Backing black in English cricket

Having gloriously vanquished the kings of Test cricket, Bangladesh, in their recent tour of the country, England’s fluctuating international record has received a much needed boost. And whilst victory against the world’s weakest test-playing nation is always cause for celebration, there has perhaps been a more interesting story emerging in English cricket over the past few months.

Michael Carberry’s brief cameo in the side has raised an important question: why are there so few black players in English cricket today? England has a fine tradition of black cricketers who have illuminated the sport for many long years, with just a few of the highlights including:

Norman Cowan’s 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.

Alex Tudor’s 99 not out as night-watchman to win the first test at Edgbaston in 1999.

Mark Butcher’s match-winning 173 at Headingly in 2001.

With the last of these esteemed names, Mark Butcher, having recently retired from the game in time to enjoy the tour of Bangladesh from the comfort of the TMS commentary box, there has, unfortunately, been less to celebrate of late.

Although Butch will undoubtedly be looking forward to the promise of indulging in pastries and whimsical banter with the likes of old Etonian and idiosyncratic rambler Henry Blofeld, his departure has left a void in the game, both as a distinguished batsman and role model for young black players.

Such role models can now be found in the slightly more glamorous and better paid sport of football, where the list of young, stylish and talented black players in the England squad is considerable indeed, featuring stars such as Theo Walcott, Ashley Cole, Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Jermaine Jenas and Ashley Young, to name just a few.

Arguably, in the modern day, cricket does not capture the hearts and minds of young people in the way it once did. England legend Devon Malcolm neatly summed up this generational divide when he said “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”.

This is not to say that there has been a general decline in interest in the sport. There have been a number of Asian cricketers of notable quality to emerge in recent times, including leg-spinner Adil Rashid, all-rounder Ajmal Shahzad, and the always entertaining if somewhat inconsistent Monty Panesar (or ‘Monty Python’ as Henry Blofeld has recently dubbed him). And who could forget IPL stars Ravi Bopara and Owais Shah, batsmen of genuine ability who have never quite fired on all cylinders for the England team.

But despite fairly inauspicious performances for the national side, they have, somewhat surprisingly, received lucrative contracts from the King’s XI Punjab and the Kolkata Knight Riders respectively (although following the return of more prestigious overseas players they have once again been relegated to the bench, and normality has been restored for the time being).

Part of the trouble is that many of the spectators at county cricket games nowadays are the diehard fans, decked out in woollen jumpers and heavy beards, equipped solely with an umbrella, in anticipation of the inevitable rain which plagues the English game, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport’s history which would put Wisden to shame.

Obviously this is a somewhat unfair generalisation but demonstrative of the fact that domestic cricket does struggle to attract the punters, regardless of race.

Of course England’s long and proud tradition of importing overseas players remains their trump card, with some of our finest players and even captains of recent years being of foreign heritage, including former captain and mainstay of the side Kevin Pietersen and current skipper Andrew Strauss.

So it is surely now only a matter of time before the ECB poaches a few choice West Indian all-rounders to swell the ranks of the English team, perhaps Kieron Pollard or Dwayne Bravo.

In the meantime though, following Carberry’s fairly pedestrian scores of 30 and 34 facing a Bangladesh bowling attack against which most pub cricketers would have fancied their chances, he looks unlikely to retain his place in the test side and the depressing downward trend seems unlikely to reverse itself any time soon.

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