Connect with us


Lonsdale Skinner: ‘Most of the racism came from the committee room’ | Sport



Guildford cricket club, July 1977, a second XI game between Surrey and Hampshire. Fred Titmus, England and Middlesex legend, is racially abusing Lonsdale Skinner of Surrey. “He was calling me black bastard and that kind of stuff,” Skinner recalls. He was a capped Surrey player at the time, a Guyana-born wicketkeeper-batsman who moved to England as a child and was part of the vanguard for a generation of black county cricketers.

Titmus was in the middle of a brief spell as Surrey’s head coach. He would later become an England selector and is one of several illustrious names to come up more than once when black players discuss the everyday racism of the times. On this occasion one player stood up to support Skinner from the ranks, an unknown youngster from Uppingham School. Enter the 16-year-old Jonathan Agnew, now the BBC’s cricket correspondent.

“Agnew jumped up and said: ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, it’s not on.’ He was playing for Surrey twos, down on trial. Titmus was carrying on in front of everybody and Agnew said: ‘No, no, this is not acceptable.’ He was the only one who stood up.”

While Skinner remembers Agnew’s support with real warmth (“He was genuinely quick in those days, I used to tell him: Don’t pitch it up to these public schoolboys, put it across their ears”) he was already well-hardened to this kind of environment.

Another early memory is going for his medical as a 17-year-old, with another new joiner, Bob Willis, also in the room. The club doctor asked Skinner: “Have you ever had syphilis?” Skinner had no idea what syphilis was. The teenage Willis wasn’t asked the same question. While the incident remained a private joke between the two men, for Skinner it was also a note of warning.

“On my second day they tried to give me a name, black something or other. I told them no, that’s not working. I said, I live down the Northern Line and we don’t play there. You know my name, so call me by my name. Don’t give me none of these caricatures or we are going to have trouble.”

During seven seasons he played 178 games for Surrey as wicketkeeper-batsman and occasional opener (“the early sacrifice on wet wickets when the bowling was fast, I didn’t mind.”) “There were plenty of good guys, too,” he adds.

Mike Selvey, once of these pages, is mentioned as an ally for black players at the time, as is Mike Brearley, whose appearance at Middlesex coincided with a notoriously hostile dressing room, a legacy of the Titmus years, “becoming civilised”.

“Most of the racism came from outside the dressing room. It was from the committee room, the decision-makers. They had something to protect. If you had one bad year, you’re gone. They didn’t want you there.”

Skinner saw the effects of this on his friend Wes Stewart, a pioneer in English cricket as a black fast bowler with Middlesex. Stewart had come to England as a Windrush child in 1955, and would later face a brutal seven-year battle to avoid an unjust deportation, fruits of the government’s hostile environment policies.

“I’ve seen a broken man in Wes Stewart. Two years, he took 130 wickets at 23, and did not get a third year. He was never the same. I don’t think he lived after he was 26, when Middlesex got rid of him. I think that killed him.

Michael Carberry

Michael Carberry was the last black English-born cricketer to make his Test debut, in 2010. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

“He didn’t have a plan, he was thinking about the next year. He didn’t recover. In those days there was no comeback.”

It is this sense of exclusion from the structures of power that Skinner is addressing now in his role as chairman of the African Caribbean Cricket Association. Formed in 2013, the ACCA works to engage young black people in recreational and professional cricket and was involved in Surrey’s recent ACE programme, of which Skinner speaks with some optimism.

But then, the bar is pretty low right now. The last black English-born player to make a Test debut for the country was Michael Carberry a decade ago. There are no high‑profile black administrators. The line is often repeated that young black English people just don’t like cricket – a source of genuine exasperation at the ACCA and an easy fall-back for those overseeing this dying back.

It is this attitude the ACCA still sees in the ECB’s recent attempts to present a more inclusive front. Even the remarks from its chief executive, Tom Harrison, laced with good sense and good intentions, contained a strange interlude where he asked whether the connection between black English people and English cricket has ever existed, comments that drew bemusement and dismay from some of those who have worked to build that connection.

As Skinner points out, the first black cricketers in England pre-dated the Windrush generation. The point is not a lack of interest or a lack of a deeper connection, but structures that exclude or fail to feed that interest.

Skinner’s own story is an example of how tough the first steps can be. As a Surrey schoolboy he was racially abused by a senior pro for the crime of wearing his “jazz hat”, a brown cap with the club’s yellow stripes. “He was shouting: ‘You fucking black so and so, what are you doing with that?’ I just laughed, I could cope with him. But they had to know that you weren’t an easy boy. And at that age I felt invincible.”

Skinner became a Surrey colt in 1967, a year after the rule was abolished that junior cricketers had to go to a fee-paying school. He has uncompromising views on the way the counties organise junior cricket now.

“The county academies are a system dreamed up by the middle class for middle-class children. First thing, they start at 10 years old. And if you’re poor you don’t start cricket at 10. You can’t compete at that age.

“Then as you go along mum and dad don’t have the time to take you every Sunday and Saturday and wait to bring you back. When you get to age 14 they start at four-thirty in the afternoon, and mum and dad have to be at work, so then you don’t get into the academy proper. It is what we would call an undocumented exclusion.”

Skinner’s county career ended with the appearance of Titmus and Alf Gover at the Oval. Mindful of his future he retired aged 26 (Mickey Stewart pleaded with him to stay) and did a social sciences degree followed by an MBA.

The ACCA is a means of applying this expertise. Although, when it comes to top-down programmes there is some despairing laughter from Skinner and the vice-chairman, Derek Gift-Simms, at their journey through the levels of cricket’s diversity industry. This ranges from the charity executive who told Skinner Caribbean people “didn’t exist” as a group within cricket (“I said: I’m sorry, are you talking to me?”); to the cricket official who thought BAME stood for British, African and Middle Eastern (“that made me feel great confidence in her”). To the occasional requests to “bring some Caribbean children along” when West Indies play in England (“where are we going to get Caribbean children from? We’re English.”)

What Skinner would really like is an independent investigation into how cricket can widen the talent pool and re-engage with this whole sector of society. In the meantime the ACCA has written to the ECB asking a series of pertinent questions about how many black people are employed in its organisation, how many county committee members are black, how many black people are involved where its funds are dispersed.

The Spin: sign up and get our weekly cricket email.

Recently, they made the discovery there are 20 black level-three qualified coaches in the entire country. The ECB has already made some changes in response to this, notably dropping the panel interview for prospective elite coaches.

Another issue that comes up elsewhere too, and seems to capture something wider, is the sanitising of crowds. The decision in the mid-1990s to ban horns, drums and musical sections (although not for the Barmy Army) changed the atmosphere fundamentally, something many black spectators feel was not an unintended consequence.

Skinner says: “Many people didn’t want to go any more. Now they want them to go back again. But it’s not a light you can just switch on and off. There is a desire to go. But people were hurt. They need to be made to feel welcome.”

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © 2021 DigitalGaliyara (OPC) Private Limited