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OPINION: Halt the negativity - this is what cricket needs

The report from the ICEC is the most encouraging thing to come out of cricket for 20 years, argues Andi Page.

England captain Heather Knight believes Holding up a Mirror to Cricket can help make cricket more equitable, more inclusive and more diverse. I completely agree.

No-one should be remotely surprised by the conclusions of Holding up a Mirror to Cricket – the long-awaited report of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket.

The only people who will be surprised are the cricket officials who have convinced themselves they’re doing a great job on the EDI front or people who take a “box-tick” approach to inclusion and diversity – the kind who believe that electing a female Prime Minister in 1979 suddenly made the UK a progressive and inclusive nation. I have little time for either of these – the blind who, for different reasons, have no wish to see – but I do have time for this report and the thinking behind it.

Given that Holding up a Mirror to Cricket has been received negatively by certain sections of the press and generally seen as a negative statement on the state of cricket, let me make one thing clear from the outset: this report is the most positive thing I have seen come out of the English game in 20 years.

Here is a document that “tells it like it is”. It does not mince its words. It does not shirk from unpleasant realities. It is not afraid to get to grips with contentious issues – the types of “hot potatoes” so many are afraid to touch. It is written by people who care so much about the game that they want to see it succeed in ways it never really has. The fact that its findings irk the editor of the Daily Mail and cricket bureaucrats who naively believed they have been doing the right thing makes not one jot of difference to the reality that this report is needed and its recommendations are long overdue.

Ultimately how the report is perceived invariably depends on the attitude we take towards it. There will inevitably be those whose initial reactions are naturally defensive – those who have a vested interest in the status quo and the current ways of doing things. There will be many who see any talk of diversity and inclusion as “the nanny state gone mad” or “a culture of woke-ism”. No doubt there may be others who either disbelieve it, feeling the problems described can’t be that bad because they haven’t experienced it, or who aren’t remotely interested. But I imagine for most of us the report is something of a wake-up call. A fair description

For me it represents the best chance we’ve had in over a generation to make the changes we need to see. This could – and should – be a huge catalyst for a cultural transformation that will revolutionise the game and the way it is played. What this report does – to quote from Guardian columnist Jonathan Liew – “is draw a line in the sand”. After this, there should be no going back to the ways we used to “do” cricket even if we wanted to – and who in the right mind would want to?

I spend most of my working life reading reports. Those reports are usually medical reports, or at least written by clinicians. They tell me what I need to know to make decisions about service users. Holding up a Mirror to Cricket is no different, and has told us what we need to know to make decisions in the interests of cricket. We may not like its findings, but to dismiss them is to ignore the reality that is staring us in the face.

Yes, cricket in England and Wales is institutionally and structurally racist.

Yes, it is undeniably sexist.

Yes, it is elitist.

Yes, the culture is totally rotten.

Yes, the ECB has failed and is failing.

And no, the people running the game don’t yet have a meaningful plan to radically alter this although they have started some conversations that may prove useful.

It’s just not cricket.... except it is.

Even by the standards created by increased institutional scrutiny in the last few years, this report is astonishingly forthright and uncompromising. It paint be an unflattering picture, but it is not an inaccurate one. It observes that cricket “is not a game for everyone”. It finds that women are “subordinate to men” at all levels of the sport. It has uncovered “evidence of a widespread culture of sexism and misogyny”. Discrimination is being underreported because of a lack of faith in clubs and sporting bodies. Umpires – again at all levels – frequently ignore discrimination and abuse, and often dismiss complaints without taking them further. “Elitism and class-based discrimination" is identified as a real problem, with the ECB’s “talent pathway... repeat[ing] and reinforc[ing] wider structural inequalities that exist across cricket in England and Wales” rather than challenging those inequalities.

“Ah, but the reality is more nuanced!” critics are likely to shout. I have been told already by more than one person that if I ignored the sensational headlines the report isn’t quite so uncompromisingly critical. However, only someone who had not actually read the report could make such a claim. The fact is that Holding up a Mirror to Cricket is so thoroughly committed to challenging the toxic culture of the game that its descriptions of failure, discrimination, prejudice, and elitism run through every page.

