It was on one of those dutiful lockdown-three walks, double-socked, chilblains heavy in coat pocket, that I first saw it. There, behind a hedge in a small Manchester garden, was a full-sized cricket net. I checked again the next time I trudged that way, yes, definitely a net.
A note through the letterbox later and Tayyab Akhlaq and his three boys, 12-year-old Hassan, 10-year-old Mohsin and seven-year-old Salman are waiting in their garden, the boys giddy in T-shirts despite the heavy January gloom, dusk brewing on the brink of 4 o’clock.
“Have you met Sam Curran?” they ask, then Hassan grabs the ball and Salman the bat as they show off their cricket skills, which are excellent. Tayyab explains that he bought the net during the first lockdown, because the boys had been playing endless games on the hard surface of the drive, but the ball kept disappearing. With the summer stretching uncertainly he weighed up his options and felt it would be a good investment. Nearly a year on, he’s been proved right, though he’s getting a bit fed up with being dispatched behind the stumps to be the permanent wicketkeeper.
“It took about 12 hours to put up,” he says. “The hardest thing was the net, the instructions said: ‘Just chuck the net over the frame.’ So I thought, ‘all right then,’ but it wasn’t quite that easy.
“The boys are obsessed. As soon as I come home from work they want throwdowns. We don’t have a television but the boys have discovered YouTube and watch things like Viv Richards’ batting.”
During the spring lockdown weeks last year an elderly man would pass by on his daily walk and ask what the score was, and neighbours with their own cricket-mad children talked over the fence about playing together in that hopeful future when households could mix again.
The Akhlaqs are not the only ones to have transformed their gardens into versions of Alf Gover’s cricket school. On the roof terrace of a tower block in north London, Kunal Dutta has set up a perfect cricket training area for his four-year-old daughter Kai, though increasingly he is finding himself out there, slipping in a few straight drives between Zoom meetings.
“Our flat is very small but the roof garden is massive. The setup developed over the three lockdowns, starting with some toys as a stump, moving on to a full set of stumps, but the pièce de résistance was the bowling machine – a R66T Academy Ball Feeder. It was a complete gamechanger for us, it was all a bit of a faff before but it lobs them up perfectly. It used to be that I was being a pushy dad but now Kai loves it. Her default shots are the cut, leg glance and straight drive.”
Phil Alger’s bowling machine is made from an old battery-powered golf trolley, an electric drill to up the speed, some guttering, and a ball release. “Easy for someone with an engineering background,” is his verdict. It was an internet sensation last April when he made it for his son Elliot but it has retired, temporarily, into winter storage.
For Michael Humphries, garden size was the determining factor, so he has plumped for a Bradmanesque ball in an old pair of tights attached to a garden swing. Jon Mannings bought a strip of artificial grass to cover the concrete between his garden fence and the wall of the house, so his son Charlie could practise.
As anywhere, there are winners and losers in the pandemic game. Over at Net World Sports, cricket net sales are up by 108% year on year. And Feed Buddy, a company set up only last May, who make an underarm lobbing machine that shoots out 10 balls every five seconds, are flying. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for a machine designed to be as useful in a small back garden as a cricket club. They have sold 20,000 in the past eight months.
Meanwhile, at David Williams’s cricket shop, Total Cricket, in Ashton-under-Lyne, things are looking glum. “The Feed Buddy is doing really well, England stuff is doing all right and the plastic stuff for seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds to play with in the garden, but we’re massively down on sales. We get excited when a bat sale comes through. I must get five phonecalls a day – and more emails – is the shop open? It drives me potty, I don’t know why the local council can’t come in, tell you how many customers you can fit in, you sign up to the rules, job’s a good ‘un.”
Williams was in the middle of expanding and had just spent £50,000 on new nets for his 10,000 sq feet coaching facility attached to the shop. “In the first four months of the year we take over 60% of our income, we have 80 kids an hour through the door. Now we’ve no one.”
But in the back garden, in south Manchester, the thud of ball on bat echoes through the spring.