Cricketer making a difference in sub-continent

Alex Reese has created a cricket school in Sri Lanka for underprivileged children.
Alex Reese has created a cricket school in Sri Lanka for underprivileged children.

It was a taxi ride in a city of 20 million people that changed Alex Reese's life.

A spark was lit in the Christchurch lad. And, all going to plan, that taxi ride and the decisions it spurred could change thousands of lives in Sri Lanka and India.

Reece has a plan. It's an audacious plan, but one nobody who meets the charismatic, driven 22-year-old doubts he will turn into a reality.

The marketing student wants to educate and help poverty-stricken children in the Subcontinent and use cricket to do it. They love cricket, but have little access to it. Reese loves cricket and wants to help.

He has support from high places and in January his Cricket Live programme will open its first school, in Colombo.

Reese first visited the Subcontinent on a cricket trip with The Willows in 2008 as a 16-year-old.

He loved it and went back of his own accord, working in high-priced cricket academy, Global Cricket School, based in Mumbai - used by international teams.

Reese, just 18 at the time, befriended a local taxi driver named Lax.

Lax showed him around Mumbai and took him where he needed to go and the pair grew close. Reese visited Lax's family home in the Cuffe Parade slum, home to thousands. It was there and with Lax that Reese learnt first hand of the struggle of young Indians.

Many want to learn and many want to play cricket, but few have the opportunity or resources to do either well. Some can't even afford to get themselves to grounds for training. A lack of resources and the class system make change difficult.

So while the wealthy play and flourish playing organised, well structured and coached cricket, the poor play with whatever they can get their hands on.

Reese played in India, too. He's a senior cricketer in Christchurch, a bowling allrounder for Burnside West-University, but played in India in slightly less ideal conditions.

"It was a bit different from here," he said, laughing.

"The grass was literally up to your knees in places and there was rocks everywhere, but they love it, they just love playing cricket."

And even at that level it's serious business.

In a 10-over game, Reese got barked at by his team-mates for getting out before the game was over after scoring 30 off just 12 balls. He'd almost singlehandedly won the game for his side yet was maligned for his irresponsibility.

"They just take it so seriously and they thought I'd thrown it away. But they enjoy it too. Cricket is everything to them," he said.

So with bags packed and thoughts of home and clean, green New Zealand on his mind, Reese had one last trip with Lax, to Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

"Lax asked me where his kids could get good coaching so I rattled off a couple of places for him. He just looked at me. 'How am I supposed to pay for that?', he said."

The cricket schools are big business and charge as such. They cost far more than a slum-dwelling Mumbai cabbie can afford, even one who played chauffeur to an initially slightly naive Kiwi for three months.

"It really got me thinking. On the flight home I remember thinking I could pay for Lax's kids. He'd been great to me and I could have managed that, but then you still have a few issues."

Issues like children from poor families trying to fit in with children from wealthy families in a society where the caste system, though slightly less predominant now that it has been, is still largely alive and well.

That got Reese thinking further until he came up with his brainchild, the Cricket Live programme, a non-profit organisation "with the vision to use cricket as a medium to change the lives of children from slum areas in India and Sri Lanka".

Why teach a couple of kids to play when you can do something that could affect thousands? The ultimate success for any coach.

The plan is under way and early in the new year, Reese's first school is set to open with an intake of 50 young Sri Lankans. He's taking a group of coaches to Sri Lanka in January to coach the school's coaches and all going to plan, more schools will open.

He has initial plans for one in Sri Lanka and one in India, but wants to have three schools in each country in five years and 20 schools in total in 10. There's interest both here and in the Subcontinent, but the plan costs. Reese has done well fund-raising wise, but could always do with more.

As a 22-year-old and a baby-faced one at that, it would be easy to see Reese lacking for credibility with the people he needs to help him. But what he lacked in credibility with potential sponsors and backers, he made up for with passion. When he talks about his programme, it's encapsulating.

"Why do this? Well, if you see enough of something then it starts to get to you and you want to do something about it.

"I spent time in the slums and life's not great there, but the kids don't have much chance because that's all they know.

"I want to help the kids change. There are moments in life when you realise you've got to do something. This is mine."

Willows founder and Christchurch businessman Mike Dormer can't speak highly enough of Reese's vision and drive.

"He's the sort of person who'd be in the frontline in wartime. He's brilliant and he just gets things done."

He's also clever enough to know that credibility counts and he needed to get some big names involved. So he did.

The organisation has the backing of former New Zealand governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand, Willows president and ICC member Sir John Hansen and former New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming among others.

Another who wholeheartedly supports Reese's vision and knows only too well what cricket and life is like in India is former Black Caps and Indian coach John Wright.

Wright said what Reese was trying to do was what cricket should be about, creating not just good sportsmen and women, but good people.

"He wants to make a difference," Wright said. "He's a special young man.

"It's about the spirit of cricket, it's about good men. Alex is a young man with a passion and this is a challenging project."

One of Reese's and Cricket Live's biggest supporters is Merrill Fernando, the founder of Dilmah Tea.

They've helped back the project financially and helped with contacts in Sri Lanka.

"It's great Alex has got Dilmah on board," Dormer said.

"Some New Zealanders have found it difficult that a Kiwi boy wants to do something offshore and something that is going to benefit the poor.

"What they don't appreciate, however, is that this sort of thing helps New Zealand as a whole. In trade and in reputation."

Reese is rapt there will be such positive spinoffs, but his main priority is the kids and inciting change.

He's more concerned about offering less fortunate children the opportunity New Zealanders take for granted.

While other 22-year-olds are trying to find their way in the world, Alex Reese is trying to change it.

Fairfax Media