Why do the number of African-Caribbean cricketers at all levels of the game in this country continue to dwindle? In the August issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly, and as part of WCM’s series on cricket’s diversity problem, Jo Harman investigated an issue which has suffered years of neglect, but is now suddenly in the foreground.
Read the introduction to WCM’s series on cricket’s diversity problem here
First published in issue 34 of Wisden Cricket Monthly
Since Alex Tudor made his first appearance for England in November 1998, the Test team has had just three Black debutants. Two of those – Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer – were educated and learnt their cricket in Barbados, while the third, Michael Carberry, has recently said that he believes cricket in this country “is rife with racism” and that “the people running the game don’t care about Black people”.
At county level the statistics would appear to support Carberry’s assessment. Of more than 400 male professionals on the books at counties last season, just nine were Black and eligible to play for England (down from 33 in 1994), with a third of those having developed their love of the game while growing up outside of the UK. Research by Thomas Fletcher from Leeds Beckett University found there were just three Black cricketers in the women’s county game last season. And the lower reaches of the game tell a similar story, with the ECB reporting that only one per cent of recreational cricketers in England and Wales are African-Caribbean.
These statistics are a stain on English cricket. And what is perhaps even more depressing is that it has taken the brutal killing of a Black man at the hands of a white policeman 4,000 miles away, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement, to bring the issue into focus. We all knew prior to George Floyd’s death that African-Caribbean cricketers existed in the margins of the game in this country, or in many cases had fallen away altogether, but very few people have been prepared to address the problem, or even acknowledge that there is one.
The ECB released a statement last month which read: “We have listened carefully to those who have spoken out in recent weeks about their experiences of being Black in cricket, sport and society. We know that systemic racism spans institutions and sectors across the country and we know that our sport is not immune. In recent weeks we have reflected, and acknowledge that Black players and fans, who have contributed so much to the history of our game, now feel disenfranchised. They do not feel as if cricket is a game for them. This must change. It is our overall desire to create demonstrable action, in order to deliver meaningful and long-term change that permeates every layer of the game.”
Lonsdale Skinner, a wicketkeeper for Surrey in the 1970s and now chairman of the African-Caribbean Cricket Association (ACCA), does not believe that the ECB are capable of bringing about that change. “The first African-Caribbean to play county cricket in England was in 1901,” he says. “We didn’t just turn up. But suddenly, the epiphany moment: Black Lives Matter. I’m an older man, do you think I should believe that? Do you think I have any confidence in that? Something they’ve neglected for 30, 40 years, suddenly they need to do something about it?”
Highlighting the fact that there are no Black people on the ECB’s board, and very few employed by the governing body in general, Skinner is calling for an independent enquiry into the marginalisation of the African-Caribbean community within the game. He believes that a “Black QC of good repute” should lead it.
“If you’re running a business, and suddenly you see the people who used to buy whatever you’re selling are no longer buying it, you would enquire what is going wrong,” says Skinner. “That didn’t happen with the African-Caribbean cricketers. All you heard was they don’t like the game anymore. If you hear they don’t like the game anymore, you try and find out why. But I don’t think that happened.
“You cannot deal with the situation here without considering the history. Most of the things that are going on have a background, a very deep history. It’s not that we just don’t play the game. There have been obstacles that have been put in our way and we’ve been jumping the obstacles. I don’t think they can change it internally. This needs an outside body to go in there and come up with some recommendations.”
Skinner refers back to the arrival of the Windrush generation in the late 1940s, when he says the newly arrived immigrants from the Caribbean weren’t welcome at the established cricket clubs and instead formed their own. He says that without access to facilities, many of those wandering clubs have ceased to exist. He claims that the West Indian crowds that used to be a fixture at The Oval were deliberately separated and quietened down in the mid-Nineties, and made to feel unwelcome, and that was repeated at Test venues across the country.
More recently, he argues the county academy system is fostering and exacerbating inequality within the game. “It was done by the white middle-class for the white middle-class,” says Skinner. “Not only were the Blacks excluded, but they excluded the white working-class. They knew when they were setting up the academies that this disparity existed, knowing that it excludes the vast majority of young people.”
Arthur Godsal, a 22-year-old fast bowler who has represented England under 19s and been on the books at Middlesex, wrote his dissertation on the barriers and opportunities facing African-Caribbean people in the UK who are trying to break into professional cricket. “I never really saw many Black faces when I was playing cricket growing up, I was pretty much the only Black person,” he says. “I didn’t mind that, I guess. But I wanted to see why that was the case. I never really took race as a barrier. It was more noticeable as I grew up.”
Godsal was educated at a state school which didn’t play cricket, instead discovering his love for the game at Ealing CC after his mum signed him up for a summer course. After conducting research for his dissertation, he concluded that socio-economic factors were a crucial barrier for young Black people getting into the game, with a lack of visible role models also significant.
“I would say it’s very difficult for someone of a working-class background to get into cricket because of how expensive everything is, and also the travelling,” he says. “I was lucky enough to have parents who could drive me and take me to places. It’s more about the opportunities you get given.”