The descriptions within the report are descriptions that I believe are perfectly fair. I cannot in good faith pretend that the portrait of the game painted by the ICEC is not one I recognise; nor can I dispute the narrative. I am not proud of being involved in a sport that is all of the things the ICEC says it is, but I am willing to rise to the challenges set out in the report and be part of the solution.

Challenges for clubs

Holding up a Mirror to Cricket takes a look at the national game as whole, but that does not mean its criticisms relate exclusively to the ECB. Within the report lie challenges to every cricket organisation in the country, whether they are a governing body, a county cricket club, a grassroots club or a local league.

We can’t imagine that what is described within the pages of Holding up a Mirror to Cricket does not apply to us. We can’t afford to become so complacent that we lose awareness of failures where equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are concerned.

Let’s take a look at women’s cricket first. No-one within our local league (LDCC) would admit to being sexist or subordinating women. But that is exactly what is happening, intentionally or otherwise. Women play at times no-one else wants to, in games few watch, often on pitches no-one else wants to play on, with all fixtures worked around the priorities of not only the senior (i.e. men’s) teams but in many cases juniors. There is a hierarchy at our clubs, with the 1st team at the top and the teams more focused on inclusion invariably at the bottom of the pile. If that isn’t subordination, what is?

What is the solution? Fixed dates for matches would be a good start, along with women being empowered to make decisions for themselves. At the moment most “women’s cricket” is not run by or for women but in the interests of male-dominated clubs and leagues looking to tick an equality box and appear inclusive while ensuring that women’s cricket plays second fiddle (if you’re lucky) to the men’s game. What chance a women’s league run by women, with rules written by women, that works at arm’s length from the senior leagues? If the Devon Women’s League can do this, why not others?

Similarly, no-one would admit to being elitist. But elites are created and perpetuated by clubs, many of whom lack the insight to recognise this simple fact. Internal democracy can often be skewed towards the status quo. Given that privately-educated people are hugely over-represented at the top levels, perhaps grassroots clubs need to find new ways of providing opportunities to all, looking at creative schemes to reduce the costs of playing for target groups and encourage wider community involvement. There are no easy answers but if we want to change that shameful statistic then it has to start with our clubs.

Next let’s think about racism. Again, I cannot imagine anyone at our club or any club in our league willing to admit to being racist. However, “structural and institutional racism” doesn’t imply that every club is rampantly racist, but that that the structures, regulations and culture of an organisation allow racism to occur. Do our clubs and leagues have systems developed not only to challenge overt racism but to identify its more subtle forms? Are our complaints procedures fit for purpose? Can members have faith in them? Is our culture open and welcoming?

Are we exclusionary? Again, who wants to think of themselves as exclusionary? But think again. Can your club genuinely be said not to exclude anyone? And, more importantly, are we intentionally including? How representative of our communities are our memberships? How do our clubs ensure that the best opportunities for developing juniors don’t go to those whose parents have the most money or influence? How do we remove socio-economic barriers? How do we recognise them in the first instance?

Where have all the black players gone?

Perhaps the saddest of the report’s findings was the problem with black inclusion. I am not saying things were necessarily good in the 1980s and 1990s from an EDI perspective, but I grew up in awe of black cricketers who played either Test cricket or county cricket. These included such players as Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, David Lawrence, Gladstone Small, Eldine Baptiste, Clive Lloyd, Richie Richardson, Brian Lara, Norman Cowans, Dean Headley, Curtly Ambrose and Devon Malcolm. The latter was a personal hero of mine and not only for the way he demolished South Africa in 1994. At the time we accepted the idea that young black people would always want to play cricket, inspired by such figures irrespective of how racist and elitist cricket at the highest level undoubtedly was.

