Matthew Smith 30th May 2019
Where does a sport that can last for days fit into a world of 240 characters and two-minute highlight reels? Few sports are as staunchly traditional as cricket but, as England prepare to host the Cricket World Cup, those in charge are promising to show there’s a new, diverse audience for the sport.
And the early signs are promising for the World Cup’s organisers. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) claim more than three million people applied for tickets in the first ballot and 800,000 tickets have already been sold. But one thing will likely become obvious when the games begin — a disconnect between the diversity in the stands and who actually makes it to the top levels, especially in the England squad.
From the 25 players who have received central contracts from the ECB since the last World Cup in 2014, all but three players, Chris Jordan, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali are white and, beyond that, 16 players went through private schooling on the road to a cricketing career.
Within the smaller 15-man squad selected for this World Cup, there are also three non-white players with Jofra Archer (whose selection has been debated using some concerning language) replacing Jordan, but only six state educated players make the cut.
This is, obviously, not a new problem for cricket to have but with other areas of sport and wider society trying to break down barriers to participation, it has forced decision makers to face some questions that not even cricket legend Geoffrey Boycott could evade.
Meanwhile, at the grassroots level there are a range of schemes aimed at improving participation. Last year the ECB has introduced a South Asian action plan to work with councils and counties to fund initiatives that bring more diverse coaches and players through, and while it may take years to see the benefits reach the professional game, those who work in the game are already seeing some progress being made.
There are also schemes away from the ECB, including the Platform initiative run by some councils in London which brings cricket into primary schools that previously hadn’t had the facilities. Chris Willetts, the school sports partnership manager for Tower Hamlets Council, has worked in the area for more than 15 years but has seen progress has been made from when he first started and had to bus players from school to cricket clubs outside the capital.
Willetts is keen to stress that even if there are few non-white players in the top ranks of cricket, it’s not from a lack of interest. “South Asian kids are over-represented in cricket, [but] the issue for most is their ability to progress through the ranks of cricket.” He points out that because places in the academy system are often available later than in other sports, for many players they will have already started working or prioritising their education, over a potential sporting career.
In his borough, one of the most deprived in the capital, he describes a “toxic combination which was stopping kids participating” adding, “there wasn’t any cricket club, very few open spaces, and then part of it was with issues within the community itself, which related to a whole host of things; economic, geographical and cultural.”
In Tower Hamlets, Willetts has worked with a sizeable black community who are also underrepresented in the professional game. He thinks this is down to a shift in communities in the capital with more people from African backgrounds living in the city, rather than the Caribbean backgrounds where there was previously a stronger cricketer heritage. Even for those from backgrounds where the game has roots, he notes “a phenomenon with second and third generation children that tend to cast off a little bit [from] what their parents are interested in”.
He adds: “The things that we might find quirky and quaint about cricket is probably a turnoff for a lot of kids in more urban environments, whatever their ethnicity.”
This sense of trying to change the perception of cricket was the impetus for Sajid Patel to co-found the National Cricket League (NCL) in 2010 as a Sunday league. Since its launch, NCL has grown into one of the most diverse leagues in the country at both social and youth levels, from 14 to 56 teams currently across seven divisions.
While getting older players back into the sport was the immediate aim, the NCL has since started doing significant work to encourage younger players “Phase one was to try to get more engaged in the communities as a benchmark, then to work in faith schools and young people to see how we can use cricket as a vehicle to engage those members of society.”
We could feel that they wouldn’t let us hire a pitch because a lot of the players from a Muslim or [some] Sikh backgrounds will not touch alcohol
He adds: “There’s obviously been a blockage in the system before, but at the same time, there’s been a lack of education from that South Asian community” when it comes to cricket itself. Patel mentions that if the role of sport hadn’t been emphasised then the skills of those players may not have been high enough to make it onto established pathways in the past, but he’s hopeful that the work that the NCL and clubs are doing will change that.
