It is the greatest prize grassroots sport can offer. ‘To play a final at the world’s leading ground of that sport is dream-come-true territory,’ says Chris Smith, tournament manager of the National Village Cup, which climaxes each year at Lord’s.
‘That really is a huge pull for the clubs entering. Every player you speak to will always tell you it’s been an incredible day and one they’ll never forget.’
That is certainly the case for Mark Lavelle, the captain of Calmore Sports Club. The Hampshire side won this year’s competition after entering it for the first time, beating Cheshire’s Alvanley by six wickets in last month’s final at the home of cricket.
Hampshire side Calmore Sports Club beat Cheshire’s Alvanley by six wickets in the final of the National Village Cup at Lord’s last month
‘Regardless of the result, to have had the opportunity to walk out and play at Lord’s with 10 of my best mates was a really special experience,’ confirms the 31-year-old school games organiser, who finished as the tournament’s leading wicket taker.
‘When you grow up as a young cricketer watching Test matches at Lord’s, you dream of playing there one day, so for the MCC to allow 22 village cricketers on to the hallowed turf is brilliant. It will be difficult to top that in all of our sporting careers.’
Last month’s match had added significance as it was the 50th National Village Cup final.
The 40-over Sunday competition is run by The Cricketer and it was the magazine’s then-owner Ben Brocklehurst, a former Somerset player, who first came up with the concept over a ‘merry lunch’ with National Cricket Association chairman Aidan Crawley in 1971.
Ben’s widow Belinda Brocklehurst recalls: ‘They were saying how sad it was that village cricket was sort of vanishing, a lot of clubs were folding, and Ben came home and said, ‘I’m going to start a village cricket competition and you are going to run it’.
‘How do you start a competition like that? Nobody had a record of all the village cricket clubs in the country so we wrote 19,000 letters to villages from the AA book, addressing it to post offices, pubs or garages, and asking them to pass it on to the captain of their local team.
‘From that, amazingly, we got 785 villages that wanted to join and so on that basis we knew we had a competition which we started in 1972. We never dreamed that it would survive 50 years.’
Villages could only enter if they had a population of no more than 2,500 people — now 10,000 — and a draw was devised which would whittle teams down to 32 regional winners, who would then play each other in the national rounds.
The final piece of the puzzle came when the Brocklehursts managed to persuade the MCC to host the final at Lord’s free of charge.
That is where the showpiece match has been staged for half a century, including last year when it was one of only seven matches played there because of the pandemic — and the only non-professional game.
‘The MCC’s commitment has been ever present in the competition’s lifetime,’ adds Village Cup boss Smith. ‘What the MCC and Lord’s have tried to deliver is that day should be like any other match day.’ Indeed, players get the full Lord’s experience on the day of the final, from its famous lunches to pre-match nets at the Nursery Ground, as well as the run of the dressing rooms and balconies.
‘You really are treated like an international cricketer,’ confirms Lavelle. ‘The people in the pavilion will do anything for you. It is an unbelievable feeling.’
The Voneus Village Cup, to use its sponsored name, remains the largest knockout cricket competition in the UK. This year, 347 clubs entered the draw — down from the numbers 50 years ago but an increase from recent times — with Calmore and Alvanley both winning seven games to make it to Lord’s.
The most successful side in the cup’s history is Yorkshire’s Woodhouse Grange, who have lifted the trophy four times, the last in 2015. Yorkshire has also been the most successful county, with eight clubs sharing 12 titles.
The competition, though, has not been without its hiccups. A few years after it was launched, the solid silver trophy, then worth around £3,000, was stolen after the holders displayed it in the window of their local newspaper office.
An even more unsavoury episode occurred in 2000, as the Village Cup ended up in court after throwing out Usk from the quarter-finals for being a town.
A complaint was made by the Welsh side’s last-16 opponents, Cornish club Werrington, who had noticed a sign saying: ‘Welcome to the historic Usk town’ on their way to the ground.
‘That was really sad,’ recalls 85-year-old Belinda. ‘When we looked into it, we found to our horror that Usk was indeed a town and so we had to make the awful decision that they couldn’t go on playing. They took us to court and the entire population of Usk was sitting in the gallery, scowling at us.
We had gone to vast expense of paying a barrister to defend us because, from the competition’s point of view, it was terribly important we won.’
That, though, is Belinda’s only unpleasant memory from the Village Cup, which she says has given her ‘enormous pride’ and believes has helped breathe life into local cricket. The 1,436 people who were at Lord’s on September 19 would no doubt concur after witnessing a thrilling final.
Put in to bat, Alvanley made 150 for seven from 36 overs before rain forced a shortened game. Calmore were set a revised target of 112 from 20 overs and were struggling on 55 for four after 13 overs.
But opener Ben Johns — who had earlier taken a spectacular, catch on the boundary — smashed 58 from 49 balls to secure victory with seven balls to spare, with skipper Lavelle unbeaten on 15 at the other end.
The National Village Cup is not just about a day out at Lord’s, however. Lavelle says Calmore made up to £15,000 from their three home national round matches, which attracted between 300 and 500 spectators each time.
‘When we played Rockhampton from the West Country in the quarter-final, we had to go down to the local pub and ask if we could have a keg of cider because they had drunk it all by two o’clock!’ reveals Lavelle. ‘The pandemic last year was really tough for the club so to have three big games at home and with the bar takings, it gives us that financial stability that perhaps we didn’t have.
