Cricket’s Best Kept Secret? Disability Cricket

An interview with Richard Hill MBE

Cricket’s best kept secret – how to get Steve Smith out? How to get the ball reverse swinging? How to pick a Muralitharan doosra? No, it’s Disability Cricket. For many of us, the Paralympics come around every 4 years, and we are in complete awe of their talent, struggles and skill. Nevertheless, disability sport tends to fall off our radar in between those 4 years and we tend not to think about that until the next one comes along again. However, few of us realise that one of our most beloved national sports has one of the best disability set-ups in the world.

Despite England Disability Cricket leading the way around the world in terms of participation and exposure, in terms of women, there is so much more to do. Their biggest obstacle is the lack of sustained uptake amongst women at the higher level. In the Physical and Learning Disability competition, there are 670 registered players, of which only 45 are female. There has been no deliberate policy to include or exclude either gender and Disability Cricket unfortunately suffers from a lack of resources already having to be dispersed widely across disciplines and squads. Richard professes that there needs to be a greater understanding of where the women’s disabled game fits. Would a women’s team sit under their existing disability structure, or would it sit under the broader women’s game? There currently aren’t means to create gender specific teams, with numbers dwindling. On top of this, there’s the problem of opposition, with many countries having poor women’s setups also. The ECB have invested in soft-ball cricket to get young girls into the game. However, ‘have-a-go’ events traditionally are less successful amongst women.

Disability Cricket have found themselves with the dilemma of how to accommodate women’s and minority sport into a setup that is already at the bottom of the pile in terms of funding and exposure within the ECB.

There is already a squad of 25 blind ladies who represent England and the ECB plan to offer them much more support going forward. However, if the goal of Disability Cricket is to achieve proper equality and diversity, then stats such as only 2% of deaf cricketers being women, presents a gap between aims and attainment. Whilst disciplines like Blind Cricket are huge amongst South Asian countries, the ECB have struggled to increase participation amongst BAME people with physical or learning disabilities at a local level. With certain cultures seeing disability as a curse, the Great British Transplant Cricket Team have particularly struggled to attract BAME men and women. Disability Cricket have found themselves with the dilemma of how to accommodate women’s and minority sport into a setup that is already at the bottom of the pile in terms of funding and exposure within the ECB.

I spoke to Richard Hill MBE, the ECB’s Disability Cricket Competitions Manager about how cricket’s best kept secret has evolved into what it is today and the obstacles that it faces. Richard has spasticity in his lower limbs, yet played 30 to 35 years of local level cricket. Recognising he couldn’t run that fast, he honed his skills as a slip fielder in his youth. In 1995, Richard had his second spinal fusion and he lost the ability to run overnight, becoming a wheelchair user, and abruptly ending his cricket playing career. Realising he “couldn’t leave cricket alone”, Richard became a cricket coach.

However, just over 25 years ago, a coaching assessor brought disability cricket to Richard’s attention by inviting him to watch an indoor disability cricket session at Lord’s. He describes this as a ‘lightbulb moment’, something he hadn’t been looking for, but it had found him. Richard rang up Hertfordshire Cricket and asked if he could give disability cricket a go within their set-up. Having been given the green light, since then, Richard has gone on to run disability cricket programs which started as 6 county teams in 1988 to the two-tier National Disabled County Championships comprising of 37 teams today. Over one thousand people a month in Hertfordshire alone are being delivered cricket in schools for people with disabilities, community groups, hospitals, mental health organisations, and in fact anywhere where one can play bat and ball!

Richard eventually gave up his full-time job as an IT-manager to focus on the growth of the game at the grassroots and top level. He leads the England Lions project, running training camps for young, disabled people, and is part of the Inclusion and Diversity Group within the ECB. Richard also runs a cricket program working with people living with dementia. With images described to me of ‘fantastic chaos in the care homes’ we agreed this was a story for a whole other article! Rightly so, Richard was recognised in the 2019 New Year’s Honours List, being awarded an MBE for his services to disability cricket over the past 25 years.

It’s not necessarily your image of cricket whites and cucumber sandwiches, but it’s cricket.

The development of Disability Cricket has surged over the last 5 years, with the ECB now having a team of 7 full-time employees exclusively focussed on delivering a wide-ranging amount of disability cricket. Ten years ago, the ECB applied to Sport England for funding to kickstart disability cricket across the county network. Obtaining £3 million over a 5-year period, the positive results are clear – all 39 county boards have a disability program today and there are over 72,000 disabled people playing cricket in England and Wales. It’s not necessarily your image of cricket whites and cucumber sandwiches, but it’s cricket.

Blind Cricket has existed for over 100 years, initially starting with two blind factory workers using a tin can containing rocks to play their beloved game in Australia. Cricket for deaf people and for physical disability emerged later on, through a couple of voluntary organisations. The National Disabled Cricket League in England launching its first county competition back in the 1980s. More recently the ECB has increasingly brought these varying disciplines under one centralised umbrella and has largely shifted the organisation of the game away from fragmented voluntary organisations that were structured in their own impairment groups. This organisational streamlining has allowed the ECB responsibility for the different national squads, with the existence of an ‘England’ team allowing for further profiling of the game. At present, there are four England teams, and all four-play international cricket.

