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Not going to the match, minister? I’ll have your ticket.

Posted on June 8, 2021

No matter how closely you peer at the photograph above, you won’t be able to make me out in the background, but, reader, believe me – I was there and I’ve never been happier to be at a sporting event.

It’s Cape Town in January 2016 and Temba Bavuma has just become the first Black African to score a century in a Test Match – the most demanding and prestigious form of the game of cricket. Around me there is a bunch of Brits like me, enjoying winter sunshine at one of the world’s most spectacular sporting venues.  We’re on our feet applauding this massive achievement – and so are South African people of all colours, revelling in being part of history.

Twenty-five years earlier, such a scene would have been condemned as an unrealistic fantasy. South Africa had not yet been readmitted to international sport following its ban for supporting apartheid on and off the field of play. Once it had regained acceptance, it had to come to terms with the demanding business of incorporating quotas of Black players into all its teams.  It was a complex, uneven and often unpleasant episode, but by 1995 Nelson Mandela was able to hand the rugby World Cup to Francois Pineaar, the captain of a multi-ethnic South African team. In 2014, Hashim Mohamed Amla became the captain of the nation’s cricket team.  The political process had made an impact on sport: anyone who seriously believes the two are separable needs to have a word with themselves.

I’m a fortunate – if marginally obsessed – man. In recent years I have followed the England cricket team to some of the most impressively beautiful stadia in the world. There are thousands like me or, at least, largely like me. White, no longer in full-time work – or simply on trips of a lifetime – harbouring detailed knowledge of the sort that is even more alarming because of our inability to remember what we went upstairs for. But the vast majority are unlike me in one regard: a few moments’ conversation often reveals my companions to be rightward leaning in their thoughts and opinions – and that includes their attitude towards the game that brings us into unlikely communion.

Most of the time this is easily negotiated: as in many social situations, all parties recognise that there may be areas which it may be sensible to avoid. Regrettably, some of this intent can turn to dust when the sun is well and truly over the yardarm, but for the most part, no damage is done and a peaceful coexistence prevails.  There is, however, no glossing over the fact that the game at this commercial, international level is infused with a prevailing, deep-seated conservatism. That cricket as it is played in many parts of the UK and around the world is devoid of any such gentility, is a truth that is often unheard in the hogwash narrative of village greens and playing up and playing the game.

Late last week, the English cricket team played its first game of the summer against New Zealand. In contrast to their footballing counterparts, there was no person of colour in the England side. Various authorities in the game are acutely aware of this anomaly and some are facing up to it to address it. Making his debut in the game was Ollie Robinson and it emerged during play that he had been responsible for some racist tweets ten years earlier. His boss, the England and Wales Cricket Board then did what any employer would do in such a situation. Faced with an employee who had committed a serious misdemeanour, they suspended him from duty pending a full investigation. Distressing, embarrassing, but proper procedures would be applied.   

Quite what it might have looked like had the game’s governing bodies done nothing is difficult to contemplate. Not only would it have reinforced the notion of a game for old white men dozing and dribbling in the afternoon sun, it would have done inestimable damage in terms of reaching a wider, diverse audience. That seems kind of obvious……

…..except to the minister for culture , Oliver Dowden, and the man in charge of the country himself. Robinson was just a boy, they wail; this is heavy-handed and yet another example of wokeness – that most deadly of sins in the eyes of the political right. And that would be a political right that seems to have got its collective jockstrap in a bit of a tangle when it comes to politics and sport (because, of course, there’s simply nothing else going on at present which they might be getting to grips with).

Hot on the heels of Dowden and Johnson, and eager to call out the snowflake wokes, is a little gaggle of Tory MPs who won’t, just won’t, be going to England’s upcoming football games because of this wretched taking the knee business. This sort of stuff has no place in the people’s game they tell us. The ordinary fan – with whom they enjoy a quiet pint before the game (nah, not really) – is alienated by this Marxist guff they tell us. Keep politics out of sport….unless we want it in…or out….or want to use our political position to comment …..or something.

And here’s the thing. Sad soul that I am, when I’m not splashing my cash watching cricket abroad – and that’s not going to happen again for a while – I’m following my non-achieving football team, home and away, week in, week out. I’m proud that members of that team have been taking the knee and there’s one thing I know with iron certainty: if anyone starts booing them for doing so, it won’t be because that person is offering a critique of Marxist theory and practice, IT WILL BE BECAUSE THEY ARE RACIST (sorry for shouting) and have been offered convenient cover by simpering politicians eager to divert attention from their blatant shortcomings and fawning incompetence.

So let’s keep politics in sport, drown out the boo-boys, call people to account for improper behaviour and condemn politicians eager for some cheap popular acclaim as the villains they are. This is one paying spectator who won’t be buying their scandalous opportunism.

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My two books about football, Hugging Strangers and Project Restart are available from all booksellers, online and on the high street.

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