Warwickshire County Cricket Club and Edgbaston Stadium are celebrating Black History Month.
And with the Commonwealth Games starting in Birmingham next year, an exploration of the Birmingham Commonwealth Cricket League feels appropriate.
The League was set up in 1976 and consisted of 10 West Midlands teams who had been established over the previous 20 years when cricketers from the West Indies’ cricketing nations came to the UK and were keen to carry on the strong traditions of West Indian cricket and its culture.
Tim McCarthy played in the league and kindly agreed to take part in a Q&A session with the Warwickshire Cricket Board to talk about its unique brand of cricket. He tells some of the fascinating stories from the time and how the legacy of that league continues to this day, including through the Central Sparks (the West Midlands Women’s regional cricket team).
How did the Commonwealth League come to be established and how did it work?
Those of us who played cricket and arrived in the UK in the 1950’s and 60’s from the Caribbean weren’t able to join local cricket clubs in the UK. At that time, the existing clubs were not very accepting of black players. As a result, we decided to set up our own teams. When I was at college in the early 70s, I played at Wolverhampton Commonwealth, which had been established in 1955. There were many other similar teams across the West Midlands, including Continental CC and Rangers CC who both played on the artificial pitches in Handsworth Park.
To start with, all these teams played friendly matches against each other, as members of the cricket playing fraternity in the Caribbean settled in various parts of the UK. We would travel to parts of the country we would otherwise never have visited had it not been for cricket – Liverpool, Luton, Coventry, London etc. Match days were a big occasion as the cricket was of a high standard. Many of the players had played alongside West Indies test team players before they came to the UK. We would take two coach loads of supporters to our away fixtures, and other teams would bring two coaches of supporters to us. The players were so good that many people wanted to come and watch.
These matches started off as friendlies, but when the Commonwealth League started in 1976 then it all became more formal in the West Midlands. The League had around 10 teams in it, mainly from Birmingham but also from Wolverhampton and Walsall, and matches were played on a Sunday afternoon. It was set up by a group of cricketers including Fred Clarke, Mr Kazi and Frank Nation. This was a strong league, and the standard was really high.
What was the nature of the cricket in the Commonwealth League?
The league matches were played on the same basis as the John Player League of the time – 40 overs on a knockout basis with points for winning and no draws. There was also a separate 40 over Commonwealth Cup, which Wolverhampton Commonwealth won in its first year.
The Commonwealth League was enjoyable and fun. Most of the time it was played in a friendly atmosphere and with great respect between the teams. I was an opening bat and as you can imagine I came across some great opening bowlers. I loved facing those quick bowlers.
What did it mean to you to play in the Commonwealth League?
In my case, I came to the West Midlands from Jamaica in 1965, when I was 10 years old. I had played street cricket in Jamaica and then continued at school in the UK. When I was at College, I was asked to join Wolverhampton Commonwealth, along with a fellow student. We were such a tight group and it meant so much to us. I also made lifelong friends in other parts of the country too; for example one of the gentlemen I played against in Luton passed away recently, a very respected man called Mr Winston Service, and I was able to send some words for his funeral about a cricketing friendship that had lasted almost 50 years.
The Commonwealth League did wonders for the Afro Caribbean community at the time. Anyone from the Caribbean could join their local Commonwealth League team, it didn’t matter which island you were from. During my time at Wolverhampton Commonwealth, I played alongside cricketers from Guyana, St Kitts and Monserrat, as well as the more obvious places like Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua. Local business connections would benefit from the cricket matches too, for example the coach companies and the caterers (who were catering for over 100 people at matches).
Many of the Commonwealth League cricket clubs were attached to Afro Caribbean cultural centres. Communities met there socially and had a base there, with the cricket team at the heart of it. In fact, Muhammad Ali’s visit to Birmingham in 1983 was for the opening of one such cultural centre, named after him, and I was lucky enough to meet him on that visit.
Did you maintain connections with the Caribbean and West Indies cricket?
Yes, absolutely, the links between West Indies cricket and the West Midlands run deep. The first black cricketer to captain the West Indies was George Headley in the 1930s, and his son and grandson had connections in the West Midlands and Worcestershire.
The second black cricketer to captain the West Indies, and the first to captain them for a whole series, was the great Frank Worrell. One of my team-mates in the Commonwealth League, Joe Smith, used to carry Frank Worrell’s kit for him. Joe went on to play minor counties cricket and then became the manager of the Monaco Nightclub in Wolverhampton. They were great days. When the West Indies came to play at Edgbaston, there was no room to sit down there were so many of us. Members of the West Indian cricketing community came from all parts of the UK to watch those Edgbaston matches – from Liverpool, Luton, London and beyond.
In 1986 I was part of the Handsworth Cavaliers tour to Trinidad. We had been invited over by the Trinidad Police cricket team and played them and other Trinidadian teams during the tour. Superintendent Burton of the Trinidad Police was our team manager and his wife, Dr Burton, was our team doctor. It was a high profile tour and was featured regularly on ITV News back in the West Midlands.
Davina Perrin made her debut with the Central Sparks this season, batting with great confidence at number 3, aged just 15. Tell us about your connection with the Perrin family?
Davina’s dad David and her grandfather Cecil were both very good cricketers. I have known the family for many years. By the time I played in the Commonwealth League, Cecil Perrin was umpiring. We always called him Mr Perrin and when the bus was full his was the first car I would jump in – he had a wonderful Ford Cortina and he drove it very fast!
As a fellow batter, what advice would you give to Davina and other young batters coming up through the game?
I would say the mental side of cricket is just as important as the technical side. I learnt a lot about this from a team-mate called Dr George Frith, who was also a lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton and had played cricket at Oxford with Imran Khan. He was a very intelligent man.
His advice about batting at 3 or 4 was to put your pads on at the same time as the openers and be ready to bat at any time. George Frith was always perfectly turned out and he watched the game closely. He never missed a ball of the innings, so he was always prepared in every sense of the word. He always told me I needed to have more patience, something I only appreciated when I was older.
Cricket is a simple game, but it’s a hard one at the same time. As a batter, every ball could be the last one you face that match, so you have to be prepared. If a bowler bowls a wide, they can bowl another ball, but as a batter it’s a different game.
It’s good to see young black cricketers like Davina coming up in the game. It’s important we maintain that cricketing heritage we have as a community in the West Midlands.
Eaton Gordon, WCB Communities Cricket Manager, agrees with Tim McCarthy. “The Birmingham Commonwealth League was an important part of Afro-Caribbean community life in the West Midlands in the 1970s and 80s. When it eventually finished, most of the players came together at Handsworth CC, where the memories of that time are still cherished. Handsworth CC now hosts the ACE Programme in the West Midlands, and it is great to see young players from the Afro-Caribbean community like Davina Perrin breaking through, keeping the cricketing spirit of the Commonwealth League and her grandfather’s generation alive.”
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