In March, Surrey CCC launched a new scholarship programme to expand those opportunities and rebuild links with the local community which they acknowledge have been broken. The brainchild of Ebony Rainford-Brent – Surrey’s director of women’s cricket and the first Black woman to play for England – the African-Caribbean Engagement (ACE) Programme is targeted at boys and girls from 11-18 years old, with the selected scholars receiving Level 3 ECB-qualified coaching, sports science and personal development education, equipment and travel grants.
“Facilities is one barrier but the main disconnect is the academy system as it is,” says Chevanis Green, Surrey’s cricket participation manager. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a look in at the moment unless you’re in a private school environment. That’s not just an African-Caribbean thing, that’s a general cricket thing. We’re trying to connect the dots.”
Seventy hopefuls attended the three trial sessions – two of which were held at The Oval and the other at Archbishop Tenison’s School, just across the road from the ground – and the level of talent on show convinced Surrey’s coaching staff to increase the original allocation of 16 scholarships to 24. “We were surprised by a lot of the talent,” says Green, who adds that three of the selected few were already considered of a good enough standard to progress straight into the county’s academy.
Rayon Atkinson, a 17-year-old, 6ft 4in seamer from Mill Hill, was one of those awarded a scholarship. Rayon’s dad, Steve Atkinson, used to play professionally for Leicestershire CCC and he learnt his cricket while studying at Aldenham, an independent school in Hertfordshire, and playing at club level for Winchmore Hill. “From a young age I’ve played cricket but not too seriously,” says Rayon. “But as I’ve grown up I’ve got more into it. I used to prefer football over cricket but I was getting better at cricket quicker and it was more likely for me to become something in cricket than football.”
Rayon has moved to Mill Hill County High School to study for his A-levels and says cricket barely registers with his new classmates. “At my old school there were quite a few people interested in cricket but at my new school there’s no one, at all.” He says he watches a bit of cricket, not much, but is inspired by Jofra Archer. “He’s a great role model because seeing someone else do it makes you believe you have more of a chance to do it, and especially someone doing so well.”
For Skinner, who in 1975 became the first Black cricketer to be capped by Surrey, the talent being unearthed by the ACE programme is bittersweet. “They were surprised about how good those young people were, and that makes me angry,” he says. “Think of the amount of young people that they’ve missed. There had to be a special scheme for them even to be seen. Remember, apparently they’ve gone off cricket, they play basketball and football only. The word is going around that they don’t like cricket, which is a lie.”
Green, who himself played age-group cricket for Surrey on and off between the ages of nine and 15, believes the reasons for the lack of Black representation in professional cricket are varied and complex. “There are elements to blame from within the Black community. From different generations not necessarily encouraging younger ones to play, there’s a bit of a disconnect within the community itself. Cricket is not the cheapest of sports, compared to rugby or football, so there is the barrier of cost. But also you’ve got to look at the ECB as an establishment. We had a strong historic relationship with the game – we were involved in it. As they saw those numbers dropping, they should have done something about it. The ECB let it fall away. At Surrey, yes we have set up this programme, but we’ve got a lot of steps to take ourselves as well.”
Green is excited by the impact a role model such as Jofra Archer can have on the African-Caribbean community but Skinner is wary of placing too much responsibility on a 25-year-old still making his way in the game.
“Archer’s not Atlas,” says Skinner. “Why should he carry 300 years of history on his shoulders? It’s so unfair on that young man to be asking him to do that type of stuff. We had Black players before. Those guys like Phillip DeFreitas, Chris Lewis, Roland Butcher, Neil Williams, Wilfred Slack, David Lawrence. If they couldn’t do it, why are we expecting Jofra Archer to do it? We’re asking too much of him. We have a structure that needs to change.”
Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive, insists the governing body are determined to re-engage with the African-Caribbean community, and refutes Skinner’s argument that an independent enquiry is required.
“I’ve written to Mr Skinner recently, I haven’t spoken to him personally, but people at the ECB have had discussions with Mr Skinner,” says Harrison. “He has his view. I don’t agree with his view, at all. This is something we are very committed to resolving. We will work with any organisation that wants to work constructively with us to that end. And we’re prepared to take responsibility for the fact that we haven’t got this right in the past.”
Harrison, who played professionally for Derbyshire, says that in recent weeks he has spoken to several African-Caribbean cricketers who he played with and against, to get a better understanding of their experience within the game. He describes those conversations as “pretty uncomfortable at times”.
“The reality is that maybe we’ve never cracked this challenge as a game in this country,” he adds. “We’ve been fortunate that in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, potentially England was handed a readymade generation of Black cricketing fans, people who had a connection with the game born out of cricketing experience in the Caribbean. Having spoken to many players who’ve had that experience, of having parents coming to the UK at that time, it’s clear that we’ve been fortunate to suggest that the game has made this connection in the past. I think maybe that is a flattering version of the truth.”
Skinner will need more convincing in the weeks, months and years ahead. “I don’t particularly want to hear any promises,” he says, “because they’ve given promises before that they haven’t kept.” Carberry, too, has expressed his scepticism, the former England opener saying he “doesn’t expect anything” from the ECB.
So now it’s over to the ECB – and to English cricket in general – to prove the doubters wrong, to back up the positive discussions and grand statements with decisive and visible change. There can be no more excuses. The world is watching.
First published in issue 34 of Wisden Cricket Monthly