This is a cautionary lesson for us over 25 years later. We took people for granted while we tolerated discrimination against them. According to Holding up a Mirror to Cricket, “a 2020 report by Sport England found that black participation was so low as to be statistically irrelevant, apparently lower than in golf and tennis”. This is an absolute tragedy, and one that applies as much to grassroots as professional cricket. A few years ago black pace bowlers were a common sight, but today the picture is very different and not one that can easily be dismissed as the product of the West Indies’ decline as a cricketing powerhouse. Who was the last black player to represent our club? Which black players regularly turn out for other teams in our league?

One of the most shocking revelations from the report was the way in which umpires have been complicit in perpetuating a toxic culture. There wasn’t much that surprised me, but that did. The scale of the problem is even deeper than I imagined but it makes sense that it should be that way. Why should I believe that umpires’ organisations were somehow more enlightened than the rest of us?

The report addresses inequalities that are so ingrained they were actually built into the game, its structures, its culture and its organisation. We have to recognise this if progress is to be made, call time on archaic practices and acknowledge that there is work to do at our own clubs to make us more responsive, more aware, more open and more determined to bring about systemic change.

Not remotely negative

The people behind Holding up a Mirror to Cricket are not revolutionaries. The commission included the writer Michelle Moore, Sir Brendan Barber (former chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council), Cindy Butts (co-chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority’s domestic violence board), Dr Michael Collins (Associate Professor of Modern History at UCL) and Zafar Ansari (former England and Surrey player). The foreword was written by John Major, hardly known for his radical views. In short, these are people who are utterly respectable.

For me, the publication of Holding up a Mirror to Cricket is not remotely negative, but potentially the most exciting thing to happen in cricket since... well, Devon Malcolm. This really is a gamechanger. As Malcolm makes clear in a Daily Telegraph interview, the report is dealing with nothing new but only what has been the norm for decades. It is now time to confront that history and build a better future.

We’ve never had a better opportunity for ridding cricket of its toxic culture of misogyny, elitism, racism and assorted other forms of discrimination. There’s never been a better moment for creating something better, nor a more compelling argument. If Holding up a Mirror to Cricket does anything it is to demonstrate the need for new thinking in how we run our game. We can do it better. Indeed, we have to do things better.

The ECB’s response to the report has been swift. Jonathan Liew may cynically dismiss it as “feel[ing] instinctively like so much corporate whitewash” but the open letter from ECB chair Richard Thompson is (to my mind) a positive start. In it, he asserts that “cricket should never exclude anyone on the basis of their ethnicity, gender or social background”, “apologise[s] unreservedly for these experiences”, “recognis[es] the pain and exclusion this has caused” and commits to “putting this right for current and future generations”. “We will use this moment to reset cricket” says Mr Thompson. “This cannot and will not be a quick fix – we must take the time to put in place meaningful structural reforms. Our response must be wide-ranging and long-term.”

These are fine words and good intentions, but this is too big an issue to leave to the ECB – not least when its discussions around elitism haven’t got much further than debates about whether private schools other than Harrow and Eton should be allowed to play at Lord’s.

The 44 recommendations are positive, overdue and – to my mind – highly welcome. Some are more easily achieved than others, and Richard Thompson is of course correct that it will take time to deliver in full. The commitment to engage is, however, a more than useful start.

The report is not only applicable to the ECB, but requires all of us to play a part. How our clubs rise to the challenge is, in many respects, even more important than how the ECB deals with it. Are we willing to admit past and present failings? Are we open to making uncomfortable adjustments? Are we willing to challenge structural biases? Do we have a plan for engaging with marginalised communities and improving access to cricket for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds? What do we see as the next steps for women’s cricket, and how can our clubs move this forward in such a way that women no longer feel subordinate or second-class? To those resistant to change I would ask: do we want to be right, or do we want to get things right?

There are exciting opportunities if only we have the courage to seize them. The last word goes to England captain Heather Knight: "It’s really important for me to say as a woman in cricket it’s not at all surprising, the recommendations that have come out of the report – but it’s really important to say cricket has come a hell of a long way since I was a kid. This is a really important step for cricket, and cricket – having done this report – can really lead the way in terms of being more equitable, more diverse and more inclusive."

Andi Page is Mersey Rose Recreationals' hardball team captain and EDI Officer.


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