The past few years have seen some dramatic forces at play. Brexit dominated our news headlines for months and led to a damaging polarisation of views and extremes. Now we are dealing with a socially divisive and pervasive pandemic. Added to this we have a surge in anger from African–Caribbean communities following years of injustice and triggered by the death of George Floyd.
At the start of lockdown, I took up my new post as Director of MCC Foundation, the charitable arm of Marylebone Cricket Club, MCC. I have yet to spend a day in my office. Cricket is largely cancelled. Fundraising events are postponed. So what have I learned and how is my strategy developing to ensure that through sport, we can address some of these issues and an increasing social divide? How can we use cricket to lead the way on social change?
Past experience can come in handy when facing the turbulence of uncertain times. In 2002, I set up a charity, Afghan Connection, (AC), following my visits as a medic to Afghanistan during the Soviet war and under the Taliban. Great lessons can be learned from that country and what sport has done there to transform opportunity and hope.
AC supported education in remote areas and built and refurbished more than 100 schools over its 18 years. In 2008, one of my sons pointed out a great need to support cricket. The national team was in the bottom world rankings and had potential but little support. Their players had grown up in the desolate refugee camps of Pakistan, their families having fled the conflict in Afghanistan. The one thing that kept them going was cricket. They tore down branches to use as bats, made balls from strips of cloth and dreamed that one day they would represent their country at the World Cup.
We gathered together bags of kit and managed to get them to Kabul and deliver them to the Afghanistan National Cricket Team at their academy - a dust field in the city. From there, the team went on to win competition after competition, and in 2015 they made it to the World Cup - the fastest rise in cricket for any team ever - and now they are in the top 10 teams in the world.
AC wanted to support grassroots cricket alongside the rise of the national Team. With backing from MCC, the UK Government and generous private donors, we constructed more than 100 pitches in schools across Afghanistan, coached thousands of young people and provided training for teachers and coaches. We gave the first outside support for female cricket, for visually impaired and disability cricket.
Cricket has brought hope to Afghanistan. It has given young people their first heroes and brought pride, unity, opportunity, employment and untold joy. The slogan has been to put down your guns and pick up your bats! Cricket has led the positive rehabilitation of a nation scarred by 40 years of conflict. It is a sport for all.
Can the same be said here? Do young people of all races and backgrounds dream of playing cricket for this country? The short answer is no and the over-simplified reason is that cricket is perceived as a sport for the privileged. Provision to state schools has been slashed, sports fields have been sold off for development, cricket kit is expensive and there are simply put, too many social and financial barriers to the game.
All of the top six picked for the second Test against Pakistan this summer were privately educated, and nine of the XI - reported to be a record high. Only 1% of recreational players and coaches in the UK are African-Caribbean and the number of black professional cricketers has fallen by 75% since 1994. South Asian cricketers make up 30% of the recreational playing base but only account for 15% of those in county age group teams and 4% of professional cricketers.
MCC Foundation may have a silver bullet to redress these inequalities and believes that cricket can lead the way on social change. Within the UK, we are working to open up access to cricket and its talent pathways so that no young player is denied the opportunity to reach their full potential in the game, regardless of race, gender, or economic circumstance.
Our National Hub programme removes cultural and financial barriers to participation and progression by providing free-to-access training and match play to over 2,500 state-educated young cricketers at 61 sites across the UK. As we expand our hub programme, we are particularly committed to giving more opportunities to BAME cricketers. We are also mindful that it is not just those from BAME communities facing insurmountable barriers, but all disadvantaged young people.
In Afghanistan, I learned that the best way to enable girls to have an education was to work with communities and families to understand why they were reluctant to allow their daughters to go to school and how we could address this together. This is the only way to forge significant change and I hope I can do the same here through the Foundation. We are connecting with communities and organisations and listening to them and trying to learn why few of them progress to play in clubs and in professional cricket. Reasons will vary depending on the community and our action plan must vary accordingly. Too often we try to force change from our own perceptions of the challenges and this leads to failure. A culture of listening and collaboration is needed. Collaboration, because there are some great things happening already and if we can all work together, we can make a massive impact. So I am connecting with sports bodies and charities to ensure we collaborate to maximise support and minimise duplication.
Professional sport is visible to all. If we all work together on this, it can become a reflection of the diversity of our society and not a confirmation of its woes. It can lead the way on social cohesion and change and can become a powerful force to heal divisions and unite our nation.
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