Warwickshire are proud of their record as innovators in the English county game, hosting the first day/night county and Test matches and rebranding the T20 side as Birmingham Bears reflect their urban setting. At the start of November, the club announced they would adopt the Rooney Rule in the recruitment process of their next head coach following the departure of Jim Troughton. Established in 2003 in the NFL, the policy seeks to address the racial imbalance in coaching staffs by ensuring that every hiring process contains at least one candidate from a minority background.
The problem is that the Rooney Rule hasn’t actually worked in the NFL, where around 70% of players are black. After a spike in diversity hires immediately after the rule was adopted, the number of black head coaches in the 32-team league has plateaued over the past decade at about 25%. “We’re still stuck in the Stone Age,” says Troy Vincent, the NFL’s head of football operations and its most senior black executive. “Frankly, we should be asking, why do we even need a policy?”
In county cricket, Surrey’s Vikram Solanki is the only head coach from an ethnic minority. Across the whole of the elite men’s game there are only a handful of black or Asian coaches, and barely any women. “The numbers are disgusting,” Mark Alleyne, the former Gloucestershire coach, told the Telegraph in June this year. Alleyne remains the only black man to have been head coach at a county.
With Edgbaston empty this summer, Warwickshire’s new chief executive Stuart Cain had plenty of time to consider the bigger picture. “Some argue the Rooney Rule is positive, others will argue it’s a blunt tool,” he says. “Our view is it’s better to do something than nothing and by invoking it we’ve sent out a positive message that no one should have a mental barrier about applying for a job at Warwickshire or in first-class cricket.
“We should reflect the communities we serve. Birmingham is one of Europe’s most diverse cities, with around 187 different nationalities, and Edgbaston welcomes people from all over the world. We should be leading the way with diversity and inclusion in terms of people who play and work for the club at every level.”
Tharindu Perera is one of two coaches of Asian heritage who joined Warwickshire’s academy last December. The other is Moeen Ali’s brother, Omar. While not the first coaches from a minority ethnic background at the club, their appointments feel significant because more than half of Warwickshire’s male academy players are from a South Asian background. On a national level, the ECB estimates that 30% of all recreational players in England and Wales are South Asian, compared to only 4% in the first-class game.
“Tharindu and Omar have brought a level of thinking and understanding into the academy that hopefully will help the lads from those communities,” says Cain, adding that Warwickshire are collaborating with Essex on a project exploring drop-out rates among South Asian players.
Perera adds: “It’s important to understand the individuals, their families and the cultural differences. They’re still just young lads and young girls. We do a lot of seminars with families around things like nutrition.”
The story of Perera’s journey to Edgbaston is dizzying and inspiring but also indicative of how hard it can be for those outside the insular county system to get a gig. Born in Colombo in 1983, Perera played one first-class match as a left-arm spinner for the Sinhalese Sports Club, took four wickets and was dropped. In 2004 his father died and, as an only child, the burden to support his mother fell to him.
His professional playing ambitions still burned and, he says: “There’s no better place to play cricket than England.” He applied to study Sports Science at Roehampton University in Surrey but struggled financially and linguistically. He became a British citizen in 2005, had an unsuccessful trial with Northants, went back to Sri Lanka and got injured.
He returned to England and, via an online advert, became overseas pro for Wakefield Thornes CC in West Yorkshire. It was here that his coaching took off. He’d already done his basic qualifications in Sri Lanka and as part of his club contract he delivered Chance to Shine sessions at local schools. A neighbour introduced him to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield. But that’s when he hit the glass ceiling.
“I kept applying for the ECB’s Level 3 course but it’s so hard because you need to be in a performance environment or a county set-up,” he says. This is a familiar tale and something the ECB are trying to address.
Perera spent a winter playing and coaching in Australia. “I saw an advert for a club [Newtown] in Dubbo, which I’d never heard of. I got the train out of Sydney, through the mountains, wondering what the hell I was doing. But at the same time I was excited.”
He then went back to Yorkshire, finished his degree at Leeds Beckett University, set up his own coaching business (Ceylon Cricket Academy) and tried to crack the holy grail of Yorkshire County Cricket Club. “I wanted to get involved in the junior set-up but I didn’t get much response. My club chairman tried as well but not many people knew me.”
By now Perera was coaching seven days a week for various schools and clubs, including a 12-hour shift on a Sunday. A friend from Surrey’s coaching set-up advised him to volunteer. That got him through the door at Yorkshire, first with the under-10s, then up the age- group ladder, until last summer he became head coach of the women’s first team. And now Warwickshire. “My ultimate goal is coaching an international team,” he says. “I do have a clear plan but I know that journey won’t be a straight line.”
Volunteering was the only way Donovan Miller, a Jamaica-born fast bowler who was involved last year with England’s World Cup squad, could get on. “I volunteered to coach at Essex for free,” he told Cricinfo. “I drove 30 miles every morning, paying for my own petrol, and threw and caught for whoever wanted it for as long as they wanted it. I did it for at least two years.” Alastair Cook asked Miller to join the England Test set-up and Chris Silverwood, then national bowling coach, brought him in for the World Cup.
