There have been precious few shards of light during this darkest of years – but even in the toughest of times, cricket has always maintained the priceless ability to bring a smile to the face of millions.
And nowhere is this better in evidence than in Lebanon, in a refugee camp established in 1947 that’s home to almost 50,000 people, many of them displaced from their home country of Syria.
Desperately lacking in funding and infrastructure it might be, but despite manifest hardship for its occupants, the Shatila camp in Beirut has never been a place short of hope and belief. Now a revolutionary cricket project - the brainchild of Richard Verity, a consultant with McKinsey, and supported by the Club Cricket Charity - is bringing both to children whose lives have already been irrecoverably altered by conflict.
Set-up in 2018, the programme is now providing cricket coaching to Syrian refugees who have not only fallen in love with the game but also shown real ability with bat and ball in hand.
Originally designed as a one-off cricket camp for refugees inside Shatila, session numbers first doubled and then tripled. Large numbers of local coaches have been trained to look after an expanded programme that now brings the sport to 60 children.
Speaking to the Club Cricket Conference newsletter from Lebanon, Verity tells us how cricket is having a transformative effect, not just on those children inside the camp but also on the coaches who are teaching them the fundamentals of the game and the families who are seeing their children smile again.
“It has been a wildfire success and I can’t really explain why,” he says. “They embrace it in a way that more privileged children don’t. They’re so rewarding to teach.
“We started with cricket but we’re developing around cricket an entire education programme. They’re learning English and we’re going to start teaching them maths. The girls who have started with cricket are now doing empowerment sessions. The children we’re teaching are at a vulnerable age – they’ve just finished primary school and there are no secondary schools for them to go to. We’re trying to offer a buffer for that.
“The cricket has been the gateway into their societies and remains incredibly important. A lot of them say they want to be cricketers when they grow up.”
There are obvious parallels here with the way that cricket took hold amongst displaced Afghans in the refugees camp of Peshawar at the turn of the century. The difference here, though, is that neither Syria or Lebanon have any cricket background or pedigree, which in a way makes the development of the game in the country even more exciting. It also illustrates cricket’s enduring power to inspire and influence all those who play the game.
“It develops this beautiful combination of responsibility and teaming,” says Verity.
“So often you’re facing the bowler yourself but you’re also part of a team – it’s very much like life. It’s a balancing act between personal responsibility and team responsibility. It is also the only competitive team sport that girls can play. This is quite a conservative society. This is transformative for the girls and I can’t think of another sport that could have done that. It’s a measure of how the sport is viewed that it’s the only Islamic sport that the Taleban allow girls to play in Afghanistan.”
Given the enormous strides taken by the latter in recent years, it’s no surprise that the success of the Shatila camps and the expansion of the programme to Bar Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, is creating a genuine buzz of excitement in this part of the world. The addition of a third location, in the form of the fee paying Brummana High School, has only served to heighten that sense.
“What we have proved in Lebanon with 200 Syrian refugees tells me that the conditions of the growth of cricket here are almost the same as those in the Pakistan refugee camps 20 years,” says Verity.
“If you listen to TMS, you hear people worrying about participation. Here, we could move from 200 to 1000 children in the space of a few weeks. We have to pay for the coaches and money does matter but we are stopping people playing cricket who would like to.
“Everyone is kind. The ICC is kind; the Rajasthan Royals have been really kind. We appeared on the ICC website on refugee day. But there has been nothing substantive. Everything is paid personally by ourselves and year-after-year it will continue but what we’re really looking for is expansion – we need outsiders to come and really get behind it.”
In this oft-troubled part of the world, the wider role that cricket can play should not be overlooked. As a vehicle for peace, Verity acknowledges that its potential is almost unsurpassed.
“Cricket in the Middle-East is potentially huge,” says Verity. “What cricket is extremely good at, is creating connections between young people that then allow peace to occur. There are religious divisions, ethnic divisions.
“It has achieved a huge amount more than we ever imagined. Last Saturday we invested in a satelite TV and they watched their first ever live cricket match in the Indian Premier League.
“I thought they would get bored, but they didn’t get bored for a moment. They were jumping up and down, cheering. We’ve now set-up four evenings a week, sessions for the children to watch the game being played.”
It’s an incongruous site for a cricket revolution, but this project is knocking convention for six.