Two boys sitting on cricket pitch

Tower Hamlets charity raises thousands to send young cricketers on tour

A Tower Hamlets charity raised thousands last month to send two talented young cricketers on tour to Barbados.

Fisal Safi, 8, and Joseph Ogbimi, 12, fell in love with cricket after emigrating to the UK from Afghanistan and Nigeria respectively.

When Fisal and Joseph’s club Blackheath CC organised a tour to Barbados, which was beyond the means of both their families, Tower Hamlets Youth Sports Foundation stepped in.

Through its Platform Cricket programme, the foundation raised over five thousand pounds to cover the entire trip for both boys, taking the view that it would not only improve their cricket skills, but also support their ongoing integration into UK life.

CEO Chris Willetts said: “We thought, ‘this could be a hugely beneficial, really life-changing experience for these boys if we could get them on it.’”

Fisal walking off pitch

Fisal’s family fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021.

He now lives with his parents and ten siblings in a four-bedroom flat in Newham, and was over-the-moon when he heard he was going on his first-ever holiday.

His father, food delivery driver Wahidullah Safi, said: “My son who sleeps [in the room] with him said all night in his dreams he was saying ‘I’m going to Barbados for the cricket.’”

During the trip, Fisal put in several strong performances against local teams, bolstered by some one-to-one coaching from Barbadian national player Tino Best. 

Coach Brendon Louw, formerly a professional player in South Africa, said: “In the first game he played a beautiful drive through the covers and I think that lifted his confidence.

“In the second game he played smart cricket by hitting the ball into the gaps, putting the bad ball away, running hard between the wickets and communicating well with his partner.”

Fisal with cricket legend Tino Best

For Joseph, cricket was the primary way of mixing with children outside school after his family moved to the UK last year.

He too was a star player on tour and the winner of the Pre-Academy Player of the Tour award, which was presented by West Indian cricket legend Joel Garner.

Brendon said: “Joseph is an exciting young player that plays with freedom and expresses himself at the crease.

“He got a 50 in one of the games and also bowled really well opening the bowling.

“He’s a student of the game, his awareness is really good when he bats and he reads the situation well.”

Joseph’s father, Clive Ogbimi, who used to coach the Nigerian national teams, said: “He came back as someone who has been tested in deep waters and above all he is grateful.”

He added that the tour has only intensified Joseph’s dream of a professional career in cricket.

Chris believes that although all sport is useful for integrating children from different backgrounds, cricket has a special role to play.

He said: “Traditionally it has a pretty cross-cultural appeal. 

“There is this problem in the UK about it seeming like an exclusive private school boy type thing but actually, you think of the countries that play — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, India, the West Indies — they’re all ethnic groups in the UK.”

Joseph with cricket legend Joel Garner

He also said that the range of skills needed within a cricket team, from fast bowling to spin bowling to batting, means a range of body types associated with different ethnic groups can collectively flourish. 

Noting the famously slow pace of cricket matches, Chris added: “Some people see it as a negative but the length of time and the pace that it’s played at allow more social integration than, perhaps, the crash-bang-wallop of a football game or a hockey game.” 

Beyond this fundraising campaign, he sees Platform Cricket as part of a wider project to bring more kids from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds into the game. 

At present, the cost of space means only a handful of cricket clubs exist in central London, and these are generally based in more affluent areas such as Dulwich, Wimbledon, Hampstead and Shepherd’s Bush.

However, Chris said this can be turned into a positive as far as fundraising is concerned.

He said: The negative about the cricket clubs being where they are is all the places at the clubs tend to get taken up firstly by kids from better off backgrounds.

“The positive is obviously a lot of parents and a lot of members have the means to support things like this and do some fundraising.

“They’re generally pretty open-minded sorts of people, wanting to support young people who perhaps haven’t got the advantages that their kids have.”

Wahidullah and Clive said they were amazed by the kindness of the donors and of Chris and his team. 

Wahidullah said: “I asked Chris, ‘How can I really thank you because you’ve helped me loads?

“He said, ‘No problem.’”

All images provided by Chris Willetts

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