Patel, who also works as part of Surrey Cricket Foundation, still sees this being a cause of friction between clubs and potential players today. He points out when teams need to hire facilities there is often an emphasis on also spending money on alcohol. While it’s often cited as a purely business decision, it’s easy to see how these attitudes seem discriminatory.
“Certain clubs will say they won’t [hire] unless they see that there is a good use of the bar and things like that,” he says. “We’ve experienced that with one particular site, they haven’t openly said it but we could feel that it was the case because a lot of the players from a Muslim or [some] Sikh backgrounds will not touch alcohol.”
We don’t want to lose players because of the cost of the game
He says because the bars will not make much money from Muslims or often Sikhs using the facilities, venues don’t think it’s worth letting them use it. “They don’t see the bigger picture because those grounds are staying empty,” Patel adds.
He says clubs are charged between £160 and £220 a game to hire a pitch in Essex, for example. Meanwhile, if the venue were to put on a second XI or a friendly, they’d charge £10 a head, raising about £110, and still have to supply two balls and an umpire.
It’s a frustrating situation for Patel to be in. “There should be some sort of compromise, we’re getting the balls, the players are bringing their stuff and we’re just utilising the space. It becomes very expensive and we don’t want to lose players because of the cost of the game.”
This is a point that has been raised by other people who work for county foundations, who were concerned that both the alcohol and social traditions and the time-consuming nature of the sport was “socially isolating” and can stop people from different backgrounds from becoming as involved within clubs — stopping both their cricketing and personal development.
So where is the progress being made? Patel highlights the success of short forms of the game, such as 40-over matches and T20s being where there is the most interest but also in variations that emphasise more casual playing, such as games without LBWs that encourage more attacking play. That need to experiment has been seen at all levels, with the ECB responding at the professional level with the controversial The Hundred which, when launched next year, will ditch traditional six-ball overs for a supposedly faster format featuring 10-ball overs. It’s a move that has been met with derision from pundits, and while the people I speak with may not be in favour, they understand why the ECB is so keen to try.
And what about ECB’s plan for grassroots cricket, and has it had any real effect yet? It doesn’t take long for some scepticism about how the funding is being spent, priorities and motives to emerge but there’s a consensus that recently the work is going in the right direction. Others express some caution with the long-term ambitions and hope that this outreach work and funding will make its way to other underrepresented groups, who are often living in the same communities.
It’s not about you guys telling people what to do, it’s about those people in the community
“I think the ECB has got the hang of it now, but at first it wasn’t great,” Patel says. He mentions roadshows the governing body put on around the country which proved to be a springboard for the programme. “They came back with a strategy and an 11-point plan”
“It’s not about you guys telling people what to do, it’s about those people in the community because they’re the ones on the ground, who understand the challenges to say, it’s not good for us those who sit at the Oval or Lords to say we’ll put this idea in and it will work on the ground… but they’re now understanding it’s all about the county.”
So what would success be for those at the grassroots? Willetts acknowledges that, for the ECB, participation numbers will always be a measure of success but that’s not the only way of looking at the impact of community work. For Tower Hamlets Council the Platform scheme looks towards younger players so encourages those softer-skills, but Willetts does believe there could be a wider impact. “You have to aim to cover all bases, and I think a lot of people would think I was perhaps overambitious to say that.”
Willetts tells me he’s hopeful that through the Youth Sport Foundation and Platform will reach every eight and nine-year-old in Lewisham this year. He continues: “If you aren’t comprehensive with what you’re doing then you won’t see those additional benefits of what sport can do in supporting better health, in supporting social cohesion, crime reduction and youth unemployment — but on the other hand, it’d be silly not to try and benefit the sport to try to identify talent, aptitude, enthusiasm to support the most appropriate people to get into cricket.”
So even if the England team that takes to the field throughout the World Cup may not be the most representative, there’s reason to believe across the country there are people working to make sure things will have changed by the next one. It may take longer, cricket is hardly a sport known for rapid change, but even then it might not tell the whole story — if you think that it’s only middle-class white men playing cricket, you may just be looking in the wrong places.
Matthew Smith 30th May 2019