Walking cricket helping Doncaster pensioners keep active and beat loneliness

It may not be Lord’s.

Sunday, 6th June 2021, 6:00 am

But for many in Doncaster a five-a-side football centre on Wheatley Hall Road was the most important venue for cricket in the world this week.

As the May sunshine beat down on the pitch on what was the hottest day of the year so far, members of the town’s branch of the U3A took to the wicket for their biggest game of the year in their newly rediscovered hobby – walking cricket.

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Rod Hitchman taking part in the Doncaster U3A walking cricket

The group picked up on the game a couple of years ago, but has only just been able to start up again after the easing of lockdown.

And last week, they got together with other U3A groups at the Goals centre to take part in a tournament for groups from all over South Yorkshire, organised by the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation, which has also provided the groups with their cricket equipment.

Walking Cricket is the latest ‘walking’ sport in the borough. There are already groups playing walking football.

But the Doncaster U3A group, which aims to provide activities for retired people in Doncaster and to help prevent loneliness among borough pensioners, picked up on the sport in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic put their efforts on hold.

Husband and wife Diane and Chris Woolven taking part in the Doncaster U3A walking cricket

Chairman Chris Woolven is one of the men and women who has embraced the game, and is delighted that they have been able to restart, even if they only finished third out of six teams at their recent competition.

"We started playing back in 2019, and played for about six months here, and then at the Dome when the winter came.

“Sadly, we had to stop because of the pandemic. Now we are coming here twice a week and we’ve got 36 people on our books, although we only usually get between 12 and 16 each session. We need at least 10, but 12’s better.

The rules are slightly different to the sort of cricket fellow Yorkshireman Joe Root was playing for England against New Zealand at the same time as their tournament was going on.

Lillian Smith taking part in the Doncaster U3A walking cricket

The main difference is that running is banned. Other than that, runs are scored depending on where shots hit the boards around the side of the football pitch, as well as by walking between the stumps. The stumps are not as far apart as in regular cricket. If you’re out, you can continue batting, but you have runs runs taken away.

And if you hit the ball out of the arena, that also counts as out, so you lose runs for that too. The ball is a light weight rubber ball, with a seam.

There were talks at one stage about playing county games against Nottinghamshire. They were unable to agree on rules though, with the Nottinghamshire players not wanting to play with mixed teams, something that the Yorkshire group insisted on.

“We’ve got so much better than we were when we first started,” said Chris, aged 72, a former lieutenant in the Royal Navy.

John Wheeler taking part in the Doncaster U3A walking cricket

"Most of our players are aged between 68 and 75,” he said. “But our oldest, Eric Wood, is aged 93. He’ll still dive for the ball! He’s as fit as a flea.

"After the first lockdown, we got a couple of games after it was relaxed. Then we had to stop again until April.”

Chris, whose wife Diane also plays, had not played cricket since his Navy days in the 1970s when he started last year, and says their best player is their captain, Peter Hermes.

He says it felt like the first day back at school when they were all allowed to play again at the end of the lockdown.

Lillian Smith, aged 66, has also embraced the game. Lillian retired as a teacher at Campsmount School, in Norton, in 2015.

She had always been sporty, and wanted to find something she could do in her spare time.

Team members taking part in the Doncaster U3A walking cricket

“I joined the U3A and when I saw I could play walking cricket, that was the first thing I joined,” she said. “I wanted to do something and be in a team. I’d never played cricket, but I enjoyed watching it.

"After the first game, I really enjoyed it. And after lockdown was eased, this was the first thing I was able to do. It was organised sport, and it was outdoors. It just came alive again.

"It's just fun – I wouldn’t like to say I was good, but I enjoy it. I used to play tennis, and they tell me I hit the ball like I’m playing tennis.”

Another of the players, Rod Hitchman, aged 73, from Barnby Dun, used to play cricket with the former Yorkshire player Mike Cowan as a boy.

That was when he was a 10-year-old. He and his friends used to ask the professional player from Doncaster to join them playing on a corner of a golf course in Wheatley.

Rod, who used to work for British Gas, said it was great when they used to get to play with Mike, but he himself had never played cricket seriously.

But he is loving the walking cricket. “It’s been a great way of getting out and meeting people,” he said.

John Wheeler, from Bennetthorpe agrees. An ex-social services manager in London, he moved to Doncaster 15 years ago, and feels it is a wonderful place to live.

"I’ve always played cricket,” he said. “Then I saw an advert for the U3A, and thought it sounded like a great idea. I’ve found it’s played in a very good spirit, and run in a very nice manner – we just play to enjoy ourselves. It’s been a wonderful way to exercise.”

Contact the U3A on 07735 436176.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.