Bravo to Emilio Gay, inspiring the next generation

When people actually find out about cricket, it's not what they think. So, it’s just spreading that awareness as someone who loves cricket so much.

By Jeremy Blackmore

Northamptonshire batter Emilio Gay knows all about the power of inspiring young players after a meeting with his hero, West Indies superstar Dwayne Bravo, fuelled his cricketing passions as a teenager.

Bravo took time out from preparations for the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean to sign a shirt for an awestruck Gay and it is a memory that has stayed with the 24-year-old ever since.

Now Gay, whose father’s family are Grenadian, is hoping he can in turn help inspire a new generation of Black British cricketers and is serving as an ambassador for Chance to Shine and for the ACE Programme to widen participation in cricket.

Struck by comments from Mark Butcher on Sky Sports about the drop-off in black professional cricketers compared with the 1990s, Gay had no hesitation when he was asked to get involved with ACE. The charity was set up under the leadership of Ebony Rainford-Brent in January 2020 in response to the decline of Black British professional players by 75%, meaning they constituted less than 1% of the recreational game.

“It was a bit of a no-brainer to get involved,” said Gay. “I knew the importance as a young kid about having idols and looking up to players. And cricket in England, especially recently, has struggled slightly with diversity in the professional game. That's no secret.

“Ultimately, if you've got players that are playing professional cricket, for Northants, for England, performing on TV like Jofra Archer, that is going to encourage more young Black British players to play. So, it was always a natural thing for me to do.”

Gay, who recently struck his first Championship double century, became involved with Chance to Shine for similar reasons. He is aware how much he benefited from the cricket programme at the independent Bedford School and notes there is much less access at many state schools.

“With Chance to Shine, there is a clear motive to spread the game and get it more accessible. If I can have young people looking up to me, help kids get into the game, then it's only going to be a good thing. That memory of meeting Dwayne Bravo has stayed with me.

“Being an ambassador, when I go to street or indoor cricket in Birmingham, and I see all these young kids playing, if there's a young black kid who looks up to me and he's like, ‘Oh, wow, I want to be like Emilio Gay’, little things like that are so powerful. That's the fundamental motivation behind both of those movements.”

Noting that accessibility is improving, Gay says there is also a job to be done to change perceptions around cricket, away from something that is seen as “white-dominated and upper-class”.

“When people actually find out about cricket, it's not what they think. So, it’s just spreading that awareness as someone who loves cricket so much. But I do think it's getting better.

“If you've got no cricketers from state schools going on to be professional cricketers, it just seems like a far-fetched dream. It's about being relatable as much as possible.

“It's the same with women's cricket. That's grown massively over the last few years for the same reason. Now there are a lot of teams, there's more money in it, more on TV. If girls see Heather Knight on TV, they're more likely to go, ‘I want to be Heather Knight’.

“I think these last few years have really shown what exposure and publicity can do.”

While Gay’s father’s family hail from Grenada, his mother is Italian. He hopes his background and growing profile in the game can help make a difference.

“You don’t get many Italian, Black, African Caribbean cricketers!” he laughs. “Like it doesn't really happen! Mum’s Italian – they don't play much cricket over there and there's not many Black English cricketers. That mixture of the two, I do see myself, without being arrogant, as someone that wants to grow up and be a little bit of a pioneer, someone who can stand out and make a difference using a platform. That's one of the reasons why I'd love to go on and play for England.”

Gay had plenty of reasons to celebrate his 261 against Middlesex last month, not least because he began 2023 on crutches after a serious knee injury and, despite returning mid-season last year, spent most of the winter working on his rehab.

He is used to battling back from setbacks, developing a fierce work ethic after not being picked for the Bunbury Festival aged 15. Describing it as a big turning point, he says: “I've always had a work ethic where I believe you should out-work other people. The catalyst for that was when I didn't get picked for the Bunbury Festival. It was one of the best things that’s probably happened to me. Because I was really cocky and very confident with my own game. It was a bit of a wake-up call.”

Fully supported by his parents, Gay set about trying to out-work his contemporaries, following an ethos he says he gained from his heroes Kobe Bryant, Floyd Mayweather and Michael Jordan. His father even bought a set of floodlights to enable him to spend early mornings and evenings in the depths of winter batting on the astroturf in the nets at Bedford Cricket Club.

His double ton against Middlesex displayed his textbook technique with a touch of flamboyance and full range of shots and, importantly, the power of concentration to bat for long periods and build an innings. He credits the influence of players he looked up to growing up – Bedford School alumnus Alastair Cook and Joe Root, with his rhythmical and fluent style.

Two innings against Surrey in 2022 announced him on the county scene and showed his range. The first, a half-century at The Oval, was mentally challenging, a tough knock where he took several blows as he absorbed pressure, while a century at Wantage Road later that year was far more fluent.

A thoughtful cricketer, Gay reflects on the Middlesex game as one where the team needed him to stay in and go big once he’d reached 100. He is placing a focus this year on first innings runs to help the team win games. He hopes to get on the radar of the England selectors by showing he can adapt to conditions and the match situation.

This article appeared in this week's edition of The Cricket Paper