Within the ECB, the team responsible for Disability Cricket only comprises of 7 people and it is clear that although things are moving in the right direction, Disability Cricket is not of supreme priority in the English Cricket setup. In a similar way that it has taken some while for the women’s game to be actively encouraged and recognised, disability cricket’s importance within the ECB seems to be a slow-burner. In the recently published ECB 2020-2024 strategy, there is a mere one line outlining the ECB’s support for increasing disability cricket in local communities; the first time the ECB has explicitly addressed Disability Cricket in their strategy. Richard says that his team saw this as the green light to launch their own strategy and workplan.

For Disability Cricket, it’s all about participation and making sure that those who want to play can, and feel safe and fulfilled in doing so.

Interestingly, it seems that the disabled game is somewhat hanging on the coattails of the women’s game in their development journey. Richard estimates that they are about 5 to 7 years behind where the women’s game is. However, raising the profile of disability cricket doesn’t necessarily align with the goals of raising the profile of other areas of the game. It isn’t always about making the game suitable for the audience, as we’ve seen with the ECB’s huge investment in varying formats of the game, such as The Hundred. For Disability Cricket, it’s all about participation and making sure that those who want to play can, and feel safe and fulfilled in doing so.

Disability Cricket have an official partnership with the Lord’s Taverners to provide community-based cricket hubs. At present, 16 counties are running ‘Super 1’s’ programmes, providing ‘have-a-go’ sessions in local communities, and acting as disability’s equivalent to club level cricket. These ‘hubs’ act as an opportunity to introduce people to the game, but also as talent identification centres for the higher-level game. In particular, the Lord’s Taverners have run ‘Table Cricket’ whereby the game is played on a table-tennis table with a miniature bat and ball, aimed predominately at young children who have problems with their motor skills, assisting them with coordination.

In 2020, there was due to be a physical disability touring team from Australia, as well as the National Deaf team playing in the World Cup in Dubai. The Physical Disability World Series took place in Worcester last August, where England – led by the highly experienced Iain Nairn – reached the final, beating Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the process. Furthermore, Chris Edwards led England’s Learning Disability team to a clean sweep in Australia winning an ODI series 3-0 followed by a 5-0 triumph in the INAS Global Games T20 series. Disability Cricket has grown exponentially in recent years on the domestic scene also, 72% since 2016. The annual County competition has grown from 6 teams, to what would have been 37 teams this summer.

In one of my recent articles, I was discussing World Rugby’s impending ban on transgender women playing women’s rugby for fear of ‘safety concerns’. This debated notion of ‘unfairness’ due to varying levels of physicality is something that Disability Cricket has not been immune from. All players now have to go through a classification process as to avoid huge disparity among the ‘ableness’ of players. The diversity of disabilities makes streamlining and categorising the game difficult, and thinly spreads resources and attention. Interestingly however, although separated at international level, in the system players with physical disability often play in the same teams as players with learning disabilities.

As the ECB finds itself in a difficult and uncertain time financially, Disability Cricket has been disproportionately hit by this. Already starting at the bottom of the game, funding has stopped, all competitions have stopped, internationals have been cancelled and 4 of their 7 strong team have been furloughed. The Covid-19 pandemic poses far bigger concerns than just financial for Disability Cricket. Safety for vulnerable groups is of paramount importance, and for Disability Cricket, it is not as easy as just ‘creating a bio-bubble.’

There is a worry that just as the game was gaining traction, with budgets initially being higher than ever for the 2020/21 season, it will take a significant hit at a time where the ECB are prioritising getting the men’s international game and county game back to some normality.  Without the international exposure that events like the Paralympics have, how does Disability Cricket achieve a similar growth in popularity, funding and participation? Arguably the Paralympics have largely failed in their legacy of making institutionalised disabled sport across the board accessible and achievable, all year round.

Furthermore, finding and providing coaching within the disabled game is one of its biggest root problems. As with the women’s game, it doesn’t matter how well-qualified you are as a coach, if you don’t have the same lived experience as your players, your position is complicated. Firstly, disabled cricket coaches themselves are a rare commodity, but secondly providing specific training and information to ‘able-bodied’ coaching for the disabled game is difficult and expensive. The sustainability of the game relies on individuals like Richard to provide specialist coaching and act as a positive role model for disabled people.

What’s the purpose of sport? Is it about the potential for people to bowl at 100mph or run a sub-10 second 100m? Or is it providing the opportunity for a disabled person in your community to try a new game? It’s both. The beauty of sport is that, at its best, it is accessible to anyone. When we look past the media-frenzy and hero-worship of elite sportspeople, Ben Stokes is just a guy who’s really, really good at hitting a leather ball with a wooden bat. But if we take sport at its essence, it’s about positive social engagement and fostering a community.

So why should someone who is neither disabled, nor interested in cricket be interested in the game? Because Disability Cricket is the epitome of what sport should be – removing barriers to participating and opening up opportunities to everyone. Disability Cricket has come such a long way in a short space of time, however, they would be the first to admit that they’ve got a long way to go, particularly in terms of the women’s game. Cricket has existed for well over 400 years, yet the disabled game has formally existed for only 30 of those. Therefore, one can hope that in ‘catching up’, Disability Cricket becomes the true bastion of equality and diversity that it desires to be.

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