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Why English cricket really does need to learn how to open doors.

by Jon Berry

I’m going to tell you about three cricket matches I saw in June 2023.

The first is in Luton. I’ve gone along to watch Luton Caribbean take on Milton Keynes Warriors in Division One of the Four Counties League. The sky is gunmetal grey and there’s a sharp northerly slicing across the neat council-owned playing field. Luton Caribbean are struggling at 52-4 and the old stager doing the scorebook is firmly gripping his mug of tea in the hope of extracting residual warmth.

Luton Caribbean is something of a misnomer. There are only three players of Afro-Caribbean heritage in the team; the rest are mainly second or third generation young men of South Asian provenance, which is exclusively true of the hardy warriors from up the road in MK. When I ask Kieron, padded up and ready, about his involvement, he tells me that ‘when I tell my mates that I play cricket, they think I’m a bit odd.’

There’s nothing hugely newsworthy about the ethnic make-up of these recreational players. Of those who play cricket regularly at this level in England, a staggeringly low 1% have an Afro-Caribbean background while 30% are of South Asian heritage. We’ll come back to these figures in a moment.

Luton Caribbean limp along to 92 all-out. Their young captain, Adal Bukhari is upbeat. ‘These got bowled out for 57 last week,’ he chirpily informs his shivering teammates. And his optimism is not misplaced. Some hopelessly irresponsible shot selection and a comical runout leaves the Warriors well short at 75 all out, the early finish greeted with some gratitude all round.

A week later I’m at Lord’s. In contrast to my outing in Luton, there is only one player from both sides who is not white – Australia’s Usman Khawaja. There is, however, one similarity in that the game is characterised by some hopelessly irresponsible shot selection and a comical runout/stumping. But as far as the composition of England team is concerned, there is no correspondence between what they look like and their background and the nation they are there to represent. The contrast with England’s football team is stark and revealing.  Let’s not even begin to think about the ethnic composition of the Lord’s attendees.

One of the many uncomfortable questions I pose in my book From Azeem to Ashes: English cricket’s struggle with race and class is how we have reached this situation – and, just as importantly, why it matters.  Given that so many people with South Asian heritage play the game at a variety of recreational levels, why are there so relatively few who make it to top level cricket? And why have so many people of Caribbean descent, for whom cricket was one of the central planks of their lives for over three decades when they first came to the UK, almost completely abandoned the game?

Here are three shots at an immediate answer. First, cricket has all but disappeared in state schools. Ground maintenance is time-consuming and requires skill and expertise, all of which equates to expenditure which most schools cannot afford – and that’s before we get to costly equipment. Along with this, a crowded school curriculum has squeezed out games and team sports as schools strive to spend as much time as they can working on churning out the exam results they need to maintain their profile and status.

Second, cricket has no place in free-to-air broadcasting. For this invisibility, the ECB, as with so many of its actions, must bear culpability. When, during the 2005 Ashes, cricket hit the front pages for the last time since the Azeem Rafiq affair, it did so because of the deal struck between the game’s governing body and terrestrial TV. Rather than build on this success, the ECB sold off the family silver, thus placing it firmly behind the paywall and rendering it inaccessible to the majority of the country.

Third, the upshot of this situation is that for young people to participate, they need a number of stars to align. They need a club in their locality and they need parents who have the wherewithal to ferry them back and forth. Simple as these prerequisites may be, they are just not there for many children, especially those from working class backgrounds. All of these circumstances conspire to place a ring of exclusivity around cricket – and one of the manifestations of this is that its national team, its emblem and focal point, remains completely unrepresentative.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll want to know about third match I promised you. On the manicured playing fields of a Hertfordshire public school, I watch a team of young men playing in a high-standard competition between various local schools and clubs. The players in this team are mainly, but not exclusively, black or brown-skinned. They are representing the ACE cricket academy, based at the Oval: they look and sound, as they would, like ordinary young people from London. With its network of regional academies, ACE is playing a vital and energetic part in bringing young people – boys and girls – to cricket and nurturing talent along the way. Its work may yet be instrumental in making the national team – and those of some counties – more properly diverse and representative. And cricket, as a consequence, would reap the benefits.

The issues I’ve touched on here, along with a whole bunch of other stuff, is dealt with in Azeem to Ashes. You can read a free preview here.

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