Phil Johnson has left the village club he grew up at, Elstow, to join a team from the other side of the cricketing tracks – Bedford Pakistanis. In his first update, he discovers that while his new team-mates are delighted to welcome him, they have a rather different ideas about his forward defensive.
There are few more quintessentially English ideals than the white middle class gentleman living in his picturesque rural shire and representing his village cricket XI.
Loosely, I fit that bill. Yet fewer than five miles away from me is urban, multi-national, modern Britain. Queens Park in Bedford is the most multi-cultural square mile in Britain.
My journey this summer will explore these neighbouring worlds through the medium I understand best – cricket. For one season only, I have abandoned my loyal, local village club to join the ranks of Bedford Pakistanis, an under-resourced team playing solely on park pitches in the heart of Queens Park.
Bedford’s recent boom in British Asian cricket has coincided with the decline of the white town-based cricketer, most of who have migrated to village teams beyond the boundaries of the town’s cricketing melting pot. I am moving in the opposite direction in an effort to understand how this segregation came about.
The contrast is best seen when these two sides of cricketing society meet on the field. There was always added spice when my village side played an exclusively Asian team. Whether that came from the fear that their number 10 would smash 50 from 20 balls, or from the subconscious paranoia that comes from playing surrounded by a foreign language, those matches always had something bubbling away under the surface.
It was a wrench to part ways with my club, Elstow CC, where I have spent my entire cricketing life and now hold the post of head coach. But I’d made my decision and needed only the nod of approval from the Pakistanis themselves, most of them second generation immigrants, British born and bred with homeland heritage. They support England in football but – most definitely – Pakistan in cricket.
Having worked with two of the players, my suggestion was greeted with a roar of approval. “Yeah buddy!” said one “You’ll be our token gora [white man]!” So, met with that sort of approval, I figured it would be crucial to get a good few visits to pre-season nets under my belt and earn myself a valid place in my adopted team. That was until I learned that there were no pre-season nets.
Tail between my legs, I waded sheepishly into Elstow’s winter training sessions with a small handful of the Pakistani lads in tow. Despite having abandoned my old team, the Elstow boys were pleased to see us, and at least I had a chance to net with a couple of my new team-mates.
It didn’t take long to see that my circumspect, defence-minded batting is a complete contrast to their uncompromisingly aggressive approach. In fact, a nervous laugh was shared as we realised how alien this year’s cricket would be. It was even decided there and then that an opening berth would best suit me (almost certainly to ensure the defensive batting vacated itself as soon as possible).
I will be under extra pressure this season, both as the new boy and a conspicuously different member of the team. In return I expect a season of hard-fought, passionate, Pakistani-flavoured, in-your-face cricket.