What happened to London’s Black Cricketers?

The Oval, home of Surrey CCC. Pic: SecretLondon

In our series, #WhatsStoppingYou, we’ve taken a look at some of the local groups seeking to widen access to sport. In Lewisham and Croydon, two local campaigns are fighting hard to promote cricket among the area’s Black community.

In Britain today, only 1% of recreational cricketers are Black, a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s when the strength of London’s Black cricket clubs ensured there was a steady stream of Black players making their way to the top of the game. When England toured the West Indies in 1989/90 there were five black players in their touring party. Unfortunately, that degree of representation has not been seen over the last decade; only three Black players have represented England at Test level: Michael Carberry, Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer. Of the three, only Carberry, a Croydon native, was born in the UK.

Every year, running a cricket club in London becomes a more onerous task. Rising property prices means playing space is at a premium, the pool of willing volunteers is smaller than ever and participation levels among young adults are at an all time low. According to Sport England, the number of people aged over 16 who play cricket at least once a fortnight has fallen by 20% in the last three years, and the number who play it just once a year has fallen by 8% in the same time.

The issue is that the decline of recreational cricket has ramifications far beyond the game itself. Community sports clubs fulfil the role of social hub, leisure centre and provide the infrastructure for hundreds of thousands of children to engage in regular exercise. And unsurprisingly for a game that is understandably perceived as elitist and expensive, cricket’s decline has been more marked in some communities than others. 

However, in this same period the number of Black players in England’s football and rugby union teams has risen steadily showing that, if nothing else, the athletic talent is there provided clubs are willing to search for it. Consequently, Surrey CCC launched their African Caribbean Engagement Programme (ACE) back in January with the express aim of finding the next generation of Black cricketers. 

Given that the scheme was conceived in response to declining participation among the Black community it’s encouraging that club officials have been immediately upfront about the role administrative failures have played in creating this situation. At ACE’s launch Surrey chief executive Richard Gould admitted to the Standard that “If you look across the sports, cricket under-indexes in terms of British-born Black players making the professional level.”

The programme’s objective is attempting to engage with black boys and girls aged 11-18 by offering a group of talented young people the opportunity to access high quality coaching as well as equipment and travel grants. Surrey hope the programme will unearth players capable of one day representing the county at first-class level but more immediately, the programme aims to foster links with local African-Caribbean clubs as a means to enhancing the club’s positive impact within the community.

The ACE Scheme is led by the former Surrey and England player Ebony Rainford-Brent. Rainford Brent, who is also Surrey’s Director of Women’s Cricket, said: “It’s something that I’m really excited about. There is no doubt that there has been a lack of engagement with the local Black community in our sport for some time and now is a thrilling time to start rebuilding those links.

“This programme will be the first of its kind and it is brilliant that we can create tangible opportunities for talented young people to access high quality coaching and support, as well as reduce many of the barriers into cricket for this community.”

It’s a laudable scheme but for ACE to succeed it’s important that administrators don’t simply see this as a race issue; social class is just as significant an obstacle to cricketing advancement. In 2013 a survey conducted by All Out Cricket for Chance to Shine found that of the 413 professional cricketers surveyed, 119 were privately educated, nearly 30% in comparison to seven per cent of the general population.

The fact Croydon has produced a number of top cricketers in recent years is testament to this dynamic. Since Michael Carberry entered the professional game in 2001, a high number of professional players have come from the area including current England Test openers, Rory Burns and Dom Sibley who both attended Whitgift school. Still, nearly all are white and they are without exception privately educated. In other words, a key part of promoting cricket within the Black community is recognising the extent to which socio-economic factors represent a significant barrier preventing many from accessing the game. 

One individual who understands this better than most is Kent’s Daniel Bell-Drummond. While there are still a handful of Black players in the professional game, Bell-Drummond – who was born in Lewisham – is probably the highest-profile product of the English system. He was spotted by Kent while playing for Catford Wanderers aged seven and progressed through the youth setup before winning a scholarship to Millfield, one of the most accomplished cricketing schools in the country. In 2018 he told the Guardian: “Going to Dulwich Prep and Millfield has played a massive part for me. Those are big advantages. It’s definitely more a class thing.”

Daniel Bell-Drummond playing for Kent. Pic: Blue Square Thing

In response to what he saw as a lack of opportunities for young players in South-East London, Bell-Drummond set up the Platform initiative in 2017. On their Twitter page, Platform describe themselves as “a project aimed at increasing the number of children from disadvantaged and BAME backgrounds progressing in and through cricket.” 

Platform’s focus is on partnering with established clubs in Southwark, Lewisham, Lambeth and Greenwich in order to supplement their existing facilities through the provision of coaching, kit and equipment. 

While the challenges facing Rainford-Brent and Bell-Drummond are not unique to cricket, the game’s administration at a national level has left a lot to be desired for decades if increasing participation is the ultimate aim. In 2005, the ECB sold the live TV rights for the English game to Sky and with the exception of the 2019 World Cup Final, cricket has remained firmly behind the paywall ever since. 

However, the 2019 win provides a springboard for further expansion of the game, particularly into those communities in which cricket once thrived. It’s in this space that ACE and Platform are set to make the biggest impact. Rainford-Brent hopes that before long there will be a programme like ACE operating in every major city in the UK. She says: “Our goal is to make a system that can be replicated. If it proves to be a success, then the initiative could be rolled out nationwide.” 

Of course, the ECB, the national governing body, has a significant role to play as both the most financially solvent stakeholder as well as the ultimate custodians of the grassroots game in England. However, national marketing campaigns can only go so far in redressing the existing imbalance. 

England’s Black population is disproportionately located in certain locations that require a more specific approach that recognises some of the structural barriers to access (lack of green space, fewer role models in the form of black coaches or star players) facing this group. Consequently, locally-run schemes like ACE and the Platform Initiative are a necessary part of restoring cricket in the black community to its former glory.

This is day three of four of our Eastlondonlines’ #WhatsStoppingYou series. Read the rest of the story here.

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