Whereas in former times, cricket was central to the lives of many in the Afro-Caribbean community, enthusiasm for the history and love of the game has declined. So why is it that members of this community no longer revere cricket as they used to? These issues were at the heart of a range of passionate conversations and formal meetings that I recently conducted with retired cricketers, journalists, key individuals working at grassroots level, and administrators, in a range of venues, from the nets at Essex County Cricket Club to the cavernous Ageas Rosebowl, and the academic splendours of the British Library.
Chris Jordan’s England selection for the 2014 Sri Lanka Test series was significant in that it doubled the number of Afro-Caribbean cricketers appearing for England in Test matches this century. However, a sharper response from the West Indies Cricket Board could easily have resulted in the Barbados-born-and-raised Jordan playing for West Indies against England in the forthcoming 2015 Test series. The England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) fleetness of foot in this casein identifying talent intensifies the need to address the issue of why there is a lack of Afro-Caribbean youngsters entering the first-class game. According to Carl Greenidge, former county professional and co-creator of the Grass Roots Cricket Academy, a scheme designed to introduce cricket to disadvantaged London communities, even the Twenty20 format “has not reached the Afro-Caribbean population for some odd reason, with the total shift in cultural taste having made cricket unappealing and just not sexy enough.”
The strong possibility that Michael Carberry will not represent England again signifies the end of an era, as he represents a period in British Caribbean history when cricket remained a pivotal element in the make-up of Afro-Caribbean identity in England and Wales. Although he did not have the practical West Indian schooling in cricket, his career overlapped with the likes of Phillip DeFreitas, Chris Lewis, Alex Tudor, Mark Alleyne, Adrian Rollins and Ricky Anderson – significant contributors to their county clubs and, in the case of DeFreitas, Tudor, Lewis and Alleyne, to the England cause at Test or ODI level.
There are those who argue that elite cricketers are selected from an increasingly narrow social base and that may be so, but it is also worth asking whether Afro-Caribbean youngsters now exist in substantial numbers ready to pursue professional cricketing careers. The essence of my argument is the wider issue of whether the Afro-Caribbean community still loves and respects cricket in the fashion it once did. As Mark Alleyne notes in his quiet yet determined style during our meeting:“The connection with cricket used to be contemporary – now it’s a third and fourth generation, and each one is disconnecting a little more from the game.”
Equally, it is necessary to consider whether the community is culpable in failing to both push its youngsters towards the game and to promote the sport within its own ranks. In seeking to establish whether this is the case, I acknowledge the alternative sporting opportunities open to young Afro-Caribbean males, as well as consider the impact of the decline of the West Indies as a major cricketing nation. Each of these factors makes recruitment into the game tough for those working beyond the narrow orthodox structures of talent identification, coaching and mentoring.
In tracing the emergence of Tymal Mills (close personal friendship and county mentoring), Daniel Bell-Drummond (scholarship to Millfield School), Keith Barker (cricket in the genes) and Chris Jordan (identification by the quintessentially English Bill Athey in his capacity as a talent scout for Dulwich College), I would argue that – though chance may have played a role in their development – the issue is far more deep-rooted and longstanding.
The 1963 tour of England by West Indies helped to make many in the Afro-Caribbean community more secure in their new surroundings, more confident about their heritage, and increasingly comfortable about their own sporting prowess.In this era, cricket played a vital role within the community, creating bonds amongst individuals previously scarred by inter-island rivalry, in addition to providing a safe environment in which West Indian heritage could be preserved and celebrated. The game offered a focus and helped to create an identity in an England that was still adjusting to the needs of an evolving post-colonial society. As in the Caribbean, cricket could still be perceived as a force encouraging liberation yet, as West Indians became more integrated into national life, it began to struggle to play a key socio-political role and its significance as an agent for change lessened, reducing its appeal to those from the younger age groups.
Over time, this impacted on the strength and numbers of Caribbean cricket clubs both in and outside of London as this new generation made its mark. The 1960s produced individuals who were both culturally Caribbean yet directly British through their engagement with football. Having being brought up in an environment where football was the predominant sport, individuals did not naturally gravitate to the park or nearest piece of waste ground to play cricket, as was the case in the Caribbean. Preferences for England’s national sport over the more traditional Caribbean-based sports signified more complex Afro-Caribbean and British ethnic identities. Cricket was increasingly perceived as the sport of the second generation’s parents.
