The story behind our cricket program is one of the most inspiring we can share and shows perfectly how a customer of a slum tour can start something big and powerful.
It all started with Vic Mills from the UK who has spent much of the last thirty years overseas watching, playing and writing about cricket. Having cut and run from the legal profession after graduation he followed the sun playing cricket in England during the summer and then heading downunder to play in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. During these jaunts he played for the Australian Embassy in Manila, and in Australia for, amongst others, the Victorian Bar, the Melbourne Bar Bench, the Gentlemen of Ballarat, and the NSW country town of Yass. When not playing he found time to write for Wisden Cricket Monthly, The Times of India, and Jakarta Post.
Vic Mills took some time during his last trip to Mumbai to write his story down for our blog.
Mumbai in early February 2009 – ten weeks after the terrorist attack – was a city on the edge. There to research a writing project, the plan was to work, stay healthy, and get the hell out! Other than a few coins here and there, charitable deeds were not on the agenda. Based in Colaba, my first job was an afternoon in Dharavi. During the visit, conducted by Reality Tours Travel, we stopped in a school yard to escape the sun and take on water. Our arrival brought a halt to a game of barefoot cricket; the dozen or so kids sidled over.
I managed to catch the eye of one and a five minute net session ensued. Amid much laughter and high-fiving we took our leave, but the images remained; not just the kids and the fun, but the bat! Full size, it had quite literally been worn down to half its original size. Not cracked, taped, and taped again, but simply worn away! Five years on, this bat remains at the heart of the project. Barely two minutes back in my hotel room that evening, before even a much needed shower, I had the name: Project Front Foot. All I had to do now was figure out the rest.
The following day I emailed Chris (Way) at Reality Gives. We met at a Leopold’s Cafe that still bore the aftermath – gun shots to walls and glass panels – of the terrorist attack. Used to well-meaning folk with ideas (who end up doing nothing) his advice was to go away, do it, and then get back in touch. During the spring of 2009 I emailed the living daylights out of cricketing friends and contacts in the UK. Interviews with BBC local radio and various county newspapers brought early publicity. It also brought IT guru, Neil Smith, who agreed to set up and manage the project website. We were up and running. And the kit started to roll in.
It was not until September that I turned my thoughts to actually getting the clothing and equipment to Mumbai. A modest business plan was compiled and emailed to a dozen airlines flying the London-Mumbai route. To their eternal credit, and despite difficult times, British Airways called within a week offering six checked bags (or 150 kilos) free of charge. With still no more than a vague idea of how the project would work, the kit and I arrived in Mumbai mid-October 2009. There still remained the small matter of a ground. If the link with British Airways was the first stroke of luck, then an earlier chance email to Mr P R Subramanian (Suby) in Mumbai was undoubtedly the second.
I contacted Suby my first evening in town enquiring about grounds. He was a member of the Indian Gymkhana at King’s Circle and quickly teed up a meet with the Cricket Club Secretary and President. Forty-eight hours later we had our ground for three mornings a week from October to May. A fifteen minute walk from Dharavi, the ground was perfect. The 2-hour morning sessions were divided between the U14s (Tues, Thurs) and U18s (Fri). Thirty boys attended initially, with the numbers growing as word spread.
I coached the early sessions before handing over to staff from Reality. This Stay Calm & Carry On approach saw us stumble through the first two seasons, but it was far from perfect. We had the kids, the kit, and the ground, but volunteer coaches were proving hard to find.
If coaches were a problem, this was not the case with kit donations. Summer Kit Appeals saw links forged with Trent Bridge, Headingley, and Cricket Wales at the Swalec. There was kit too from Cricket Boards’ as far afield as Cornwall, Kent, Worcester, Yorkshire and Derby. And an entire transit van of clothing from MKK Sports in Eastbourne.
In the autumn of 2011, Project Front Foot became a UK Registered Charity. In light of this, we took the decision, in partnership with Reality Gives, to employ two coaches. As befits a progressively-minded project we appointed, in Bhavana Patil, a female Head Coach. She, alongside colleague, Harshad Bhojnaik, started their third season with the project in November 2013. Established coaches within Mumbai cricket, Bhavana and Harshad, along with assistant coaches Jigar and Dilip, and Reality Gives new Director of Sports Programs, Peter Woolcock, have brought structure, energy, discipline, and no little fun to the project.
The sheer volume of donated kit has enabled us to move beyond Dharavi and place clothing and equipment with four orphanages in Mumbai, numerous schools in and around Maharashtra, three football foundations, the NGO Salaam Bombay, and the Indian Gymkhana U23 side. While in the UK, Project Front Foot has turned donor with surplus adult clothing going to charities for the homeless in Oxford and North London.
Despite the need to seek new homes for our surplus kit, Dharavi remains at the heart of Project Front Foot. There is no better illustration of this than with our annual early season Kit Day. For a couple of hours Reality’s Reception Centre is transformed as excited chatter vies with the frantic fitting of shirts, flannels and boots; for the majority, their first kit of any description.
Look the part, feel the part, play the part: the Dharavi kids stand testimony to this as over a dozen have graduated via PFF into the longer version of the game with appearances for the Indian Gymkhana U23 XI. Two of our older boys, Jigar and Dilip, have further taken on the role of assistant coaches for PFF and at other clubs in Mumbai. Encouraging signs for Project Front Foot in general and the new season in particular.