Captain Ben Johns won player of the match on a momentous day at the Home of Cricket
‘The competition has also attracted new people down to our ground. We have had people in the area that didn’t know we were here and are now keen to join. We have had lots of new juniors off the back of it. It puts the club in a really strong position.’
Lavelle is already looking forward to next year’s Village Cup, setting his players the challenge of becoming only the second side to retain the trophy. But whatever happens next, he and his team-mates can always call themselves national champions.
‘There will always be photos up in the clubhouse now, so when we are old and no good any more, we can tell the young ones how good we used to be,’ smiles Lavelle.
‘It is something we will remember forever.’
From escaping Kabul to facing the new ball, Afghan refugees find comfort at the crease
By Isaan Khan
Inside Chiltern Academy in Luton, a group of excitable Afghan refugees are ferociously playing cricket in the gymnasium.
The ages range from seven to over 40. The clothing a variety, from traditional Afghan dress to ripped jeans and everything in-between. The stories range from dreams of becoming professional cricket stars to those that are just grateful they are alive.
The revolutions imparted on the ball by the spin bowlers raise an eyebrow or two in a country not exactly flush in this particular craft.
The batters certainly know how to aim for the fences, too, as they use the plastic bats to bludgeon the ball to the boundary. A couple of the youngsters played for the Afghanistan national team at age-group level, though, so the standards were always going to be high.
In the swing: an Afghan teenager pictured in action playing cricket in Luton
And it is up to Amran Malik, a senior development officer for Wicketz — a programme funded by national cricket charity Lord’s Taverners — to run sessions to fit the needs of this vulnerable group.
This particular programme — there are 17 overall — started on a Monday, runs five days a week and lasts for six weeks.
But these gatherings are not just about cricket. The group arrived in the UK last month, seeking refuge after the Taliban had taken capital city Kabul on August 15.
Some of the adults bare the visceral scars of fleeing with their families in a race against time to get a flight out of the country before Kabul International Airport departures became impossible. This is a chance to try to leave those memories in the past.
Once such story is of 28-year-old journalist Omid Dawlatzai, or as a passer-by remarked: ‘Afghanistan’s Trevor McDonald.’
Upon being interviewed, he gets out his smartphone to show footage of him anchoring an Afghan TV channel.
Oh, and he was at one point a government spokesman in the Supreme Court too.
‘I usually played cricket in Afghanistan in the streets, on the roads,’ he says.
‘This is the first time we are playing cricket in a gymnasium like this. Journalism and reporting was very difficult in Afghanistan because, in the last two decades, there were a lot of wars.
‘When a journalist like me goes to the scene of an explosion, or when a suicide attack took place, we see the blood, the cut hands, the body parts, the brain matter.
‘The reporting was so difficult and dangerous. Among the bullets, among the rockets, we would make reports about the issues.’
His outlook is optimistic and hopes to eventually work for the BBC. But, on the cricketing front, there are also plenty of positives.
He says: ‘It’s very enjoyable. This is the first time I’ve played with my psyche normal. I can play and enjoy cricket. There are a lot of problems in Afghanistan. This is a good habit instead of smoking and other things, cricket is good for me.
‘There are a lot of young talented people among the Afghan refugees. If the England Cricket Board find the talent, there are a lot of guys. In the UK there are a lot of facilities and opportunities to train these guys and find a lot of hidden stars.’
Malik has some task on his hands. First, he must build a rapport with a group of around 30 refugees — some of whom are not always fully trusting to begin with.
Over the six weeks, he will identify which pathway each individual would best fit in Wicketz’s all-year round hubs.
The three pathways include: professional sporting (those good enough to join county set-ups), education (targeted at under 18s aspiring to go university) and employment/work experience.
‘We try to reach those who are in disadvantaged situations,’ says Malik.
‘When we found out about the Afghan refugees who had come into the town, we got a translator over, found out what they wanted to do and then by working with organisations such as Active Luton, Chiltern Academy and the ECB, we came together to provide this facility.
‘When we went there, it was the first time they had been in a well-established school and you should have seen their faces.
‘I hadn’t seen anything like it and I’ve worked with vulnerable people all over the world but it was great to see the happiness and joy in the eyes of the kids and adults.
‘They had been indoors for more than a month in a hotel so this was a breath of fresh air for them.
‘It also gave them a chance to meet each other because they are from different backgrounds.
‘They have become like a family. Cricket has given them that platform to come together and engage.’
Among the tales of sadness, there is clear hope.
Saifur Rahman Ahmadzai is a very keen young cricketer. The 15-year-old loves batting and is relishing the chance to have a hit in the type of facility he has never experienced.
‘I enjoy playing cricket and have only really played in non-traditional places because there were no facilities back home,’ he said.
‘I just played wherever there was space. All us young people have thoroughly enjoyed it, it’s very good for us. We are very happy here.
‘I think it’s a good way to use sport to integrate people into society and to interact.’
But for him, it is more than cricket. It is the first time he has seen his father in more than 10 years.
‘Things were very bad when the Taliban came,’ he added. ‘Prices went up threefold because of the Taliban. When they came, they made life unliveable. There were a lot of murders and crime took place.
‘When the Taliban got within 25 miles of the area, we left.
‘I’ve still got two brothers over there and they said things are getting worse and worse. We want to get them over here.
‘My father has a British passport. He came over here as a refugee more than 10 years ago. I haven’t seen my dad for many years so I’m happy to see him again and finally be with my family.’