Does cricket suffer from ‘institutional racism’?

Cricket has always had some moral claims so this is a potential real issue. Cricket was long regarded as a gentleman's game and the social instincts of the British upper class became the official and unofficial laws of cricket. Some things were simply "not done" and a man must never "go too far". It was a coherent ethical system but was vague at many points so could break down. Examples

1). "Bodyline bowling" by English sides designed to get ace Australian cricketer Donald Bradman out were widely deplored.

2). Underarm bowling by an Australian cricketer designed to confuse an opposing batsman at the last minute were raged against by many.

3). And Sri Lankan bowler Muralitharan's "action" was widely criticised as he did not always keep his arm exactly straight.

4). And dare I mention the recent controversy over an English batsman being dismissed when he left his crease prematurely?

So there are big social issues in cricket but the unfounded accusations mentioned below are not one of them. Underarm bowling is much more serious

What a strange document the Independent Commission on Equity in Cricket (ICEC) has produced, in its ‘Holding up a mirror to cricket’ report. Rambling, explicitly political, antagonistic and poorly-argued, it ignores some obvious explanations for the ills it discusses, and fixates on irrelevancies. The authors situate their conclusions within the world of intersectionality and other well-worn academic buzzwords. This limits the usefulness of its conclusions because every problem is shoehorned into a particular framework, rather than being carefully considered on its own terms.

Take, for example, the identification of a severe decline in cricket participation by black Britons. ‘Holding up a mirror to cricket’ ascribes this decline to various causes, but an obvious structural reason – namely, the changing composition of the black British population – is not even considered. Two or three decades ago most black Britons had Afro-Caribbean heritage. Nowadays black Britons increasingly have backgrounds in places like West Africa, where cricket is relatively unpopular compared to the West Indies – and even in the West Indies the popularity of cricket is not what it once was. This is not, of course, the whole story, but it is certainly a significant part.

This is not careful analysis but blunt ideological prescription

Similarly, the report totally ignores one of the most significant barriers to the popularity of cricket among young people of both sexes and all races: the disappearance of almost all live cricket from free-to-air television. I am only 40, and well into my adult life all home Test Matches were shown in full on terrestrial TV. If the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), who asked the ICEC to prepare this report, are really interested in sparking a love of cricket among children from diverse backgrounds, they could do a good deal worse than giving ball-by-ball broadcast rights back to the BBC or Channel 4.

The ICEC call for parity in remuneration for men’s and women’s cricket. Entirely absent from their deliberations, if we can call them that, is the simple recognition that women’s cricket is less popular – and hence less lucrative – than the men’s game. Stokes, Root and co. pack out stadiums, and people pay well into three figures for tickets to watch them play. The TV rights are worth a fortune. Now it might plausibly be argued that women’s cricket is only unpopular because of historic discrimination and the patriarchal history of the game. Even if that is true, the fact remains that the women’s cricket funding gap is to do with the laws of the market and is not simply the result of unfair discrimination or old-fashioned attitudes.

This naivete about commercial aspects is matched by a general refusal to be honest about the realistic constraints on participation in cricket. No doubt there is a good deal more that can be done to open up the game to those from less privileged backgrounds. But this is not easy. Cricket is a technically complex, expensive, time-consuming game to play and organise. That is no one’s fault. It is the nature of the beast. There are ways round these difficulties, but we are not going to find them by searching for people to blame, or by the invocation of trendy but vague spectres like ‘institutional racism’.

Overall there is a noticeable, and remarkable, strain of animosity running through much of the report. I have read a good many reports by various organisations, on all kinds of subjects. I cannot recall encountering one which singles out specific responses to a consultation for scolding, as ICEC have seen fit to do. That scolding is followed up with a passive-aggressive dig at anyone with reservations about the authors’ worldview, which reveals that they have no serious interest in any discussion which does not confirm their prior assumptions.

This animosity manifests in the report’s conjuring of a pantomime villain – the so-called Type K, a white straight ‘cisgender’ privately-educated able-bodied white male – but also in its frankly unpleasant elision of conservative preferences about the game with racial bigotry and animus. So people who don’t like, for example, Twenty20 or loud music at cricket grounds, and prefer ‘batsman’ to ‘batter’, are described as holding the game back, with a strong implication of nefarious motives.

Working through certain sections of ‘Holding up a mirror to cricket’, one senses a deep antipathy to anything remotely redolent of Old Britain; anything which lies outside the ambit of the modern managerial state. The ultimate aim of the report, consciously or not, is to place the entire ecosystem of English cricket – from the village sides turning out three times a year for a beer match, through the clubs and schools and counties, right up to the Test team – under the direct control of political commissars. Every traditional institution must be brought to heel, to satisfy the complicated resentments of Britain’s new elites, and the mechanism for this process is the laundering of left-wing political conclusions via supposedly independent reports. If you doubt this, note the recommendation that the Spirit of Cricket section in the Laws be rewritten to directly embed the equality, diversity and inclusivity ideology.

This agenda is most obvious in the ICEC’s persistent hostility to two of the oldest sporting fixtures in Britain, the Eton v Harrow and Oxford v Cambridge matches, held at Lord’s every summer. ‘As a Commission’, they announce with comic grandiosity: ‘we are clear that the Historic Fixtures should end, whether or not there is room for them in the Lord’s fixture list.’ The authors barely bother to hide their indignation at the members of the Marylebone Cricket Club, which owns Lord’s, for daring to continue with the fixtures after the Committee attempted to end them.

It is worth dwelling on what exactly is being said here. ICEC’s position is not that the MCC should expand access to their facilities to non-Oxbridge universities or to schools other than Eton and Harrow. It is not that the so-called Historic Fixtures are taking up room in the schedule that could be used for more inclusive events. These are both defensible positions. Rather, their position is that the matches should be stopped outright regardless of any other consideration, i.e. that the MCC – a 236 year old voluntary association in a nominally free country – should be compelled to end a tradition which has endured for two centuries. We are not given any serious indication of how this would improve the inclusivity of cricket, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t, in the same way that the destruction of grammar schools did not improve standards in comprehensives. The game is well and truly given away by the report’s blunt statement that the Historic Fixtures ‘no longer have a place in contemporary Britain.’ This is not careful analysis but blunt ideological prescription.

Scepticism about these kind of reports is liable to be construed as indifference to real problems. That is certainly not my position. Obviously there are genuine serious barriers to participation in cricket for some minorities, alongside other structural issues – although it’s worth noting that ‘Holding up a mirror to cricket’ builds a large superstructure of conclusion on a fairly flimsy foundation of self-reported and subjective experience, which the ICEC was unable and unwilling to subject to any kind of meaningful scrutiny or analysis.

But equally, we cannot simply roll over in the face of reports that draw tendentious and highly political conclusions based on faulty reasoning. If ICEC really claim to be holding up a mirror to English cricket, all I can say is that we are seeing through a glass, darkly.


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