“We were pioneers.” How a generation of African-Caribbean cricketers made an impact

From October, the ECB is celebrating Black History Month and Beyond by shining a light on African-Caribbean migrants from the mid-20th century who made a lasting and important contribution to both recreational and professional cricket in England and Wales.

On a warm day in mid-September, members of the Shepherd’s Bush community descended on its famous old cricket club to celebrate the immense contribution made by people of African-Caribbean heritage to cricket in England and Wales.

The pioneering African-Caribbean Heritage Day – organised by former player and current club president Alf Langley – celebrated the contributions made by Black cricketers to the game in England and Wales, with a particular nod to Windrush-era migrants and their immediate descendants in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. As well as honouring players from previous generations who had overcome obstacles and found a way to succeed, the day looked to the future, featuring an exhibition game between a Shepherd’s Bush team, and an ACE XI – the charity set up to nurture and develop African-Caribbean talent.

Langley said: “When I look back, I think we [Shepherd’s Bush CC] were pioneers in terms of embracing a multiracial, multicultural way of being.

The match was attended by a number of former England and First Class players, and was played amid a carnival atmosphere, buoyed by steel drums, Caribbean food, reggae music and ferocious games of dominoes among the watching crowd. Inside the pavilion, a museum installation and archive material from Middlesex CCC gave attendees a further sense of the strong links between the club and the African-Caribbean community in West London, as well as Middlesex CCC itself, which throughout the 1970s included many Black players.

Langley, who joined ‘The Bush’ in 1974, added: “People ask me what’s special about the Caribbean culture and it’s the pioneer story. These are people who came into nothing and built something and made something happen. And when I look back, it’s absolutely extraordinary. Frankly, we were poor and we couldn’t afford to pay subs or get boots and bats. But people in the community knew the game and its important positive [impact]… That spirit, which created the likes of a number of us who are here today, it’s worth recognising and certainly worth preserving.

“If we love our sport, which I really do, then we need to act on our message that cricket is indeed for everyone. We need to go and find people and show them that it’s brilliant.”

Joining Alf at the event was Jamaican-born Norman Cowans, who joined Shepherd’s Bush in 1982 and played just one game before being selected for Middlesex. Later that year, he made the first of 19 Test appearances for England.

Cowans said: “This is a very good and long overdue occasion. I remember as a kid growing up playing club cricket. There were fewer Black players around than you might expect, but I was lucky to start off at a club where we had a few. They gave me some great guidance and I was very lucky to feel that I was included and accepted as part of a team.”

He added: “Many of my colleagues – Black players who have played county cricket and Test cricket at the top level – if you hear their stories, it wasn’t an easy ride.”

Also in attendance was former England cricketer and current President of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club, David ‘Syd’ Lawrence. He said: “Cricket and that lifestyle is part of our heritage. We want to keep that strong and keep it going. In 1976, my father put me in a car. I didn’t know where I was going. We drove to this big cricket ground… (and) 11 beautiful men, handsome and tall, walked out. It was the West Indies. Then I saw Michael Holding bowl and that was it. It changed my life. Nothing surpassed it. The music, the food, I’ll never forget that. That’s what Caribbean cricket is about.”

Ex-county cricketer Adrian Rollins, who is now the deputy head of a school in Derby, added: “Sport is a form of expression, and as a people we’re very expressive. So the way we play our cricket has always been to replicate that. Cricket is just an extension of ourselves, and that’s why it’s important to get people from all communities into it, but particularly the Caribbean community, because we need that form of expression in the game.”

The ECB helped support the event and were in attendance on the day, having recently started gathering insights from African-Caribbean communities across England and Wales on how to better connect current generations of Black children and young people with the game.

Speaking to the ECB on the day was Debbie Mathias, a founding member of the African Caribbean Cricket Association (ACCA). She said: “I’m here because I want to see Black cricket rise. We need to honour a lot of Black cricketers who have supported and brought a lot of joy to this country. We need to be telling that story.

“Events like this help to bring the community together. We also need to reach out to the mothers… We need to be sending them things on social media. There’s talent out there – lots of talent – and we need to be harnessing it.”

This Black History Month, the ECB is embarking on a project to listen to and learn from Black lived experiences in cricket, launching a video series featuring Black voices from across the game. The videos will feature on ECB social media channels and the website.

For further information on how the ECB is working to make cricket a game for everyone, visit our Raising The Game webpages.