However, for Michael Carberry, who spoke both glowingly and touchingly about his parents and their devotion to cricket and the informal network of Caribbean fixtures that used to exist within Greater London, the situation was different. “Cricket was the first sport in the house,” he says. “My family recognised I had a talent and I was fortunate to have two parents who were very much behind what I did. They bought kit and washed the kit and a lot of kids do not have that support.”
Daniel Bell-Drummond’s father played for Dorset and retained strong links with Catford Cricket Club. He encouraged his son to play cricket from the age of three, thus planting the seeds of his ambition, whereas Alex Tudor has always maintained that his strong Barbadian roots and family obsession with cricket helped to launch his career. Yet these are exceptional cases and contrast strongly with the chance encounter with cricket that alerted Mills to his potential talent:“I played a little cricket at school, but nothing serious until the age of 14.” Once his talent was recognised by Essex, the role of the Academy Director became critical:“John Childs was very supportive, regularly coming to meet my mum to discuss and explain my progress.”
Although the second generation felt more comfortable supporting and representing England, many idealised the swagger and batsmanship of Richards and the raw speed and skill of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Marshall.These figures symbolised role models to be copied and, though it was difficult to break into the first-class game, there remained a desire to emulate the feats of these cricketing stars. The gradual erosion by the cricket establishment of the carnival atmosphere generated by West Indian supporters at English international venues did not endear itself to the Afro-Caribbean community, whilst the rising prices charged at Test-match venues also discouraged Afro-Caribbean attendance.
The launch of the Haringey Cricket School under Reg Scarlett, a former West Indian Test cricketer, and Mickey Thompson, a much-respected British Afro-Caribbean coach, provided some opportunity for those in London to receive expert coaching and motivation to break into professional cricket or the higher levels of the recreational game. The record of achievement was astonishing and even though this pre-dated the launch of county academies, a remarkable number of high-level cricketers emerged from the school. According to Jack Williams (2001), 33 England players of Afro-Caribbean origin were playing in the County Championship in 1993. Although they were not all products of the Haringey initiative, this figure is 26 more than the number of players of Afro-Caribbean ancestry now playing at county level. Surrey’s recent decision to release the highly promising George Edwardsis further evidence of the decline, though he has been given the chance to resurrect his career through a two-year contract offer from Lancashire as Ashley Giles’s first signing as new county coach.
For all the criticism targeted at the ECB for its lack of strategic thinking on how to nurse a future generation of Afro-Caribbean youngsters, the responsibility for the enormous decline of players also has to rest with the community itself, as journalist Dean Wilson has long maintained. Speaking to Alf Langley at the Lord’s indoor school, I gained a deeper insight into this argument. As the chair of the Club Cricket Conference and the recently launched African-Caribbean Cricket Association, Alf, in his infectious manner, conveys the gravity of the problem:“Cricket has to make itself more attractive and relevant.” In this context, he is responding to those (himself included) who bemoan why so little cricket is played within the Afro-Caribbean community, particularly when the game offers so much in terms of life skills and social benefits. Although the potential pool of players compares unfavourably with the numbers of those of South Asian origin, the most perplexing concern is, he asserts:“Why, as a parent, would one make an active choice to dissuade or not expose your kids to cricket?” Furthermore, as Mark Alleyne points out:“In seeking to secure a county academy place, the parental role is significant, and the support required is often not available as parents may lack the confidence to push their child or alternatively are complacent that their child’s ability will secure a contract.”
The declining appeal of cricket to young Afro-Caribbean males is not simply attributable to the game appearing tedious and demanding too much time as even the T20 format has made little difference. As Lawrence Prittipaul, co-founder of Cage Cricket, an initiative that develops the game in deprived inner-city communities, suggests:“the lack of space and money” also disadvantages those seeking to play the sport. In recounting his limited opportunities whilst growing up in Portsmouth, Prittipaul maintains that cricket should not exclude anyone from having the chance to play the game, though the increasing cost of equipment can prove to be an insurmountable obstacle, reducing opportunities for those from deprived ethnic communities who may be convinced of the attraction of the game.
