A new report conflates tradition with discrimination
“Summers will never be the same,” said then-Prime Minister John Major after the death of the great Brian Johnston in January 1994. Johnston had been commentating on cricket since just after the Second World War. In some ways he embodied many people’s idea of the sport in England: old-fashioned, a little stuffy, and dominated by the upper classes (Johnston’s grandfather was Governor of the Bank of England and one of his cousins commanded the Airborne Regiment at the Battle of Arnhem).
This image, while not entirely unfair, was in many respects false. Cricket enthusiasm has always cut across the class divide in England. Johnston’s contemporary John Arlott, another legendary commentator, was an ex-policeman and the son of a municipal civil servant. Other Test Match Special stalwarts of the Johnston era included Yorkshiremen Geoffrey Boycott and Fred Trueman, both of whom came from working-class backgrounds and had learned the game in pit villages.
Three decades on from Johnston’s death, cricket is once grappling with an image problem. The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), a working group appointed by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), has issued a seemingly damning report (including a foreword by one John Major). The accusations are the usual litany: sexism, racism, classism, elitism and so forth.
The ICEC has undoubtedly identified some genuine problems, even if the useful parts of the report are swamped with interminable political jargon. However, there is a curious and disreputable sleight of hand at work in the ICEC report. Conservative approaches are treated as ipso facto morally dubious, and every sinew is strained to imply that such attitudes are intrinsically entwined with racial unpleasantness and bigotry.
“Just as some within the game try to move it forward,” we are informed in a tone of hectoring piety, “others seek to rely on its history to hold it back.” And what exactly are these sinister “others” doing to hold the game back? Racially abusing players, perhaps? Trying to prevent ethnic minorities from buying tickets to Test Matches?
No. These wicked individuals standing athwart progress are those who are sceptical of new formats like T20, or who dislike ugly new terminology such as “batters” instead of “batsmen”, or who support the MCC’s decision to continue hosting traditional fixtures like Eton v Harrow and Oxford v Cambridge. Incidentally, the report is obsessed with the Varsity cricket match: it is mentioned 17 times, including a recommendation that Lord’s no longer host it. Apparently this will help make English cricket less elitist, although the exact mechanism by which this will happen is left to the imagination of the reader.
Elsewhere we are told that the report’s authors uncovered “credible evidence of a culture of traditionalism”. Traditionalism in cricket? You don’t say. Apparently this traditionalism has sometimes led to venues banning musical instruments, which is construed by the ICEC team as an attack on ethnic minorities. If you prefer to watch cricket in relative quiet, you might just be a racial bigot!
I don’t think anyone would argue that there are no structural issues in English cricket. The dominance of privately-educated players at the highest levels and the decline in participation among black Britons are two such. It is undoubtedly also the case that some people in the game have been treated unfairly or unjustly excluded. But it is grossly unfair to pin the blame for this on cricketing traditionalists as a group. Using charges of racism and sexism as a kind of moral battering ram against any and all resistance to change in the sport is highly disreputable.