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Cricket’s message of ‘look like us,think like us, be like us’ is the result of the closed shop it has become

Posted on November 19, 2021

Supporters of the West Indian cricket team at The Oval in 1963.
Fewer than 1% of recreational cricketers are now Black British

If you want a dispiriting read, spend half an hour or so with cricketer Azeem Rafiq’s testimony to this week’s parliamentary committee. You might have seen some of the TV highlights, which offer a grim sort of anti-appetizer. It’s been strangely uplifting to note that even the Daily Mail can understand how Rafiq’s decision to speak out has revealed the nastiness lurking in cricket’s woodshed – although a glance at some (although not all)  of the ‘best-rated’ comments in that paper’s online version makes for queasy viewing. It does look like being a watershed moment for the game.

Readers new to this blog need to know that I belong to that breed of post middle-aged men who are obsessed by cricket. I won’t categorize the alarming extent of this nerdy affliction, just trust me on it. I completely understand how it baffles non-devotees and I am more than familiar with the jibes about it being an elitist pastime for toffy types.

This latter complaint might have some traction if the only images of the game available to you are shots of the great and good, suited, booted and sipping fizz in the boxes at Lord’s. Or if your sole acquaintance with it is the parodic notion of it being the vehicle used by bumbling imperialists to bring fair play to them what needed it. Such picturesque ideas of the flannelled fools are somewhat at variance with the thousands who crowd onto impromptu games on Mumbai’s maidans, Islamabad’s backstreets and even, until recently, waste ground around Kabul.

Closer to home, fiercely contested league cricket around the big cities is just about as far removed from ‘oh, well played, Sir’ and cucumber sandwiches as it is possible to be – with, incidentally, the notoriously muscular Lancashire leagues having a proud record of welcoming non-English players to their competition.

Time was when the UK’s Caribbean diaspora were among the game’s most committed amateur players and, without a doubt, its noisiest and most life-affirming spectators. The West Indies team they followed was feared and venerated around the world, not least for the production line of venomous fast-bowlers that wrecked all who were brave enough to stand in their way. Those of us who followed the game gleefully agreed that English cricket would soon benefit as home-grown talent flowed into the game. There have been some notable episodes and exceptions – even non-cricket lovers can only gawp with awe at Devon Malcom’s famous ‘you guys are history’ moment – but the appearance of Black cricketers in the England team has always lagged way behind their footballing counterparts.

There are two reasons why cricket has been cut adrift from its position as an attainable and widely understood sport: its place in non-private schools and the imperious market forces that govern TV sports’ broadcasting.

First, schools. Cricket is an expensive game, both in terms of finance and in the number of person hours required to run games. The preparation of playing surfaces, even artificial ones, is a specialised business and in an age where schools sell off their playing fields at a jaw-dropping rate, such finery usually goes to the wall – and not even one with stumps chalked on it. Equipment is expensive and wears out quickly. Physical education fights for its place in an overcrowded curriculum which is geared inflexibly to the generation of exam results.

 Matches between schools take hours (and here I apologise to all those kids who were victims of egregious LBW decisions as I got grumpy and wanted to get home for my tea) and rely on the goodwill of staff already under pressure and over committed. The same is not true in the private sector which values games as a central part of their offer and is able to spend money on facilities and resources that are beyond the imagination of state schools.

When it comes to TV, the governors of England’s game, for whom this has been a deservedly humiliating week, need to have a very stern word with themselves. In 2005, for the first time in decades, schools, offices and workplaces stopped as England played Australia in what is widely acknowledged as the most exciting series of modern times – and all accessible on free-to-air TV.  The game’s ruling body capitalised on this unique opportunity by selling it to Sky and BT, placing it behind a paywall and thus hiding it from millions of new followers. When England won the World Cup in 2019, again, in one of the most exciting finishes of modern times, the guardians managed to strike a deal to get the game on TV……before selling it straight back again.

It is a game that, for all the efforts of thousands of people to make it widely accessible, has shrunk in terms of recreational participation – an estimated 1% of all recreational players are Black British – and which is disappearing from playing fields both in schools and local recreation grounds – where, again, the upkeep of cricket pitches is way beyond the budget and proficiency of beleaguered councils. Some local clubs may flourish, but participation for young people requires transport, equipment and time-consuming parental support. Cricket’s heroes and, increasingly, heroines, may make fleeting appearances in mainstream media, but can only feed off the crumbs of the glamour bestowed on their footballing counterparts.

It is a matter of regret, but not surprise, to hear about Yorkshire Cricket Club’s insularity, clubability and the regime of self-policing and unchallenged, deep-seated assumptions that were behind its catalogue of mismanagement. When surrounded by those who look like you and who have travelled much the same route through life as you, it is unsurprising that lazy, outdated attitudes and language take root and become impossible to challenge, much less dislodge. In such fertile, untended ground, racist attitudes and language become normalised along with bone-headed desensitivity, something of a perennial hallmark of changing-room behaviour.

As cricket at its higher levels starts to take the look at itself that it can no longer evade, part of that introspection also needs to look beyond its boundaries at why a wonderful game has become inaccessible to so many young people and which is almost impossible to locate on TV. Its top-level teams might just then begin to resemble the society around them.

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