Rather, it is the appeal of other sports and the degree to which great financial rewards are perceived as attainable – notably in football and in both codes of rugby – that have lured a number of young Afro-Caribbean males. Interestingly, with the blending of communities, resulting in many Afro-Caribbean lads being directed to football by more recent African immigrants, the significance of heritage has declined as a determining factor in the construction of suitable role models. Whilst athletics and boxing had always proved a draw, these sports pale into significance as counter-attractions, despite the considerable success achieved in both by sportspeople of British Afro-Caribbean origin. The ultimate sporting distraction has been, and continues to be, football with its potential to garner great riches in a short time period.
The lack of young cricketers coming through the age groups is linked to the decline of Afro-Caribbean clubs, the paucity of opportunity to play on good standard pitches, the decline of comprehensive-school funding and facilities, the difficulty of breaking into county club academies, second XI cricket and club cricket. For Carl Greenidge,“fewer opportunities exist to play. Clubs and counties are finding youngsters to play second XI cricket and are rewarded handsomely for selecting players under the age of 24, so why look elsewhere?” In the scholarly buzz of the British Library, he reflected with serious concern on some of the less positive changes in the game since his time as a player, especially the fact that the counties tend to be far lazier in their efforts to seek out new talent compared to the days before the creation of the Haringey Cricket School.
Much depended previously on the stalwarts of Caribbean clubs, and many of these individuals have retired, lost interest, returned to the Caribbean or, in some cases, passed away. In many cases these individuals took their sons to watch matches that also fed an enthusiasm now increasingly lost. Their replacements are few but, as with the successful Leeds Caribbean Club, some individuals in their late thirties have taken on responsibilities, realising that the survival of their clubs is in their hands.As the ever-enthusiastic Tony Bowry, the Cultural Diversity Officer of the Yorkshire County Cricket Board,tells me:“In combining cricket with a dose of pragmatism, a broad range of extra-curricular activities, most notably music-based, we are slowly attracting new players to join.”
Walking through my local parks in Cardiff, I don’t see young Afro-Caribbeans playing improvised cricket matches, but groups of mixed Asian lads willing to play in nearly any weather from March to late November, seeking to emulate the skills of Kohli, Malinga, Shakib Al Hasan or Ajmal. This scenario is replicated across England and Wales and further emphasises the scope of the challenge that has not been helped by the decline in the fortune of West Indies.
With the end of the West Indian era of global domination and their rapid sinking into mediocrity, those who had previously looked up to a team of heroes were bereft. Although both the England side and the first-class counties boasted record numbers of Afro-Caribbean cricketers, none of its products approached the levels of skill and stardom that those who had represented the West Indies had possessed. However, despite the level of cultural investment, this success was something of an aberration along the lines of the Haringey miracle. The detachment from the radical notions of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism as well as the fight for justice and democracy were no longer on cricket’s agenda, with Viv Richards representing the last West Indies captain linked to these causes. In the UK, Richards’ motivations were not generally understood within the cricketing fraternity and few identified with his ideals. With cricketers becoming more entrepreneurial and professional in marketing their skills, a good number have become “portfolio cricketers”, not always valuing the notion of representing the West Indies or their birth island but preferring to guarantee their long-term financial security.
This has impacted on cricket with a decline in the level of West Indian presence within the county game since the late 1990s. Those who were contracted to the counties were either not of Test-match quality, happy to play out their declining years or to concentrate on the T20 format. This lack of West Indian visibility extended to the new format, with the counties unable to compete with the riches offered by IPL franchises since 2008. And so it has become more difficult for youngsters to watch their icons and they have only managed to catch fleeting glimpses of Dwayne Bravo, Dwayne Smith, Kemar Roach and Kieron Pollard.
