openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Too white, too posh: English cricket’s racism problem

Jaw-dropping comments by those in higher echelons of English cricket show a failure to grasp an understanding of the racism that is endemic within the game

Duncan Stone
26 January 2022, 3.53pm
Cricketer Azeem Rafiq was racially harassed at Yorkshire, which has sparked an investigation
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Caught Light Photography Limited/Alamy Live News

If anybody had wondered as to the scale of English cricket’s racism problem, this week their answer came without ambiguity.

On Tuesday, in front of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s committee, senior figures from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) lined up with county chairmen, supposedly to discuss their attempts to tackle the racism and discrimination running through the sport.

What we instead heard was jaw-dropping. Mike O’Farrell, the Middlesex chairman, suggested to MPs that the Black British community found “the football and rugby world … more attractive” and that the South Asian community did not wish “to commit the same time that is necessary [to cricket]” because they “prefer to go into other educational fields”.

The wilful expression of such reductive racial stereotypes to the special committee investigating racism within cricket led to a flurry of anguished, yet jaded, tweets that both admonished O’Farrell and highlighted just how far cricket needs to progress in order to reduce, let alone eradicate, racism. A written statement was then hastily released by O’Farrell where he apologised “for any upset or hurt my earlier comments may have caused”, though by then it was too late.

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Ebony Rainford-Brent, the former Surrey and England cricketer, who has spoken of her own experiences of suffering racism within cricket, said O'Farrell's comments were “painful” and “outdated”. Meanwhile Azeem Rafiq, the man whose patient campaign for justice following racial harassment and bullying during his two spells at Yorkshire between 2008 and 2018 led to this DCMS investigation, also described O’Farrell’s testimony as a “painful listen” that demonstrated “how far removed from reality these people are”.

Who ‘these people’' are is as important as the issue of racism itself, for they are intimately linked. This is not to suggest that those running the 18 first-class counties and the ECB are universally racist, but to note that the sport, more than any other, has, for more than a century, been run by and in the interests of a homogeneous social group: invariably privately educated white middle-class men.

Given their control of the game also extended to its orthodox history, it is no accident that – in England at least – cricket is regarded as a ‘posh’ sport. With this comes a very specific monoculture that many in modern multicultural Britain find difficult to accept. If I, a white middle-aged man, find the England men’s Test team taking the field to the strains of ‘Jerusalem’ alienating, goodness knows how a 15-year-old South Asian child from inner-city Bradford feels about it?

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This is not my England, but the self-serving and elitist England that has been carefully cultivated by the game’s administrators, orthodox historians and acolytes in the media over decades. But this disconnect is nothing new. As far back as the 1950s, cricket was criticised as an anachronism out of touch with modern Britain and, in 1970, the game’s first radical historian, Major Rowland Bowen, questioned cricket’s future status as a national sport with broad popular appeal as long as “the higher administration of the game remains in the hands of people heavily imbued with that background and those ideas”.

More than 50 years later, nothing has changed. The ECB remains an organisation overwhelmingly dominated by white, public school-educated men who have, as online cricket publication Being Outside Cricket revealed in 2017, “accounted for 80% of the ECB/ TCCB chairmen, 67.5% of the chairmen of selectors, and Test captains in 65% of the games” over the previous 40 years.

It is clear that the ECB, like other British institutions, is incapable of reforming itself. Indeed, cricket provides an exemplary case study of how the ‘powers that be’ in this country, for all the momentous events of the past century, have remained socially and culturally consistent. Indeed, a statement widely reported to have been given last year by the Conservative government’s then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, claimed that “our” culture and history needs to be defended from a “noisy minority” of activists “constantly trying to do Britain down”, could have been uttered by any number of figureheads from the MCC – formerly the sport’s governing body – or supine acolytes such as 20th-century cricket correspondent Neville Cardus.

As cricket is discovering – thanks to Rafiq’s bravery and resilience – running any institution in the interests of a minority is unsustainable. This leads to and perhaps even encourages the perpetuation of an outdated culture, including the implicit acceptance of racism, that make a sport, like cricket, an increasingly niche interest.

If the UK government is unlikely to ever force reform upon the ECB, it must fall to the game’s supporters to organise themselves in order to ‘save’ the game. As in government, cricket’s elites are highly adept at moving the deckchairs or kicking sensitive issues into the long grass.

As much as individuals such as Rafiq and journalists such as George Dobell, who was fearless in his reporting of the scandal, need to continue to speak truth to power, the game (and its supporters) needs to learn from its history – its authentic, rather than elitist, history. We must ensure we not only get the game we want, but also ensure the game moves away from the structures and cultures that have enabled men such as O’Farrell to flourish.


Duncan Stone is the author of 'Different Class: The untold story of English Cricket'

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