A recent report found that racism, sexism and elitism were “baked into the structures” of cricket. Andrew Stone takes a look behind these revelations.

Credit: Michael Weir/Unsplash.

This summer produced two of the most closely-fought Ashes contests in history. In both the women’s and men’s games, world champion Australian teams took commanding leads (6-0 and 2-0 respectively) before being dragged back to parity. In one of cricket’s more bemusing idiosyncrasies, 36 days of enthralling play led to two drawn series – yet the only really one-sided contest, the men’s Third Test, was washed away by the Manchester rain to become the only drawn match.

The commitment of the England teams over the last year to an entertaining brand of cricket certainly played a big part in the drama. Under men’s coach Brendon McCullum and Captain Ben Stokes, ‘Bazball’ has famously prioritised innovative batting, fast scoring rates and attacking fields that prize wickets over containment. A similar philosophy has been embraced by the women’s team under coach Matthew Mott and captain Heather Knight, encapsulated by the Test match call-up for attacking batter Danni Wyatt. The public response has been enthusiastic, with the women’s games selling almost three times as many tickets as in the previous Ashes series in 2019, and the sole Test match garnering four times as many viewers as its predecessor.

And yet, as Trotskyist historian CLR James once asked rhetorically in his classic Beyond A Boundary, “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” Because this summer has also shone a light on enduring issues of racism, sexism and elitism in the sport. In the words of Cindy Butts, chair of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC):

the findings in our report are unequivocal. Racism, class-based discrimination, elitism and sexism are widespread and deep rooted. It’s not banter or just a few bad apples. Discrimination is both overt and baked into the structures and processes within cricket.

This is a stark admission from a body created by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in March 2021, partly in response to the testimony of former Yorkshire bowler Azeem Rafiq. Despite eventually publishing a heavily redacted report of its own in which it admitted that Rafiq had suffered racial harassment and bullying, Yorkshire CC still maintained that repeated use of ‘P—’ by its staff was “in the spirit of friendly banter“. It was ultimately sanctioned by the ECB for its failure to address the complaints adequately, but even then the penalty was less than that handed to Durham CC for poor financial management.

Racism has subsequently been exposed at other clubs, such as Essex, which was fined £50,000 for not disciplining its chair for allegedly using the word “n—–” during a board meeting in 2017. And Cricket Scotland received a damning verdict by an independent investigation that found 448 indicators of institutional racism, saying that it failed on 29 of 31 tests and only partially met the required standard on the remaining two. The allegations included racial abuse, and favouritism towards white public-school pupils.

Among the more than 4,000 interviews in the ICEC report were more revelations from high-profile players, such as former England fast bowler Devon Malcolm. Lauded as ‘the destroyer’ by Nelson Mandela for his devastating spell of 9 wickets for 57 runs against South Africa in 1993, Malcolm had already had to overcome being rejected by Yorkshire CC for being born in Jamaica, accused of having ‘no cricketing brain’ by Ted Dexter, the Tory chair of England Selectors, and allegedly being racially abused by the England manager Raymond Illingworth.

He and his England colleague Phil DeFreitas – who received death threats from the Nazi National Front – successfully sued Wisden Cricket Magazine in 1995 for an article titled ‘Is It In The Blood?’, which accused England’s foreign-born and black players of being insufficiently committed

Much of the testimony though has come from lower levels of the game, where a mixture of ignorance, neglect and deliberate obstruction has stymied the participation of black and Asian players for generations. Duncan Stone’s excellent recent book Different Class explains many of the factors involved – the typical ‘drinking culture’ of the village game alienating many Muslim players; stereotypical judgements in selection; the decline of workplace teams as industries were run down or privatised (London Transport teams, for example, used to have a strong representation of Caribbean players); and the exclusion of clubs from leagues due to inadequate facilities.

Some of these factors overlap with the wider class elitism within cricket, which Stone traces the development of over hundreds of years. One of the biggest barriers to working class participation in recent decades though has been the lack of school playing fields, with Margaret Thatcher in 1981 allowing local authorities to sell off any ‘deemed surplus to requirements’. Ten thousand were sold between then and 1997, mostly to become supermarkets, car parks or housing developments. The subsequent Labour government did nothing to reverse this, though it did introduce Anti-Social Behaviour Orders to criminalise young people who had no access to organised recreation as a result.