A myriad of initiatives, including the aforementioned Cage Cricket, the Grass Roots Cricket Academy and the Taverners Cup, now exist with a view to re-igniting cricket within the Afro-Caribbean community. However, as the pool of individuals to choose from is small, the schemes in place also seek to attract young Asian males and white youngsters from deprived communities.
As both the clearly overworked yet ever-cheery Carl Greenidge and Ricky Anderson argue, the task is tough. They have found it very difficult to recruit Afro-Caribbean lads to their Grass Roots Academy, as the bulk of those interested come from the Asian community, a point borne out by Mark Alleyne when discussing the ethnic breakdown of applicants for MCC places. This reality is all the more hard-hitting for him as the impossibility of finding the right kind of club to compensate for the lack of school opportunities for his children has led to their drift towards football. Funding, according to Anderson, “is linked to participation numbers and consequently the search for finance to run schemes often takes precedence over the specialist coaching work they are desperate to provide.”
While much good work goes on, it appears that the unorthodox approach – often linked to the notion of celebrity or the dominance of music (playing cricket whilst listening to music via headphones) and fashion in youngsters’ lives – works. The approach of Cage Cricket, says Prittipaul, is very much a response to this: “Get the fun done first. Attract them. Use graphics, appropriate language. Enjoy it and then there is a chance to move on. The key to our success is that we are online, not old-school with a 55-year-old teaching you to play the front foot drive.” Consequently, a fast-moving six-a-side game has produced a positive response as it is deemed cool to play something quick, with a minimum of fuss and age-old tradition and with a bat laced with funky graphic design. Yet whether this will create a new breed of professional cricketer is questionable as once the initial interest is captured it has to be sustained.
Through Cricket for Change, the Jamaican Donovan Miller has been offering coaching sessions in Greater London for some time. Proudly wearing his Royal Challengers Bangalore top, courtesy of his link to Chris Gayle, on a Caribbean-like afternoon at South Woodford CC, Miller stresses the importance of mentoring cricketers, having received no guidance of this kind when he first arrived in England in 1996. However, it was the establishment of the Chris Gayle Academy and the personal involvement of Gayle himself that brought an astonishing response to a cricket day that Miller recently organised, bringing in for trials Afro-Caribbean males never previously seen at any of his coaching sessions. “Any young West Indian who plays cricket would want to be involved with Chris Gayle,” he acknowledges. “We had seven decent cricketers turn up and they will all get into the academy. Maybe we need six more Chris Gayles.”
The creation of the Wisden City Cup by the acclaimed journalist and longstanding campaigner for widening participation in cricket, Scyld Berry, has also offered Afro-Caribbean youngsters new opportunities to play. Yet the bulk of those competing within an ever-growing geographical radius remains Asian. It will be interesting to see whether its renaming as the Taverners Cup and its wider media exposure through its support from the ECB, MCC and Wisden will heighten its impact.
Ultimately, in seeking to ensure that the Caribbean cricketing heritage is not completely lost in the English and Welsh game, the ECB does not have the power to radically change attitudes, though it may be able to respond to members of the Afro-Caribbean community once they are clear about the role cricket can play. Neither does the ECB have the capacity to loosen the dominance of other sports that have redirected many Afro-Caribbean males away from cricket, but it cannot afford to respond to the decline with mere rhetoric. The hope lies in the hands of current professionals such as Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Daniel Bell-Drummond to remind the community of the opportunities that the game has always offered and the rewards that are now available to individuals with differing cricketing pedigrees and origins. A few extra visits by some county and regional coaches into particularly deprived communities might pay dividends if those with interest and potential talent are communicated with in a language they can identify with and understand.
The key to fostering and advancing participation is to build on any initial interest by organising competitive fixtures – an absolute must in the eyes of both Greenidge and Alleyne. The loss of funds and facilities within the state-school system will not rapidly be reversed and neither will the demise of predominantly West Indian clubs. However, this does not automatically imply the death of British Afro-Caribbean cricket. Instead, ambition has to be scaled down,and there also needs to bea recognition that the Haringey success was a one-off. But even so, the game can and does remain relevant in its increasingly diverse forms to a community that has brought so much to it over the years.
This article appeared in the eighth issue of The Nightwatchman. You can buy all copies here.