Equity in cricket: let’s leave history out of it

A sad feature of my long years in the game has been the steep decline in the number of club cricketers of Caribbean family origin.

League cricket in Birmingham in the 1970s enjoyed significant black representation in almost every club within the conurbation, including my middle class area.  Those team-mates created diversity, less for the obvious reason than through a dignified competitiveness which was somehow different.

In later years I sensed the same quality in playing occasionally with Reg Scarlett, a former West Indian test cricketer. He had founded the Haringey Cricket College, establishing a production line of quality young black players from an unpromising inner-London environment.

It came as no surprise that the closure of the College in 1997 through lack of funding should be cited in the recently published report of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC). The report identifies several contributory factors in the decline of black participation, in particular: “the fall from pre-eminence of the West Indies cricket team by the mid-1990s, as well as greater interest in football on the part of British-born Black people of Caribbean origin.”

These very plausible explanations are however swept aside by the assertion that “the bigger issue is the extent of anti-Black racism in English cricket.” This leap from empirical to structural analysis is an early warning that the text is a handful for those not familiar with diversity issues at postgraduate level. The 44 recommendations, replete with tortuous and seemingly repetitive measures, are too much for the layman.

ICEC commissioners

I was therefore ready to back off, fearful only of the prospect of yet more compliance regulations thudding on to the desk of local cricket clubs, dependent on the worryingly scarce resource of volunteer administrators.

Then I spotted that the report opens with a chapter on the “Historical Context”, a wide-ranging summary of cricket history, from its rural origins in 17th century southern England to its expansion across the old empire. I was baffled why this might have relevance to diversity in our age of social media but here were 19 pages falling into my comfort zone, where I have fewer qualms in passing comment than the other 300.

I cannot fault a word of this chapter, from a factual perspective. Whilst it bends to the task of highlighting examples of discriminatory culture across the centuries, fertile ground in the history of cricket, this is done with sympathy for the deep affection for the game and its heroes. The footnote sources are diverse and authoritative. The author is presumably one of the ICEC commissioners, Dr Michael Collins, whose article “Cricket, Englishness, and Racial Thinking” published in The Political Quarterly for January 2022, includes some of the same material.

The stakes are high in tackling this chapter because the report’s Introduction is unequivocal about the relevance of history: “this approach anchors our conclusions and recommendations.”

The opening of the Historical Context chapter sets out its aim to “develop three central arguments:

  • Cricket has not simply ‘reflected’ conflicts in wider society, it has frequently been central to fostering or reproducing these conflicts.
  • Typically, elite social groups have commanded most of the power and control within cricket, and have resisted change
  • Although cricket has a long history, the period after about 1860 up to World War 1 was pivotal in terms of establishing the idea that cricket exemplified a specific version of Englishness that was White, middle to upper class, and profoundly male-dominated. This image was exported throughout Britain’s empire.”

Are these “central arguments” successfully developed and, if so, do they really have any bearing on the disturbing findings about contemporary English cricket in the rest of the report?

The latter two statements are surely uncontentious in isolation. They are recognised findings about the game’s past. But the present? The report struggles to get further than speculation: “the suspicion remains that the historical sense of ownership and entitlement developed during this period does not lie somewhere in a safely distant past.”

I could find little evidence to substantiate this “suspicion,” yet the assertion of elite control over resources recurs throughout the report. Strangely, not one of the notorious episodes in which the English cricket establishment lost control of its resources is mentioned. I’m thinking in particular of the dominance of the All England elevens of the 1850s and 1860s, the bodyline controversy in 1933, World Series Cricket in the 1970s and “Sir” Allen Stanford’s helicopter cash at Lord’s in 2008.

Each of these shocks had fundamental implications for the sport and its values. They are part of the rich tapestry of the game’s “historical context.” The same may come to be said of the widely held contemporary view that India now controls the direction of the international game – another omission from the text.

It’s therefore the first of the “central arguments” that is more challenging – the hypothesis that cricket has not simply “reflected” conflicts in wider society. Amateur cricket historians like myself have been brought up to understand the evolving culture within cricket as driven by social forces beyond its control.

We see this today in the tailspin into shorter forms of the game, compelled by social media’s diminished attention spans and the need for instant gratification of big hitting. The ICEC Chair herself describes how the Commission was established by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) “as a consequence of the broad reactive introspection generated by the public outcry following the tragic murder of George Floyd.”

Again, I found the report wanting in evidence for its suggestion that such strong external forces acting on the sport could be matched from within. The premise that cricket inspires a discriminatory culture, as opposed to mirroring a norm, needs a stronger footing than Derek Pringle’s reflection that cricket dressing room culture is handed down. Whilst this rings true, the report makes no attempt to substantiate that cricket differs in this respect from any close-knit social group, from family to workplace, or within other sports for that matter.

My sense that the text is not quite joining the dots between the historical context and contemporary shortcomings is deepened by its open deference to “the spirit of the great Trinidadian writer C.L.R.James.” The enigmatic quote from the preface of Beyond a Boundary: “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” is deployed as an epigraph to the chapter.

Inspiration is one thing but relevance quite another. I’m not sure that James and his teasing question are reliable allies in the ICEC cause. His classic book is complex and may have acquired ambiguity, with the passage of 60 years since its publication.

Certainly, James’ account of his school days in Trinidad conveys how he emerged saturated with English public school values, with cricket playing a central role in that indoctrination.

But that experience relates to a date around 1918. A core theme of Beyond a Boundary is the subsequent disintegration of those values which James labelled as “Decline of the West.” He cites the bodyline crisis as a pivotal episode, marking the end of “it’s not cricket” as a meaningful epithet.

James interprets bodyline as “the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket.” Later in the same chapter he writes: “if and when society regenerates itself, cricket will do the same.” These come across as body blows to ICEC’s “central arguments” and its obsession with history.

There are serious issues in English cricket evidenced in the ICEC report. Its contents must be addressed by the ECB, hopefully in a proportionate manner consistent with national peer institutions, and not complicated by notions of historical responsibility.


Holding up a Mirror to Cricket: A Report by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket