win the North West competition.JPG

Back in the Game

On the road again - how table cricket has lifted the spirits.

“Being here today isn’t about winning,” says 16-year-old Rain Humphreys, casting a glance across at Bishop Heber High School team-mates Olivia and Ellie, chattering away excitedly during their lunchbreak. Rain’s comment sticks in the mind, long after the scores at the North West regional table cricket finals have been totted up, the echoes and chatter that bounced off the walls of Stretford Sports Village have faded, the tables folded and stashed away in minibuses by the Taverners’ tight-knit, well-drilled team and their small army of volunteers.

The penultimate stop on a three-week odyssey to find nine regional winners who will contest finals day at Lord’s has resulted in victory for Sandfield Park. Hailing from West Derby, in the heart of Liverpool, they’re an impressive unit. A couple of their six-strong side have their wheelchairs decked out in red-and-white scarves to indicate their Scouse footballing preference.

“We’ve never been to Lord’s - this is the furthest we’ve ever got. And we’ll be in London for a final this weekend, as well,” smiles their delighted PE teacher, Kevin Gauden, referencing the Reds’ FA Cup clash with Chelsea. “The scousers are coming!”

Yet it is the eloquent words of Rain, due to sit the first of her GCSEs the following week, which resonate most strongly. The sentiment would have been appropriate in any year, but this year it rings with bell-like clarity. Being here today is about exactly that - being here.

Three long years since Covid took a sledgehammer to a world most of us thought we understood, laying waste to conventions that gave substance to our lives - and in some instances, the glue holding them together - there’s a sense of relief. Time, frozen, feels like it is slowly thawing out; those nervous smiles giving way to beams once more.

Amlyn Layton, Disability Development Officer at the Lancashire Cricket Foundation, nails the mood perfectly. “Today I don’t get any air of concern around,” he says. “In terms of people being able to go out and do things in groups, the handbrake has been sort of gradually let off.

“It’s so good to have a competition back at this stage - to have something national and that opportunity for progression, for schools to experience bigger days. I’d imagine a lot of new friends will be made today.”

Table cricket, so long a flagship Taverners programme, became ever-more conspicuous through an enforced absence. And if today is, at least in a metaphorical sense, about winning - or at least finding a winner - Rain Humphreys is absolutely right. There’s a tangible magic at work here: the fabled slate-grey skies of Manchester which began this mid-May morning have given way to bright early afternoon sunshine. It’s another poetic moment, a sense of emerging, blinking after hibernation. For three hours or so, amid the down-home, careworn surrounds of Stretford Sports Village’s Chester Centre, where today’s other attractions include what looks like an NCT class for mothers-to-be down the corridor, there’s a glorious rebirth under way.

For Liz Kuda, the Charitable Programmes Executive, overseeing the Taverners’ troops, it’s been three weeks of Premier Inn stops, stodgy food, terrible evening telly, and hard - yet worthwhile - graft. Finding venues has proved trickier than usual - a couple cancelled, forcing a rejig of the itinerary - but the road to Lord’s is now clear. “It’s been a bit of a zig-zag,” she shrugs. “But you can sense how much enjoyment kids have had from it. It’s been so nice to talk to some of the teachers, who have come and said: ‘they were so excited to get on the bus today - and be in the traffic.”

It’s a view echoed by Taverners’ Disability Cricket Programme Manager Mark Bond. “The great thing about Covid, as bizarre as that sounds, is that everybody has experienced a bit of what disabled life is like,” he says. “For the last two years, you haven’t been able to access your venues, see your friends, do all the things you like - this is the equivalent of being able to go back to the pub with your mates.”

Talk to anyone today - participants, teachers, volunteers or administrators - all speak with one voice. Brad Taylor, a teacher with Piper Hill, from nearby Wythenshawe, points out Sameen, a year seven student who is largely non-verbal. “He’s one of two or three lads that really come out of their shell with this,” he says. “When we play some sports, he really doesn’t get involved, but table cricket - he just really enjoys. He loves numbers and anything to do with scoring. We try and do three or four tournaments a year - we get a lot out of it - coming and meeting people from other schools, taking part in an activity that works for any SEN student.

