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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 May 2007, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
English cricket's blackout
By Tom Fordyce

Devon Malcolm
Malcolm under siege from autograph hunters in 1995

Where have all England's black cricketers gone?

When England played host to the West Indies in 1991, five players of Caribbean descent played at least one Test for England.

This summer, there isn't a single such player in the entire 25-man England performance squad.

606: DEBATE

Afro-Caribbean players have played an integral part in many of English cricket's greatest performances in the 26 years since Roland Butcher became the first black man to play for the national side.

Allow yourself a quiet moment to recall a few favourites:

  • Norman Cowans' 6-77 to win the Melbourne Test in 1982
  • Devon Malcolm clean-bowling King Viv at Sabina Park in 1990, steamrollering 10 wickets in the third Test at Port-of-Spain or taking 9-57 against South Africa in 1994
  • Dean Headley's 6-60 in Melbourne to snatch the Boxing Day Test in 1998
  • Mark Butcher's match-winning 173 at Headingley in 2001
  • Alex Tudor's 99 not out as night-watchman to win the first Test at Edgbaston in 1999

It's a long list, and that's without going into any number of less substantive memories - Phil DeFreitas squinting his way to the popping crease, Gladstone Small bustling in in unique fashion or David Lawrence thundering along like a runaway bulldozer.

Happy memories - but if current trends continue, there are unlikely to be many others to add to the list.

The decline of Afro-Caribbean cricket is just as apparent at county and club level as it is in the national side.

We've only got about eight black members under 24 years old - our youth teams are 80% Asian

Eaton Gordon
Birmingham club coach
Small, a key part of the last England side to win an Ashes series in Australia, now works for the Professional Cricketers' Association.

He says: "When I was playing county cricket in the 1980s, there were 30 or so black players on county books.

"But presently we only have about a dozen Afro-Caribbean or mixed-race professionals out of more than 300 players on county books, of which about half you would have to term fringe players."

Current MCC head coach Clive Radley was part of a Middlesex team in the 1980s that featured four black England players - Wilf Slack, Neil Williams, Butcher and Cowans.

He says, "In the school of excellence we run here, there are far fewer Afro-Caribbean players than there were 10 years ago.

"Of the kids coming through all the classes we have at Lord's, around 65% are white, 25% Asian and 10% black. Ten years ago, at least 25% of our kids were from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds."

At grassroots, it's the same story.

Eaton Gordon is head coach at Handsworth Cricket Club in Birmingham, an Afro-Caribbean club set up in the wake of the 1981 riots which devastated that part of Birmingham.

He says: "Our club overall is 90% Afro-Caribbean, 6-7% Asian and 3-4% English. But you'll find that the vast majority of the black players are in their late 30s or 40s.

"We've only got about eight black members under 24 years old. Our youth teams are 80% Asian."

So why the decline?

Chris Lewis, Phil DeFreitas and Devon Malcolm
Lewis, DeFreitas and Malcolm were part of the same England team in 1993

Partly, it's a generational thing.

As Small says: "The Afro-Caribbean guys who played in the 1980s, like me, Roland and Devon, were born in the Caribbean and had that real love and passion for cricket that came from growing up in the Caribbean in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I came to Britain when I was 13, from Barbados to Birmingham. Cricket was part of the everyday culture of the place and was passed down through the generations.

"But the third or fourth generation of Afro-Caribbeans born in the UK simply don't have that love and appreciation for the game.

"A lot of the Asian youngsters coming through are first or second generation immigrants - their parents have a real love for the game. But as you move down the generations, cricket seems to lose its attraction."

The decline of the West Indies as an international cricketing power has also had a huge impact, according to Malcolm.

He says: "If you look back to the 1980s, the mighty West Indies were top of the pile, and that had a massive influence on black kids in Britain.

"You also had a lot of top West Indies stars playing county cricket - stars like Viv Richards and Joel Garner at Somerset - whereas at the moment there isn't a single West Indian player playing for a county side.

"Earlier generations were inspired by watching these sorts of players."

Eaton Gordon agrees: "There aren't many black players in the County Championship, so there's no interest in that. Kids now want to be Michael Jordan or Shaq O'Neal.

"There are no cricket idols. After Viv Richards there was a long lull until Brian Lara, but he wasn't that interesting to kids.

"Mention Lara to a lot of black kids and they won't know who he is."

When they can see Theo Walcott going to the World Cup aged 17, kids start gravitating that way

Devon Malcolm
The place that cricket once claimed in the hearts of black British teenagers has now been taken by a more glamorous rival: football.

When Butcher made his England debut, only two black men had played for the national football side - Lawrie Cunningham and Viv Anderson.

But by the time of the last World Cup, black players made up more than a third of the England football squad.

"If you look at the Premiership and the England team, there are so many black players, and so there are so many black kids playing football," says Malcolm.

"Kids are influenced by big stars, big money and all that business. When they can see Theo Walcott going to the World Cup aged 17, kids start gravitating that way - they want to play football. It's the big money sport, the celebrity sport."

Says Small: "If you're a talented, athletic black teenager, and you see the footballers are much more high-profile than cricket, than that attracts the talent."

Malcolm clean-bowls Australia's Michael Slater
Malcolm clean-bowls Australia's Michael Slater
For Eaton Gordon, the new wave of crowd regulations at Test match grounds has had an unforeseen impact.

"When we used to go to the cricket it was a carnival atmosphere. Even if you weren't initially interested in the game, you'd go along for the party, and that would get you interested.

"People used to go as a day out - they'd take their picnics, take beers, blow their horns - it was one big party.

"But you can't do that any more, so you won't get the kids and the families going. People won't go unless they're really, really into cricket."

At Lord's last week, there were more black faces on the pitch than there were in the stands.

"Caribbean people are passionate people when it comes to watching sport," says Malcolm.

"Now Granddad doesn't turn up for the cricket any more, my uncle doesn't go to the cricket any more, because they can't enjoy the vibes like they used to be able to do. They can't celebrate cricket the way they want to celebrate."

The Cricket Foundation's Chance To Shine initiative, which aims to re-introduce cricket into state schools, is at least giving more black kids a chance to play the game.

But even those who start playing the sport may struggle to find places to pursue their interest, according to Gordon.

"There have always been cricket clubs, but only the ones who are really interested will go out and find the clubs," he says.

"If you can just go out and play on a grass area with a bat and dustbin, it's so much easier.

"But whereas 20 years ago there were plenty of green spaces in cities where you could play, now as soon as you have a bit of waste ground, you turn around for a second and there's houses on it.

"As a club we have our youth section on a Wednesday night. We're getting 70-80 kids down there, but that's just one night.

"What can they do on all the other nights? If they're only playing one night, they can't get that far."

From five Caribbean players in the England team 16 years ago to none today?

It's a precipitous decline, and there's precious little sign of it turning round.

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