Our Black History Month celebrations continue with a look back at the Birmingham Commonwealth Cricket League which brought together talented black cricketers who’d arrived in the West Midlands from the Caribbean.
Denzil McCarthy and Morris Lowers played in the 40-over league which ran for almost 20 years from 1976 to 1995 and featured 10 West Midlands teams.
We took the former Wolverhampton Commonwealth CC teammates to Handsworth Cricket Club – the spiritual home of Birmingham Commonwealth League – on a trip down memory lane.
They also joined an African Caribbean Engagement (ACE) session – run by Warwickshire Cricket Board in Handsworth – to see how the Club is trying to rekindle a passion for cricket in the city’s black community…
“Growing up in Jamaica I would listen to the West Indies on a transistor radio with my grandfather. The commentator, Roy Lawrence, created such excitement at every wicket or great shot. I can hear him saying Sobers’ name. I fell in love with cricket, every spare minute we’d play from morning till sun dusk.”
Denzil McCarthy – or ‘Tim’ to his teammates – brought his love of cricket to the West Midlands, aged 10, just days before Christmas 1965.
He was captain of Graiseley Secondary School’s cricket team by his 2nd Year – an honour usually bestowed on older boys – and by the age of 17 he’d signed up with Wolverhampton Commonwealth Cricket Club (est 1955).
Commonwealth clubs were created in the 1950s and 60s by Windrush cricketers keen to continue the strong traditions of West Indian cricket and its culture in the UK.
The standard was high (many players had rubbed shoulders with Windies players back home) and games would attract crowds of 100s as sides travelled the length and breadth of the country to take on fellow West Indian sides in friendly matches.
“It was wonderful,” said Denzil (pic alongside fellow former Commonwealth League cricketer Trevor McIntosh) as he looks out across Handsworth Cricket Club’s outfield.
“So many happy memories here. Sometimes there would be 500 spectators, music, the food…it was a carnival atmosphere. Lots of kids would watch as well and get the cricket bug.
“We all got along and to this day a lot of us are still friends. We made life-long friends.”
Denzil, now aged 68, and Wolverhampton Commonwealth CC also played many friendly games against white and Asian sides in the West Midlands. But they found sourcing competitive cricket in a local league more challenging.
“First we were told the pitch was unsuitable,” said opening batter Denzil, “so we moved to Wolverhampton Racecourse which had a lovely wicket.
“Then we were told the dressing rooms were too far from the pitch. We found barriers at every turn. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s because we were a black team.
“It was heartbreaking for our players. Some were very talented. They wanted to challenge themselves against the league’s best players but never got the chance. Some of them were better than players in First Class cricket now. I don’t think we saw their full potential.”
It’s an uncomfortable truth that black cricketers weren’t welcome in many leagues. Discrimination loud and clear piercing the bluster of league bureaucracy.
It led to the formation of the Birmingham Commonwealth League in 1976 which brought together 10 sides from the region in a competitive 40-over Sunday League.
“The Commonwealth League did wonders for the Afro Caribbean community at the time,” said former Wolverhampton Commonwealth wicketkeeper Morris Lowers.
“We truly, truly embraced cricket at the time. I came over here at 17-years-old. I used to play on the outer field, but one day someone said come and play, we need a wicket keeper. So I kept coming back.
“You know the difference between a West Indian cricketer in the 70s and an English cricketer? The fast bowlers. I know, I was behind the stumps! They were 10, 20 yards faster and man when it hit the gloves you felt it.
“Cricket was very important to me. I say to my children if not for cricket I don’t know where I would have ended up. I may have been in prison. As a 17-year-old I was running around Birmingham, late nights, places I’d go, some of which I should never have gone, people I hung around with. Cricket kept me away and gave me focus.
“The guys I played with, we’re still together after all these years, 50 years later. We’re still friends, we meet at parties.
“We should have more children going to play cricket because it’s a brilliant game.”
At nearby King Edwards Girls School, Handsworth, Warwickshire Cricket Board are running an African Caribbean Engagement (ACE) coaching session for close to 20 local boys and girls in the sports hall.
Warwickshire was the second county in the country, after Surrey, to receive national funding to lay on ACE coaching for children, plus an ACE Academy for those youngsters showing real potential.
A recent report from the Independent Committee into Equity in Cricket (ICEC) concluded there was a “lost generation” of black cricketers in the game.
It’s hoped ACE will find the next.
Warwickshire Cricket Board Community Participation Manager, Eaton Gordon, is optimistic. He said: “We’ve been running ACE for three years, trying to bring cricket back to our black communities. It’s been lacking in recent years. We’re trying to invigorate children; it’s our passion to get more black kids playing cricket.
“The reason why cricket died off in the black community is because children aren’t exposed to the game as much as they could have been, in and out of school. But once we get that exposure back I’m sure the love will come back again.
“Some of the kids we’ve got here tonight have been with us since day one. If they can still be here in another three years, still learning, still progressing, falling in love with the game and coming back, then I’m sure the interest and participation will return.”
Denzil and Maurice observed the session. Denzil even rolled back the years by putting down a few deliveries. Underarm these days.
“It’s lovely to see the kids enjoying themselves, loving the game, wanting to learn,” added Denzil. “It’s great that cricket clubs are actively encouraging the black community to get involved in the sport.
“Cricket is a game of love. As a youngster I could play seven days a week. I’d always have a bat with me; I’d go around different teams to see if they were short of players so I could play. Usually I got a game.
“Children have lots more choices and distractions these days. But if we can get children interested, that’s the first step to nurturing that love for cricket.”
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