He adds: “It’s a great introduction to the school for year seven and eights - a lot of these have never been off-site before. Just look at their smiles.”

Redwood School’s entourage made the trip from Rochdale. Their charismatic teacher John-Carl Mylrea, who has supervised this year’s campaign - and built his own table such is the high demand for use at the school - says the absence has been keenly felt, with sessions helping towards students’ sports BTEC qualification. “They really look forward to it,” he says. “They’ve missed the competition aspect, especially, and the teamwork. We work a lot towards [breaking down] social, emotional barriers and promoting communication and leadership skills. Table cricket gives them the opportunity to meet their targets, breaking down those barriers - and give them a life outside of school.”

That’s certainly true of the entourage from Bridge College, which caters for 16-25-year-olds with disabilities, complex educational needs, and autism. A colourful crowd from nearby Openshaw, to the east of Manchester, their arrival was delayed by the distractive presence of a pair of miniature ponies visiting the school. “It held things up a little bit - we were an hour late leaving,” laughs Jade Kerr, alongside Sydney Halligan, recent recruits among the college staff. “This is the first time I’ve been to one of these events,” says Jade. “It’s lovely,” Sydney concurs. “I’m not sure what our scores are looking like, but we’re here for fun - that’s our priority.”

It’s hugely infectious. Jade, Sydney, and the Bridge College massive illuminate the place. Such is their vibrant, go-ahead presence, they are singled out for a Spirit of Cricket award, celebrated by the throwing of some impressive impromptu dance shapes.

None of this is lost on the parents. Neil Humphreys, Rain’s adoptive father, talks with great feeling about the trials of Covid and the impact solitude had, both on Rain’s confidence and motivation. While she thrived with some aspects of the curriculum through virtual one-to-ones across 18 months, the absence of the social element bit hard. The return of table cricket has brought that lost confidence back. “You wouldn’t have recognised Rain three months ago, she got so anxious,” Neil says. “And if you went back five or six years, you would have never got her into this hall.”

“People really need to see these things for themselves,” he says. “And kids of any ability can play this game.”

As one of 1,300 pupils at a mixed secondary in Malpas, a rural setting around 15 miles from Chester, besides table cricket, other adapted sports have included football, netball, and rugby.

For Rain, who lives with cerebral palsy, cricket has proved the main attraction - when she’s not counting down the days to see musical heroes McFly live in July. “It’s opened me up to new experiences and given people here a voice - it makes wheelchair people heard, when sometimes we’re not,” she says. “I first tried it in year nine and absolutely loved it. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a great opportunity - there will be loads of kids out there who might not have had that chance - it’s safe and works for all disabilities and ages.”

As everyone begins to make their way out, Ian Bown catches your correspondent’s arm. We’d spoken briefly earlier, catching each other’s eye and trading views on the value of these events for all. Ian’s day job is with BT, and together with partner Shirley - and sister, Sally - the trio have made the journey from Sale to volunteer. It’s one of three days a year BT set aside for the workforce to help with charitable causes. Ian has been attending these events for close on a decade - “once you’ve seen it, you’re hooked.” But he has something to add he didn’t mention before.

“My uncle lived with Down’s syndrome,” he says. “He was 60-odd when he died, and he was hidden away.” He pauses, briefly. “Now you see these kids,” and he waves his arms and swallows, taking a moment to reflect. “These kids are welcomed - and they join in. I just think that’s amazing. It really gets me, if I’m honest.”

Against a wider backdrop in 2022, a world that can often seem callous and cruel, the nourishment on offer here could counterbalance the junk food consumed on any of those Premier Inn evenings for Liz Kuda and company. “We always say in our team that we are very lucky,” she says. “Other teams within our organisation get to hear about the impact. We get to see it every day.” And with that, it’s onwards to Aylesbury, the final stop before that day out at Lord’s on which, as Rain and Neil Humphreys - and everyone assembled in Stretford today - knows full well, everyone emerges as a winner. This year, after all that has been lost, it’s truer than ever.


Steve Morgan

The Long Room #66

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