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Discrimination in Cricket: Cheat-Chat Cannot be Allowed to Drown-Out Calls for Change

With a damning report finding that racism is entrenched in cricket, Shamik Das explores how it is impossible to separate sport from society and what is required for transformative change

England’s Jonny Bairstow leaves the field of play after he is stumped out by Australia at Lord’s on 2 July 2023. Photo: News Images/Alamy

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Just Stop Racism. And classism. And sexism. This was the demand last week from a damning dossier documenting discrimination at all levels of the national summer sport. There was no dramatic storming of the Lord’s pitch with protestors brandishing ‘No More Bigot-Ball’ banners to highlight the cause, just a forensic 317-page report packed with more than 4,000 case studies documenting various forms of discrimination in cricket on the eve of the controversy-strewn Lord’s Ashes Test.

The headline findings of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) report are horrific.

They reveal that racism is “entrenched” in cricket – and that its structures lead to racial disparities and discrimination. That women “routinely experience sexism and misogyny” – women’s cricket is treated as subordinate to men’s, with women marginalised and having zero to infinitesimal power, voice or influence. That “class barriers” are virtually insurmountable – private schools “dominate”, there is hardly any cricket in state schools, and it is prohibitively expensive for those from poorer backgrounds.

And to top it all off, the complaints system is “confusing, overly defensive and not fit for purpose” – there is “profound mistrust”, with victims “not properly supported” or just not bothering to report discrimination at all, fearing victimisation and concerned that “no action will be taken”. Many are simply left on their own and are “suffering in silence”.

Yet, for all the initial hand-wringing (and genuine shock) that greeted the report, there is a real danger it gets forgotten amid the firestorm of anger over ‘cheating’ and the ‘spirit of cricket’ that has swirled around cricket, politics and the wider public in recent days, achieving front and back page coverage, radio debates and in-depth TV news reports. And who knows, maybe even questions in Parliament in the days ahead – the Prime Minister’s spokesperson has already been compelled to comment on Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal at Lord’s on Sunday.

If anything, however, the reaction to the stumping incident at Lord’s reinforces the need to turbocharge change at HQ, in the England set-up and throughout the game.

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From MCC members, boozed and boo-ed up on Pimms and privilege, heckling and jostling Australia’s players in the Long Room – singling out the one non-white player Usman Khawaja for special treatment – to the piety of the England management and leadership, who with Messianic zeal proclaim themselves the saviours of cricket, the great entertainers, single-handedly upholding the Corinthian values of Gentlemen and being the only ones playing cricket in the right spirit. Cant which crumbles to dust with each newly-unearthed archive clip of Brendon McCullum and Jonny Bairstow running out batsmen who thought the ball was dead.

It’s not just the entitlement and the hypocrisy that rankles though, it was the sight of one of the ghosts of racism allegations past swanning about at Lord’s without a care in the world, Michael Vaughan stalking the boundary edge and offering his hot takes on everything from Bazball to integrity for viewers and listeners to the BBC’s coverage of the Test – just months after facing a tribunal for allegedly telling four players of Asian descent that “there’s too many of you lot”. What will the message of this not even a slap-on-the-wrist be?

The report also comes in the wake of the wider fallout of the Azeem Rafiq scandal and the Cricket Scotland racism revelations. And though cricket may have moved on from more distant racist episodes like the d’Oliveira affair that shone a light on the MCC’s appeasement of apartheid South Africa, some of its members remain stubbornly stuck in the past, needing to be dragged into the 2020s – just as they were dragged into the new century, only lifting the ban on women members as recently as 1998.

Given all that’s happened, then, it would be all too easy, understandably, to be too glass-half-empty about the problems facing the game. But there are encouraging signs.

The MCC is intending to do more to spread the game in state schools and among poorer communities, having made plans to ditch the annual Lord’s Eton-Harrow and Oxford-Cambridge games even before the ICEC report’s recommendation to scrap it and replace it with finals days for school and university competitions. And the England Cricket Board has guaranteed that the England Women’s team will play its first-ever Test at Lord’s – though not until 2026. Absolutely too little too late, but compared to where we were it is progress.

Likewise from the Government, there was encouraging news from Rishi Sunak that it would look closely at the report and meet with the authorities to discuss what could be done, contrary to initial briefings that it would take a hands-off approach. The Prime Minister, a genuine cricket fan, was interviewed by Test Match Special at the weekend, during which he spoke of having “experienced racism growing up”, saying that “it stings you in a way that very few other things do”.

They were probably the truest, most relatable, words he’s ever publicly said. He went on: “All of us who love this game want it to be inclusive, open, accessible to absolutely everybody, to welcome people from all backgrounds and for it to be a place where everyone can feel respected and supported”. Words you cannot imagine either of his immediate predecessors saying.

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There is also the reality that, for all the undoubted problems we face in sport and as a society, Britain is not France, afflicted once again by deaths, police violence and riots – and nor is cricket in England anywhere close to the racist hell-spiral of football on the Continent, crystallised in the racist abuse of Vinicius Jr. in Spain, and the inaction of clubs, national associations and European authorities.

As has been said umpteen times before, with all the issues raised, it is impossible to separate sport from society – a society in which race, sex and class are still a factor in so many areas, from educational opportunities to health outcomes and earning potential.

Sport should be the one field in which talent, hard work and attitude are all that count – after all, the result is the result at the end of the day. You’d surely want the best players. But in cricket, the young working-class lad playing in the Lancashire Leagues, for example, will lose out to a less-talented but better-connected public school Oxbridge boy; just look at the backgrounds of the current England Test team.

While it’s impossible to magic up overnight all the school playing fields that have been sold in recent decades, a start has to be made somewhere. Proclamations from Lord’s about the home of cricket opening up to women cricketers and state school and redbrick universities will send a powerful message, with structural changes at the grassroots and more investment doing the heavy lifting of effecting real change. There also needs to be more exposure to eyeballs in our football-dominated cultural ecosystem, including at least one Test a year, on free-to-air TV.

Once the headlines about ‘cheating’ and hypocrisy and the #SpiritOfCricket ease and the Ashes circus hibernates for another couple of years as summer turns to autumn, the underlying issues of racism, sexism and classism exposed in last week’s report will remain. Progress must be monitored, leaders held to account, and victims not forgotten.

From the ashes of those 4,000 horror stories, cricket must turn over a new leaf.

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