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Norman Cowans: 'Kids need a pathway, and a feeling that they belong'

Former England fast bowler on a new diversity and inclusion initiative at Middlesex

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Norman Cowans, the former Middlesex and England fast bowler  •  Getty Images

Norman Cowans, the former Middlesex and England fast bowler  •  Getty Images

Norman Cowans, the first West Indies-born fast bowler to play Test cricket for England, hopes that a new initiative from his former county Middlesex can help to reignite a passion for the game in the inner-city London communities where he learnt the sport as a teenager.
Cowans, who played 19 Tests and 23 ODIs between 1982 to 1985, was an integral member of the most successful Middlesex team of all time, as well as its most ethnically representative. During his 13 years at the club, he helped secure ten trophies, including four County Championships, and claimed 532 first-class wickets in that period at 22.57.
Alongside his fellow England cricketers, Roland Butcher, Wilf Slack and Neil Williams, as well as the West Indies fast bowler, Wayne Daniel, Cowans frequently took the field for Middlesex as one of five black cricketers - a ratio that reflects the ethnic mix of such boroughs as Haringey, Harrow and Brent that fall squarely within the club's catchment area.
And it is those parts of London that Middlesex will be reaching out to with their new Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, as they seek to address the decline of interest in cricket among black communities since the heyday of the 1980s, and address the biases - conscious or unconscious - within the county's structure that have contributed to that drop-off.
"Middlesex is one of the most diverse counties around, and for many, many years the club was very successful," Cowans told ESPNcricinfo. "We want to try and bring that diversity back to the county, by reaching out to different communities, and making them feel more a part of the club.
"When I was playing, back in the day, we had five black guys in the team, plus Raj Maru who was Asian. We had a very diverse team, and it encouraged others to come forward and think, 'yeah, we can be part of that team as well'.
"Obviously, since then, there's been a decline in diversity, and Middlesex has realised that we need to reach back into those communities and make them feel more welcome, because the talent is always out there. They just need a pathway, and a feeling that they too can belong, and that there are no barriers to what they can achieve."
A series of roadshows are planned in 2021, which will take the club out to community centres throughout North-West and East London to renew those neglected ties, while the club will also promote a Thursday-evening T20 competition from 2022 onwards that will be open to all clubs in the county, with an equivalent competition for schools too.
"Sometimes cricket can look a bit snobbish and expensive," Cowans said. "Football is so much cheaper, guys can just get a ball, have a kick-around, work on their skills, and they might get spotted by a coach while playing in a park on a Sunday.
"It's not so easy for cricket. Just the cost of the equipment can put people off, let alone the facilities. So we're looking to try and address that, and provide some funding for people who are less fortunate, rather than those who went to private schools where everything was paid for. It makes a huge difference, because that's what will get the talent coming through."
Cowans knows from personal experience how quickly a passion for the game can take hold, having managed to persuade his maths teacher to lay on lunchtime lessons at his school in North London in the 1970s. Within a couple of years, the team that he helped set up was good enough to reach the finals of the Harrow Schools competition, and his pathway into the game was set.
However, Cowans also acknowledged that, to grow up in a Caribbean community in the 1980s, with West Indies the pre-eminent team in the world, and Test matches available on free-to-air TV, also had a huge impact on his interest in the sport.
"If people see themselves being represented in the media, it just feels more attainable and accessible," he said. "Kids love to imitate their heroes, so to actually see successful people on TV looking like yourself, they are bound to think they can do that as well.
"And that was the example I felt when Roland Butcher played for England," Cowans added, recalling his pride at watching his Middlesex team-mate become England's first black Test cricketer, at Bridgetown in 1981.
"I said to myself, if Roland can do it, I can as well, because if you had the talent, there was no barrier at Middlesex. Mike Brearley was captain when I started, and he was very encouraging to players with ability. No matter your age, colour or creed, you would be in the team."
Cowans' own England career started with a flourish the following year, with a starring role in England's thrilling three-run victory over Australia at Melbourne in 1982-83, but it would end abruptly in the summer of 1985, when - after managing a long-term hernia issue - he was dropped after the first Test of that summer's Ashes series in spite of England's five-wicket win.
"It's a mystery to me why my international career was not prolonged," he said. "But what can you do about it? I know that I was good enough and maybe should have played ahead of many other guys. But that was the way things were in those days.
"I played one Test against Australia in 1985, which we won, and I was dropped and never played again, which is ridiculous. All that experience wasted.
"But I am very proud of what I've achieved in the opportunities that I was given," he added. "I was proud of going to Australia as an unknown, and helping England to win a Test match. I took a five-wicket haul in Pakistan, which was a great experience, and I played in all of the Test matches in India in 1984-85, which was one of my most satisfying tours. We were given no price but came back to win 2-1.
"I remember coming off the pitch in the first Test in Mumbai. Kapil Dev came up to me and said, 'Norman, West Indies were over here in the series before this. The way you bowled today, you were as fast as any of them'. To get that from Kapil Dev, that's good enough for me.
"I think people recognise that you have to look after the players more now. And fast bowlers, when they tell you they are injured, you really need to investigate it. Because you want them to maintain their pace."
In spite of the brevity of his England career, Cowans knows that he made a lasting impact for the British Caribbean community, and paved the way for several players who would go on to be household names throughout the 1990s.
"I remember Devon Malcolm telling me how he came up and asked for my autograph when I was playing against Yorkshire at Abbeydale Park," Cowans said. "'When I saw you playing for England,' he told me, 'I thought I could do it too.'"
"It has a knock-on effect. And it's the same at counties and in communities in club cricket. If people are encouraging youngsters to take part in the sport, they will feel they belong to the club. We want to roll this back across the county, and give kids the opportunity to progress."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket