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Does English cricket have the will to put its house in order?

The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket’s (ICEC) report on discrimination in the game in England and Wales is 317 pages long. ‘Holding Up a Mirror to Cricket’, as it is titled, was released last month and is built on the evidence of the lived experiences of more than 4000 people across the game, interviews with more than 70 individuals and organisations and over 550 insitutional documents.

It took the Commission nearly two and a half years to compile the report, having been established in March 2021. It makes 44 recommendations, many of which come with a series of sub-recommendations. Some of them are big and difficult, like the setting up of a new and independent regulatory body, separate from the ECB’s functions as a promoter of the game. Not many are small and easy to implement, other than, perhaps, the first – a public apology from the ECB, which has been duly issued.

The arc of the report is immense, reaching back into Britain’s imperialist past in a bid to understand cricket’s present. Neither is it a report on race alone; it dives into the intersectionality of these problems, diagnosing cricket’s exclusionary tendencies as experienced by women and those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. It takes in an overhaul of the complaints process as it stands for instances of discrimination, as well as calling on the ECB to set up a national level T20 competition for state schools that culminates in a final at Lord’s, replacing the annual game there between two of the most elite private schools in the land, Eton and Harrow.

It’s hard, in fact, to not be overwhelmed by this sweep. In response, the ECB will take three months to consider the report and if that comes across as evasive, or a deflection of responsibility, it shouldn’t. This is not a report you skim through. It needs consideration. It needs time. It needs digestion.

It needs, in some ways, to be the opposite of the ECB’s response to Azeem Rafiq’s testimony in front of parliamentarians in November 2021, the tipping point in this discourse. Within ten days of Rafiq’s testimony, the ECB had a 12-point action plan, which the ICEC report looks at with some justified side-eye: an over-emphasis on quick PR wins and wanting to be seen to be doing the right thing, the report says, is detrimental to the substance of the actual response itself. This is no time for PR schticks.

The vastness and intractability at play is one of the truths Adil Ray hits upon in his new documentary ‘Is Cricket Racist?’. It comes at the end of an enlightening discussion with Tom Brown, an academic who has been researching the lack of British South Asian representation in the professional game.

Brown also works as a coach at Warwickshire and is co-founder of SACA (South Asian Cricket Academy), which is helping British South Asian cricketers progress into the professional game. In 2022, six graduates of the SACA male programme received county contracts and in 2023, one female graduate was placed on a county development programme.

Brown gives Ray, a prominent British Asian actor and presenter, a little glimpse into the kind of research he’s been doing. For example, Brown doesn’t think it is a conscious decision to not pick players of colour, just that in subjective assessments of players, subtle cultural differences that means those players act, behave and learn differently are being overlooked. Are younger players of South Asian origin, Brown posits, misunderstood as rude or disinterested in not making eye contact when talking to a figure of authority, instead looking down because that is, in some traditions, a show of respect to that authority?

Brown’s research has found that being white and educated at a private (fee-paying) school is 13 times more likely to make one a professional cricketer than being white and educated at a state school; and that white and privately educated kids are 34 times more likely to become professional cricketers than Asian, state-school educated ones. And with the black community it is participation even at a recreational level that is an issue (something Ebony Rainford-Brent’s excellent ACE programme is targeting). “Different communities,” concludes Brown, “require different interventions.”

The sheer depth of the complexity now strikes Ray. The race issues are complicated enough, and this isn’t – it can’t be – about race alone. It’s great, Ray says, that there are people such as Brown doing what they’re doing. But equally it’s worrying because, as he now realises, that “is a lot of work, for a lot of people to really grasp and be committed to and see through”.

Is everyone really willing to do this, to stay the course, six months down the line, two years down the line? A decade down the line?

It is a moment of nuance in a documentary that is not short of them. Moeen Ali’s is a welcome, wise appearance, his blunt takes on South Asian representation and Michael Vaughan’s historic tweets is followed by a more considered – an equivocal – one on the difficulties of navigating dressing-room banter.

A conversation with Guy Lavender, the MCC’s chief executive, lands on the intractability, the deep entrenchment of the ways cricket has hitherto operated. The MCC comes in for a serious bit of admonishment in the ICEC report, as an exclusionary and elitist institution. Had the report come out after the Lord’s Ashes Test rather than before it, and witnessed the puerile and boorish behaviour in the Long Room after Alex Carey’s stumping of Johnny Bairstow, it may well have gone further in its denunciation.

The MCC stands proudly as the custodian of the laws of the game. It owns the ground that is known as the Home of Cricket. Except that it’s a home in the way that Buckingham Palace is a home for the Royal Family. Ray questions the lack of diversity among club membership and asks whether it is possible to ever change that. The challenge, says Lavender, is to do that in a way that is fair, because that might require tearing up the membership model and with it the club’s 30-year waiting list, which would not be fair to those who are on that list.

Ray points out people of colour have been treated unfairly and excluded for years. Maybe some unfairness to those in positions of power and privilege for far too long is due? Turns out, it isn’t a question of fairness anymore. It is, Lavender says in a tone that brings this discussion to an abrupt dead end, a question of the law. Left unsaid is that this is a members’ club, with its own laws of membership and its own legal implications because of it. And that’s that.

To fans and followers of English cricket, all this is territory familiar enough to prompt a feeling of jadedness. This isn’t the first report into racism in the game. It isn’t the first time focus has fallen on the lack of British South Asian professional cricketers, or the dwindling number of black players in the game. This isn’t the first time institutions and authorities have pledged to change. This time we really mean it.

And yet here we are, in the 21st century, Azeem Rafiq hounded out of the country for being a victim of racism; Essex’s Jahid Ahmed called a curry muncher and asked whether he’d bomb the club after the 7/7 attacks; 75% of Black respondents to the ICEC report saying they had experienced discrimination; over 80% of South Asian respondents reporting they had experienced discrimination in the last five years; and who knows how much else?

Is cricket racist? Is that the right question anymore?

Is Cricket Racist? will air on Channel 4 at 11.05pm on July 18. It will also be available on the Channel 4 website.

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