When we formed a team at my state school in the 1990s, we had to practice on concrete, then travel away to play (and lose to!) private schools with private grounds, coaches and practice nets. Subsequent initiatives such as Kwik Cricket, and more recently All-Stars and Dynamos Cricket, have tapped into interest among primary-aged children, but participation falls away in secondary schools. The virtual absence of cricket on terrestrial TV since it was sold to Sky has also hampered access to the game, with working class children much less likely to see  live matches, especially with often exorbitant ticket prices, ranging between £105 to £170 for the men’s Ashes tests in London.

How do these structures of inequality translate through the levels of amateur and professional cricket? Tom Brown, Warwickshire CC’s High Performance Coach, revealed last year that:

We looked through all the specialist batters that debuted (for England in Tests) since 2011, and we found that 95 per cent of them have been white [and that] 77 per cent of them have come from private schools…Our research highlighted that you were 13 times more likely if you’re white and privately educated to be selected as a professional cricketer than if you’re white and state educated

This compares to just seven percent of privately educated students in the general population.

With regards to racial discrimination, Brown says,

At a recreational level, 30 per cent of the demographic that plays the game in England and Wales are British South Asian. That drops to around 20 per cent at the academy (elite junior) level for first class counties, which then drops even further to 5 per cent when it comes to the professional game.

In 2018 the ECB launched the South Asian Action Plan, which aims to increase participation and pathways at all levels, and partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, former England player Ebony Rainford-Brent launched the African-Caribbean Engagement (ACE) programme. In its second year, this has so far put 44 players into County Age Group set-ups. Rainford-Brent is clear about the intersection of race and class:

I take my own upbringing as an example here…My mum was working nights to help me to be able to play cricket. So when we turned up to play cricket sometimes there used to be misconceptions about us because we’d come up with a load of bags, my mum was falling asleep. She’d be with me through to the end of training, then head straight to work after putting me to bed.

I think the bigger problem in cricket is really around class. I think that’s the biggest. Don’t get me wrong, racism exists in society and there are a lot of layers there. But when you look at the provision in low socio-economic areas, white working-class areas, etcetera – that is the void I want us to fill as a game. And I think if we did that, we would solve the race problem.

Whether cricket could exist as an anti-racist island in a society blighted by racial oppression is highly doubtful, but clearly initiatives like ACE, as well as more general campaigns (such as Hit Racism for Six in the late 1990s), can play a positive role that can go beyond the game in fostering a more general anti-racist culture.

On sexism the ICEC had this to say:

It has been 278 years since the first recorded women’s cricket match, 133 years since the first group of women cricketers toured the UK, and 97 years since the foundation of the Women’s Cricket Association, yet women are not even nearly on an equal footing with men within the sport today. Our evidence shows that women continue to be treated as subordinate to men within, and at all levels of, cricket.

This is reflected in the evidence that the salaries of England Women are barely one fifth of their male counterparts, and still less than half in the domestic professional game.

The profile of the women’s game has increased significantly in recent years, and one of the few things that can be said in favour of the Hundred competition is that it has introduced ‘double-headers’ encouraging spectators to watch both women and men’s games. However, the fact that the women’s game is always first both creates a ‘warm-up act’ hierarchy and means that it is more often curtailed or sacrificed entirely when the weather is bad. It is to be hoped that the growing number of women and girls playing and watching will increasingly challenge this discrimination. An encouraging example of this is former England player Isa Guha’s ‘Got Your Back’ initiative.

All of these national questions arise in a rapidly changing international context, where the rise of franchise-based T20 cricket is undercutting availability for longer formats and the ability of national boards to control their contracted players (who, in an extrapolation of the forces first unleashed by World Series Cricket in the late 1970s, can earn more as bats-for-hire). The Indian Premier League (IPL), as by far the biggest cricket market has been central to this process. Its franchises have expanded from their domestic two-month schedule to become year-round businesses.

So why should socialists care about any of this? Sport is an integral part of the entertainment and advertising industries. It’s something that huge numbers of people enjoy and take solace from. It can contribute to a healthier lifestyle and better mental health. It can be a prism to view the features of our messed-up world, a site of struggle, a chance for us to organise collectively in the face of racism, sexism and elitism. And yes, it can also be a distraction from this, but that can be said of all culture, and as Emma Goldman once almost said, ‘If I can’t play a reverse scoop over the slip cordon, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’

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