Duncan Stone reveals how the governing body of English cricket – like the country as a whole – can no longer promote a selective view of its history

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No game, except for baseball in the United States perhaps, has as large a historical literature as cricket. And yet, the decision by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)to ignore a corroborated claim of racism on the grounds it occurred prior to the governing body’s establishment in 1997 speaks volumes of the game’s one-eyed approach to its own history.

Although no history is ever ‘definitive’, cricket is a sport that has always been particular about whose voices are heard. Accordingly, the game’s carefully cultivated orthodoxy has been so fervently protected by those with a vested interest in the game, CLR James’ deceptively benign question ‘what do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ almost appears melancholic today.

The game has had other maverick historians of course. But the likes of Rowland Bowen, Sir Derek Birley and Mike Marqusee, who challenged cricket’s reputation as a ‘gentleman’s game’ and iconic figures such as WG Grace, all suffered at the hands of the game’s establishment and their acolytes within the media.

As early as 1979 Birley recognised how ‘cricket lovers do not like to be told new things’. But it was Marqusee, who did the most to highlight racism within the game, who endured, even in death, the cricket establishment’s greatest disdain with his Wisden obituary claiming the facts he presented ‘always had to be filtered through his political preconceptions’.

While a cursory glance at how this accusation sits with any number of orthodox historians who persistently fail to address classism and racism in cricket would prove illuminating, the fact that Marqusee’s Anyone But England (1994) proved to be an all too accurate depiction of English cricket is cold comfort to those who endured racism within the game before and since the book’s publication.

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Cricket – like the United Kingdom as a whole – can no longer afford to pick and choose which aspects of its history it wishes to discuss or promote. Indeed, the review of my own book in The Cricketer chose to dwell upon my criticism of the game’s orthodox historians (all long dead, a large photo of EW Swanton was, somewhat curiously, published alongside the review) rather than address the evidence relating to elitism and racism that threatens the game’s future as a ‘sport for all’.

This is deeply problematic because it demonstrates how many who govern, play and watch the game would rather preserve what Birley called a ‘feudal dream’ than deal with what is in front of them. All branches of cricket need to recognise the game is neither free from the society in which it operates nor can it afford another thirty years of apathy in dealing with these issues. 

Having failed to fully address Azeem Rafiq’s now vindicated claims, the ECB’s refusal to even address what appears to be a strong case for investigation suggests cricket’s governing body has either learned nothing or has no will to even try to deal with racism and other issues affecting the game’s future viability.

For all the excitement engendered by ‘Bazball’, and the successes of England’s current Test teams, the game’s future vibrancy will not only rely on greater social and racial integration but a better understanding of its own history also. And yet, given the disproportionate ‘investment’ of time and resources into The Hundred, it seems clear the ECB’s priorities lie elsewhere. 

Cricket, in some shape or another, will always survive. But cricket will have a much better chance of appealing to as many people as possible if it has a governing body that players and supporters of all backgrounds can trust.

Duncan Stone is a historian interested in the ‘cultural war’ over the legitimate form, function and meaning of sport and the author of ‘Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket’ (Repeater, 2022).

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