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Cricket has always seen itself as the idyllic English game. As George Orwell described it, “everyone plays in braces, where the blacksmith is liable to be called away in mid-innings on an urgent job, and, sometimes, when the light begins to fail, a ball driven for four kills a rabbit on the boundary”.
A game which, according to the historian GM Trevelyan, would have prevented the French revolution if only the French aristocrats, like their English counterparts, played the game with their servants. Such is the appeal of this romantic image that in the 1990s John Major, a great cricket fan, even wistfully invoked it to describe the country.
Today, even Major would have to concede, this lyrical picture lies shattered by the dramatic testimony of Azeem Rafiq to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the endemic racism in Yorkshire cricket, the most important cricket county in the land, and the admission by Roger Hutton, the former chairman, that he “fears” Yorkshire cricket is institutionally racist. Lord Patel, the new chairman of Yorkshire, hopes it will prove a watershed moment comparable to the Stephen Lawrence killing for the Met Police.
I am not so sure. The reason for caution is that English cricket has been a past master in concealing its dark moments and presenting them in such a light that the game can appear far-sighted and more tuned to the needs of society in contrast to the more rough-hewn, working-class game, football.
So, while the English took cricket to the West Indies and allowed black into the team, the captain had to be white. West Indies did not have a black captain until 1960, 32 years after it had made its international debut. For 80 years England played Test cricket with South Africa and even accepted the country’s dictation not to select anyone but white players in its team. South African tours of England were presented as bridge-building exercises – having been reassured by seeing how people mixed in England, players would return and feel emboldened to relax apartheid.
Yorkshire have excelled in such subterfuge. For decades it explained the absence of cricketers of colour on the grounds that only those born within the broad acres were qualified to play for the county. When sceptics asked how – given that since the Second World War large groups of people from the subcontinent for whom the game is a passion had settled in the county – none of their children had made it into Yorkshire, the explanation was they did not play for the right clubs that were the nursery for the county side. Against this background it is not surprising that the defence Gary Ballance, the former Yorkshire captain, for using the “P” word when referring to Rafiq was that he was indulging in banter.
However, what makes the present situation different is cricketers of colour are now willing to come out and talk of the racism they suffered, something previous generation of cricketers, were generally reluctant to do. That generation, despite being made to feel an outsider, felt to progress in a team sport they had to suffer in silence. Rafiq and increasingly others do not share that attitude. Just as significant is the fact that the media are interested in writing about their experiences. In nearly half a century of sports journalism I have never seen so many stories on race in the sports pages as I have in the past year.
When I first started in journalism in the 1970s I could not persuade cricketers to come on record about the racism they had suffered and sports editors were – in my experience – also reluctant to give such stories much space. The killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen a seismic shift in how we see race in sport.
In some ways it should be easy to effect change in cricket. Unlike football, where the Premier League generates such huge amounts of money that it can defy the Football Association, the cricket counties would collapse without the financial handout from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), the body that runs the game. All the ECB has to do is turn off the tap.
But this is where the problem lies. Cricket, for all its talk of diversity – and all counties including Yorkshire have equality, inclusion and diversity departments – remains a sport which is largely white and with an England men's team that is mostly public school educated and much less diverse than the teams of the 1980s and Nineties.
The administrators fervently believe that we live in a post-racial world where nobody sees colour – but players clearly believe otherwise. For cricket to change this divide will have to be bridged. Cricket history shows change of a fundamental nature comes only when it is imposed from the top. In 1970 it was only after an intervention from the then home secretary, James Callaghan, that the cricket authorities cancelled the South African cricket tour of this country. It might require similar government intervention for the game to be forced to deal with racism.
Should that prove to be the case then this select committee hearing will mark one of the seminal moments in the long history of the English game.
Mihir Bose’s 'The Impossible Dream: Can We Ever Have a Non-Racial Sports World?' is to be published by Birlinn