As part of our Black History Month celebrations we spoke to Warwickshire and England icon Gladstone Small on his time at Edgbaston and inspiring the next generation of black cricketers.
Gladstone – or ‘Gladys’ to Bears fans down the years – came to Birmingham from Barbados aged 14 and his talent was soon spotted by legendary Warwickshire coach Derief Taylor.
He made his Bears debut in 1979, aged 17, and would go on to take more than 1,314 First Class and List A wickets during 20 years at the Club.
Here he talks about his enduring love for cricket, progressing through the Warwickshire ranks, and his hopes that increasing numbers of young black cricketers will follow in his footsteps.
“I got given the love of the game at a very young age. I’d go to school to learn but it was a chance to play cricket on the way to school. I’d go to the beach, not to swim but to play beach cricket.
“It’s the love you get at a formative age, that’s what stays with you, and continues into playing cricket, coaching it, watching it.”
Gladstone Cleophas Small’s passion for cricket and its future in Birmingham and beyond burns as brightly today as it did when he first set foot in Edgbaston as a wide-eyed teenage trialist in the late 1970s.
He arrived in the West Midlands from the Caribbean shortly after his 14th birthday to join his car mechanic father who moved to England’s automotive heartlands for work.
Cricket was in short supply at his Moseley Comprehensive School – as it was known at the time – so he joined Camp Hill Old Edwardians Cricket Club.
It’s there the off-spin bowler (he only stepped up as a seamer one day to cover a missing teammate) was spotted by Warwickshire coaches and invited to Edgbaston.
“I had a trial for Young Warwickshire Amateurs at Edgbaston and was their quickest bowler,” he recalled.
“When you first come here there’s a bit of awe and ‘wow’ because these are places you hear about when growing up. Because people like Kanhai, Kallicharran, Lance Gibbs, Deryck Murray all used to play here.
“So walking into this institution as a 15, 16-year-old lad was a damn big thing. At the time I didn’t have any ambition, I just wanted to play cricket.
“The very first Test I saw was in 1974, West Indies versus England at the Kensington Oval in Barbados. I was a 12-year-old boy. And the first ball I saw bowled was Bob Willis to Roy Fredericks. I think there might have been seven Warwickshire players in that side.
“Bob was my first Captain at Warwickshire. Maybe it was fate that I was going to play for the Club.
“I was very fortunate that the first guys, when I became a pro, managing me were wonderful gentlemen. David Brown an ex-Warwickshire cricketer through and through and the coach Alan Oakman – he had a way of making you feel relaxed.
“That was important as I was a young guy rubbing shoulders with guys like Amiss, Willis, and Kallicharran – these guys are heroes – so I could feel some tension. The ability of these coaches to put a hand on your shoulder to reassure you and say ‘you belong here as well’.”
He did more than just belong…and soon others would need reassurance they were worthy of a place alongside Gladstone Small.
Having forever abandoned his off-spin, Small became an out-swing specialist and celebrated his opening first class Warwickshire wicket on 8 May 1980, bowling Somerset’s Vic Marks for a duck.
That year, aged 18, he played 13 championship matches. The following season he played 18, the year after that 22. Aged 20, Small already had more than 50 championship games under his belt.
He went on to power the Bears attack through the 1980s before becoming a big component of the all-conquering team of the mid-90s that brought the championship to Edgbaston for the first time in 22 years.
Gladstone retired in 1999 but still savours every return to “institution” Edgbaston.
He said: “I know Edgbaston like the back of my hand but it’s a bit different to the ground I used to play at. The pavilion now is a wonderful structure. It’s always been a lovely place to play, but the developments in recent years have put it right on the international stage.
“But even though it’s grown, it’s still an intimate ground, that’s why teams, including England, love to play here. When you’re out there playing you can almost pick out individual faces in the crowd, because you’re close to the fans and the fans are close to you.
“It’s a hell of an atmospheric place to play. I love coming to watch cricket here. I was here for the Ashes.
“I’m lucky to still be involved in cricket and travel around the country. Whenever I hear anyone shout “hey Gladys” I know it’s a Warwickshire fan. Gladys is my mum’s name, it was also what a lot of the regular fans at Edgbaston used to call me. They shortened Gladstone to Gladys. That’s one of the beauties of coming here, it’s a fun place to come.
“These places are not just cricket clubs, they’re institutions. Part of the society and community.”
In 1995 Small was one of 33 black men playing professional cricket in England and Wales. By 2019 that number had dropped to just nine, and the ECB has reported a 75 per cent decline in black professional players representing England since 2000.
This year’s Independent Commission on Equity in Cricket (ICEC) report told of a “lost generation” of black cricketers.
In response the ECB has promised increased funding for Afro-Caribbean Engagement (ACE) programme to encourage cricket participation among black children and which Warwickshire Cricket Board coaches run every week in Handsworth, Birmingham.
Small believes that will help but also thinks cricket’s global expansion and other factors have contributed to the decline in black participation.
“I played at a time when most counties had loads of black cricketers, not just playing professionally but in juniors ranks,” he added. “Middlesex had five first class players on the field, Surrey had a load of guys.
“Back in the 80s, if you were a cricketer from the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia and you wanted to play between April and September, the only place in the world that played cricket was England.
“But now that landscape has changed, cricket is played through all parts of the world, so not everyone comes to England to play cricket.
“If you speak to someone like Clive Lloyd, he would attribute playing cricket in England was one of the things that made that generation of West Indies cricketers the great players they were. And they very much inspired young black local cricket talent playing in England as well, and over the years that has dissipated and got less and less and less.
“That love for cricket amongst the black community, sadly, has got less as the generations have got further away from the Windrush generation. It’s a tough one because cricket is doing a lot, and has to do a lot more to embrace those communities and get them in.
“Back in the day I used to go to schools in the winter, all areas of Birmingham, Coventry, Nuneaton, with Alan Oakman. We’d go to schools and play in the canteens, or if it was a decent enough day we might go in the yard on the concrete.
“Now we’ve got the ACE programme that’s trying to reach the Afro-Caribbean community, to say ‘listen, there is a game for you to play’.
“But you’ve got to have that deep down love for the game – and it comes from within the household as well, it’s not just the sport. My love for the sport started at home, not school or a cricket club.
“Cricket’s an incredible game. You’re out in the open, you’re competing, contesting, not just against the opposition but also yourself, putting yourself in situations where you have to perform.
“You learn about yourself when you do that, the confidence you get when you pull off something magical, but also the disappointments along the way, and in life, there will be peaks and troughs.
“How you get back to that peak is a wonderful life skill and sport is something that gives you that. The more you learn that, the better you can be, and that’s the essence of sport and cricket.”
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