Chance to Shine’s long slog breaches boundaries to find first internationals

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Welcome to The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly (and free) cricket newsletter. Here’s an extract from this week’s edition. To receive the full version every Wednesday, just pop your email in below:

Issy Wong was in year four when Chance to Shine came into her primary school, Bentley Heath in Solihull, with their duffle bags of plastic bats, stumps and balls. She had already played a bit of cricket beforehand at an after school club, but this was different. It involved her whole class, so instead of being one of only a handful of girls in a club of 60 kids, she was actually in the majority.

It was a kickstart for her cricket career – and later that year she discovered the cricket club that had been lurking unnoticed half a mile from her home. Soon afterwards, aged nine or 10, she was pulled into the Warwickshire setup, becoming a zipping fast bowler who meant business.

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Fast forward a decade or so, to June 2022, and Wong, alongside fellow Chance to Shine participant and quick bowler Lauren Bell, was at Taunton, preparing to accept her England cap from Katherine Brunt before the women’s Test against South Africa. Wong and Bell are the bright young things, ready to take the baton after the retirements of Anya Shrubsole and Brunt herself.

It was a crowning moment for the charity, the first time any full participants in their programme had gone on to international honours. Chance to Shine was formed in 2005, the brainchild of commentator Mark Nicholas, cricket manufacturer Duncan Fearnley and Lord King, the former governor of the Bank of England, in an attempt to reinvigorate cricket in state schools and ensure all children had the chance to get to know the game.

In the years since, it has been quietly going about its work, mostly working in primary schools, but also running a leadership programme for girls in secondary schools and their much-praised street programme, based in disadvantaged areas where young people wouldn’t otherwise have access to the game. In 2020, they reached their five millionth child, they are now fast approaching six million, and each year hold a National Cricket Week that involves around 1,500 schools.

Laura Cordingley, the chief executive, has just finished 2022’s cricket week, an exhausting but ultimately rewarding process. She has been with the charity for four and a half years, having previously worked for the mayor of London’s office and for the MCC in sport and development. A sporty kid, there was a cricket club at the end of her street in Durham and she grew up to captain England’s netball team.

“We like to think we are a small but mighty part of a young person’s development,” she says during a special day for the charity at Lord’s. “We want kids to have a relationship with sport, which we know will make them more likely to carry sport with them into adulthood, with all the advantages that brings – socially, mentally and everything else.”

“We want to give them life skills to try and support them in their lives, as well as introducing them to cricket. For the vast majority of people we work with, it is about developing their personal bests and their potential, raising aspirations and trying to make sure that once we’ve introduced them to cricket, they have somewhere to go afterwards.”

Chance to Shine don’t have their own coaches, but employ people directly from communities themselves, which makes them more familiar with those particular children and what will and won’t work for them. They have strong links with the 39 county boards and the ACE programme, started by Ebony Rainford-Brent at Surrey and now expanding. A third of the street coaches are previous participants in Chance to Shine, and from September that programme will expand. The majority of funding comes from the England and Wales Cricket Board, some from Sport England, but the rest they must fundraise themselves – an exhausting and neverending business.

And for the future? “We are constantly tweaking, always learning,” says Cordingley. “We now have better data so we can see the gaps where people are struggling to access cricket. And although we are not a talent charity, we want everyone to achieve their potential, so a young person in a street project that has historically sat outside the recognised talent pathway and not had an opportunity to be seen, can be spotted and supported. 1-2% of our participants will be really good at cricket and we want to help them.”

Wong is among that 2%. “I think the special thing about cricket is that it gives you that sense of achievement,” she says. “In football, you can go 90 minutes without getting a goal, but in cricket you can score a run, take a wicket, take a catch. Especially taking a catch, I remember us being young at primary school and just pinging tennis balls at each other.”

For Wong, that started a path to international honours, and three Test wickets safely in her pocket. She still can’t quite believe it. “It was surreal, especially on day one. We won the toss, bowled, and had just got our caps. I was out on the boundary fence – I think it was the second over – and I was standing where all the kids were. They were screaming, and Heather Knight was trying to move me in the field and I just couldn’t hear her. To have that sort of atmosphere, to have so many kids, girls and boys at women’s Test cricket was amazing.”

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