Feature story

On a winning wicket

Cricket is the medium of education and life lessons the subject for a band of Mumbai children coping with difficult circumstances

The young boys practicing cricket on the grounds of the Borivali Municipal Secondary School, Rajda Nagar, in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali have a lot more than the game on their minds. Besides a shared love for India’s favourite sport, they have one other thing in common: they come from less than privileged backgrounds and the slings of fate have hit them hard.

Most belong to families living below the poverty line, some are being raised by single parents, a few have to work after school hours to pull in much needed income, and one child has a mother stricken by cancer. Off the pitch, the boys, aged between 10 and 18, are shy and hesitant to talk, but their demeanour changes as soon as they start playing. That’s when cricket takes over, cutting through barriers to offer recreation, respite and a future.

The boys are part of Life Through Cricket (LTC), a life skills training programme run by the Tata Trusts in partnership with the Cricket Live Foundation (CLF), a New Zealand-based nonprofit. Currently operational in Sri Lanka and India, CLF’s objective is to give children from poor families with limited opportunities, the chance to learn cricketing skills, as well as lessons of life and living.

A bunch of girls enjoying their first bout of competitive cricket

The life lessons component is as important as the cricket itself. And that’s welcome for the Rajda kids, many of whom suffer from depression and anxiety, and behavioural and emotional disorders. School and studies were not priorities and their academic record was poor. But that was before they joined the programme, which was launched at their institution in 2017.

The concept of cricket as a life-altering force found many takers at the Rajda school, as also three other neighbouring schools that are part of the initiative. Currently, close to 90 students are being trained in four batches in what is a three-year programme. The students, studying in Std VI to X, have 90-minute sessions thrice a week after school.

Sir Richard Hadlee, former New Zealand ace and patron of Cricket Live Foundation

‘It was humbling to see their passion’

I was fortunate to visit both India and Sri Lanka in my capacity as patron of the Cricket Live Foundation [CLF]. There were several moments that stood out for me. Often, through an interpreter, I could tell them a little about my life in cricket. I could see I made some sort of impact on these kids.

I was able to see first-hand just how powerful sport can be in the lives of young children. In Sri Lanka, I spent one afternoon with a group of promising children from the Foundation. It was humbling to see their passion, excitement and love for the game. Not to mention their manners, smiles and discipline. I hope CLF and the Tata Trusts in India can continue to provide these life-changing opportunities for children who deserve it so much.

After I retired from cricket, I started the Sir Richard Hadlee Sports Trust with the objective of supporting individuals under 25 who were in hardship or needed assistance. The aim was to enable young children to experience the opportunities that sport presents, and learn life skills to go with it.

When I first met [Alex Reese], I knew that his vision for CLF was a powerful one. At a personal level, I have fond memories of touring India and Sri Lanka, and it was clear that I owe it to these incredible countries to help bring a vision like Alex’s to life.

Being the patron of the organisation means that I can play a part in ensuring children from difficult backgrounds can be exposed to the game that shaped my life. I really hope it can shape theirs too.

Best of coaching

The cadets learn all about batting, bowling, wicket-keeping and fielding in these sessions. They also learn, through special classes held by counsellors and trainers, about the need for education, gender equality, social etiquette and more. The Trusts have spared no effort to ensure the children get the best in coaching, enlisting the help of coaches such as Nigel Marsh and Dan Vann from New Zealand and Stephen Taylor from Australia.

The LTC programme has a code that its wards have to adhere to: respect for family and friends; nutrition and healthy living; self-discipline and teamwork; and punctuality and time management.

“We believe in using cricket as a vehicle to develop the life skills and education of underprivileged children from marginalised communities,” says Alex Reese, CLF’s founder. “To make any social or global change, you need a vehicle to drive that particular change. Our vehicle is cricket.”

“There has been a significant improvement in the children since the project started,” says Neelam Babardesai, head, sports portfolio, Tata Trusts. “Now they are regular at school and they perform relatively well academically. They want to complete their studies and get employed. Cricket has helped them dream of a better life.”

Kushal Gawde, one of the head coaches attached to the school, recalls that many of the students were initially reticent and had to be coaxed to come out of their shell. “Earlier, they were nervous but today they are a more confident lot,” concurs Ms Babardesai.

There is a limit, though, to the number of children the programme can accommodate. “We give priority to children with single parents and those from troubled families, especially those who are irregular at school.”

Alongside cricket proper, the students are encouraged to learn about other aspects of the game, such as scoring and umpiring. That opens up career options for them: if not as a player, they can continue in cricket later in life as an umpire, a scorer or a coach.

The improvements in the children are clearly visible. Their attendance in school has improved, as have their discipline and sense of responsibility. Rajda Municipal School has benefitted too. “Over the past two-and-a-half years of our association, the school has attracted more admissions,” says principal Dinesh Tripathi.

The success of the initiative has spurred the Trusts to consider expanding the initiative to other municipal schools in Mumbai and its neighbouring regions. Rajda and its students are proof that the gentleman’s game has more to offer than sixes and fours, passionate fans and spectacular stars — it can mould young lives for the better.

Alex Reese, founder and chairman of Cricket Live Foundation

‘I would like to see them grow into good citizens’

As a youngster straight out of school, I came to Mumbai from Christchurch in New Zealand and worked at a local cricket academy in the city. It was one of those experiences I’ll never forget.

It opened my eyes to two things: first, there was a significant disparity of wealth in India, with those less fortunate lacking even the basic education and opportunities to grow in life. Second was the country’s passion for cricket.

In Sri Lanka, we work with over 500 children in five locations. We have been operating over there for six years. This is probably the main success for us: getting the idea off the ground. The other highlight is seeing the children pass through the programme.

Our first intakes, who started as 12-year-olds, have spent six years in our care. They have graduated now, with 43 of the 48 transitioning into full-time employment. We have had huge successes, with children being awarded sports scholarships to prestigious schools around the country, boys and girls making representative teams and some of the trainees taking up coaching.

Whilst it would be great to have some of our kids playing international cricket, I would like to see them grow into good citizens, following their dreams in whatever direction in life they decide on, be it sport, business or education.