“That England environment is excellent,” Miller added. “It’s full of love and support and diversity. Silverwood is a very good man. By the time you get to that level, there are no issues. But getting there is tough.”
Raj Maru, who was born in Kenya and came to England as a child, turned pro at 16 with Middlesex and was coaching even then. He had a successful playing career as a left-arm spinner with Hampshire, retiring in 1998, and stayed on to coach. “I would lie if I said there wasn’t any discrimination,” he tells WCM. “There was – as a player and as a coach. But I always confronted the bullies and would give as good as I got. I didn’t know any better.
Growing up in London in age-group sides, I had a pretty hard lifestyle. My dad always said to me, ‘If you don’t stand up for yourself, son, you’ll get trodden on’.” Maru, 58, tells of one specific experience at Hampshire where he believes the playing field was far from level. Applying for a senior coaching role at the club where he was already employed, he says: “There were three ex-players who were interviewed before me for an hour or more each. My interview lasted two minutes. That upset me a lot but I confronted it.”
He coached Hampshire under 17s to the Championship title in 2007 with a side containing James Vince and a handful of other future professionals. For the past 12 years, Maru has been head of cricket at Lancing College in Sussex. He is proud of his central role in the development of England spinners Danny Briggs, Liam Dawson and Mason Crane, who still contacts Maru for advice.
“I don’t believe black people are getting the opportunities they should be in coaching and management,” former England batsman Mark Butcher told Cricinfo recently. “You can’t tell me there haven’t been some fantastic black candidates. There seems to be this belief that ‘they can play, but they can’t manage’.”
Troy Vincent from the NFL says: “Our data shows there are double standards. The opportunities are slim and when they do come, the standard of performance is measured differently.” White coaches are two-to-three times more likely to be re-hired than their black counterparts.
Echoing Butcher’s point, Vincent also believes there needs to be an acknowledgement of the unconscious bias in the way black players are described in the media compared to white players, focusing on athletic prowess rather than game smarts or strategic intelligence.
Just as having coaches of colour must be beneficial to encourage, inspire and mentor players of colour, so the relationship between the hirers and the hires needs to change. “Diversity speaks to who you are: your genetic make-up, your race, religion, perspective, and most importantly your experiences,” says Vincent.
“When we look at who’s doing the hiring, who’s doing the interviewing, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Who’s missing?’” Warwickshire CEO Stuart Cain explains that their “selection panel [for the head coach role] had diversity of thought and representation”. It included Naz Khan, chair of local club Attock CC and a hugely respected figure in Birmingham’s Asian cricket scene.
John Neal, the ECB’s head of coach development, praises Warwickshire for their “structured approach” to recruitment. “I’ve seen situations where it’s literally just a phone call and one which was a Google search,” he says with a sense of exasperation. “I wouldn’t say it’s a closed shop but sometimes it’s been about who you know.”
Neal’s mission at the ECB is to open up the coaching pathways, disrupting the “League of Gentlemen” as he calls it. The conversations driven by Black Lives Matter have been uncomfortable for many, but Neal believes it has helped accelerate, and give exposure to, a process that has been a long time coming.
Neal’s aim is for the ethnic minority and female representation on the ECB’s coaching programmes to stay ahead of the equivalent percentages on the playing field. He believes they are on track – though female representation remains pitifully low – but says they are only “halfway” along the road. Covid necessitated a shift to running courses online (previously resisted as unworkable). It also allowed the ECB to reduce both the cost of courses and the time spent away from home undertaking them, which was seen a barrier to entry, particularly for women.
Finance and academic qualifications have been identified as two significant barriers for aspiring coaches to progress. “We’ve created £32,000 of bursaries for black coaches this year of which 11 awards were made across our Advanced (Level 3) and Specialist (Level 4) programmes,” Neal says. One of those beneficiaries is former England fast bowler Dean Headley, who has been able to fund his shot at the highest qualification, Level 4.
Like Maru, Headley has established his reputation at an independent school (Stamford). Also on the educational beat (at Kimbolton) is another ex-England quick Alex Tudor, who has recently been recruited as bowling coach by Sussex’s new head coach Ian Salisbury.
When Headley spoke to the Daily Mail recently, he was keen to point out that his acceptance on the Level 4 programme was “an open application… It wasn’t given to me. I had to go through a process and I do believe you have to be careful in not allowing positive action to become positive discrimination.”
That emerges as a consistent message. “In the past, talking to coaches from an ethnic minority background, they thought ‘what’s the point’, but there is a point now,” says Neal. “Opportunity but without positive discrimination, because then it’s tokenism.”
The final word goes to our man in the New York offices of the richest sports league in the world. What’s his advice to his sporting peers around the world? “It begins, as it always has, with education,” says Vincent. “It’s not about pointing the finger. We have to educate the clubs and those who are identifying talent. Every organisation has to have a diversity, equity and inclusion plan. It has to be disruptive and you have to be intentional.”
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