Watcha Gonna Do About It?

What a strange time for the world of cricket it has been. On and off the field it’s been engulfed in controversy and ennui, a peculiar combination, and one that seems to be a constant state. And it’s so strange to think about and write about. The goings on at Yorkshire and the ECB have been depressing and enraging to watch, but also without creating a desperate desire to write about it all. There were some attempts, some false starts and the realisation that Danny was always going to do it better, so here it is if you’ve not seen it yet: https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2021/11/14/who-watches-the-watchmen/

On the field we had the T20 World Cup, which passed by offering an acceptable degree of entertainment, without ever becoming a central sporting event of the year. Partly that’s because the conditions made it far too inclined towards the winner of the toss (and credit to Aaron Finch for directly acknowledging that), but also the sheer frequency of T20 cricket took away the sense of occasion. Covid restrictions mean there’s another T20 World Cup next year anyway, so it was hard to care overly beyond a mild sense of interest in what was going on. Once the World Cup was over, several teams dived straight into more T20 internationals in bi-lateral series, adding to the sense of it being nothing more than routine, a distraction.

Is this the real future of cricket? Because it does seem to be. It’s not so much the format here, as the sense of a diet of constant cricket, shorn of context or importance. If that is how it feels for a World Cup, then there are real issues to be faced. Now, I’m not (quite) so self-centred as to believe personal doubts translate to anything wider or more meaningful, but it’s me writing this, and I’ll have my say. It may be instead that most people were fully engaged in the competition and the outcome, but I have my doubts. Growing the game is hugely laudable, but a problem does arise if that interest becomes wider but ever shallower, the game more disposable and less a matter of passion and love. Because then boredom or indifference becomes an ever greater risk. Lots of sports are having to deal with that, and the determination to dilute what is there is hardly confined to cricket (such as the wish for a biennial football World Cup), but cricket is different in that it has always had international series outside of the relatively recent competitions, and they actually seemed to have their own importance too. Primarily, those were the Test series, but not entirely – 50 over series might not have meant as much, but the outcome still mattered generally.

It then leads to wondering about the audience for such matters. Going to live sport remains (usually) a hugely enjoyable experience irrespective of gripes about cost, accommodation or the total lack of interest in supporter welfare, but there is a difference between going for the spectacle and experience and going because of a passionate interest in the outcome. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, it’s certainly not to say it is definitely declining, but cricket increasingly lacks that competitive context that other sports have, which is where the risk of falling interest in the outcome becomes a real risk. It has at least appeared on the radar of the ICC, with the institution of the World Test Championship being directly down to those concerns. Whatever its flaws, adding a context to bilateral series is a helpful innovation. But Test cricket remains relatively rare compared to the shorter forms, making both its strengths and weaknesses in attracting attention more acute.

Cricket has always been a little different for the spectator to other sports, the tribalism of football and rugby does have echoes in cricket, both at county and international level, but not to the same extent. That’s probably down to the nature of the game as much as anything – even a wicket doesn’t invoke the same explosion of crowd emotion as a goal or a try does, but it is present, and it is valid, and unlike those shorter sports cricket has the ability to ramp up tension like little else. Yet crowds do respond to even the most irrelevant of matches when a player does something special, so it is a feeling that perhaps isn’t matched by the available evidence. It could also be a function of personally getting older. Certainly I remember my father being far less passionate about England doing well than I was at the time, and also him telling me that it hadn’t always been that way in his case either.

But it’s hard to avoid the feeling of not caring all that much, which is an interesting place to be with the Ashes coming up. What has always been the iconic series for English and Australian fans doesn’t seem to have quite the cachet that it once did. Again, this may not be inherent, as an expectation that England may face an especially difficult winter does reduce the degree of anticipation quite considerably. The last two years around the world too may be a significant element of it; sport has provided a pleasant diversion from more pressing issues, but has rarely seemed less vital or important in the context of wider life.

Perhaps it is reading too much into it, but there also seems a sense of the journalists trying to convince themselves about how much they really care in their written copy. It’s perfunctory, not engaged. Not about wider societal matters, such as the Azeem Rafiq testimony, for such injustice will lend itself to passionate writing from those who do it for a living, but in terms of the game itself. England’s defeat to New Zealand in the World T20, something that might once have generated pages of invective or analysis seemed to be met with something of a shrug. Sure, it’s T20, by definition it’s pretty disposable and forgettable, but the sense of….well, boredom with it all was hard to avoid.

This might be the greatest danger facing the sport, not the horrendous mess so much of it is in, but if indifference is the net response. The people behind County Cricket Matters (Annie Chave, sometimes of these pages in particular) evoke admiration not just for their cause, but also the sheer passion they bring to it. That so many don’t share it is somewhat beside the point, to be so invested in what they believe is the essence of a love of sport, and perhaps the worst part of how the ECB run the game is their apparent determination to crush that spirit. For if these people give up, then the game itself is vastly the poorer. Any and every sport needs people furious, angry, livid with what is going on, and not prepared to take it any more. Cricket’s drift to a form of entertainment and nothing more robs the game of those who truly care about it, where spectators are little different to those tuning in to Strictly every Saturday. That makes it easier to monetise, and as a result avaricious cricket boards will likely see few problems with it, and they’ll have moved on by the time the consequences of that are felt. But it also means that if the rank and file don’t care, they won’t invest their personal time in developing and supporting it. That is fatal for a sport, and drives its move to the margins at an ever faster rate, while allowing governing bodies to point at the revenue streams and insist they’re doing everything they can.

It is impossible for a blog like this to stay permanently furious at everything (and not especially healthy either), but it’s hard to avoid the feeling of having lost the argument, the game and the sport. It’s moved beyond us, morphed into something different, where the players are rotating background cast members rather than Top Trump cards to be argued over. Cricketing heroes won’t go away, Ben Stokes making himself available for the Ashes sent a frisson of excitement through many; but equally the retirement of AB De Villiers from all cricket didn’t generate the kind of emotion that someone of that stature ought to have done, as the circus swiftly moved on.

It is of increasing concern that the fears that cricket will self-destruct becomes instead a fear that its slide into irrelevance is not about small viewing figures, but about indifference as to sporting outcome. For sport to mean anything at all, for it to be the “most important, least important thing” there has to be an emotional investment in what transpires. Franchise cricket’s explosion around the world may be robbing that essence of sport from itself, and alienating those who always spent their time caring deeply about it.

But it could just be me.

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Despite England making a semi final appearance in the T20 World Cup, the English media (cricket and otherwise) has been focussed on the sordid goings on at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. This is tragic because this situation was eminently avoidable. It’s difficult to comprehend just how many things must have gone wrong for things to reach this point.

Yorkshire CCC are, deservedly, getting a kicking. If you sent eight men to sabotage an organisation from within, they would struggle to do so more effectively than the Yorkshire CCC board in the past year. Their ignorance was seemingly only matched by their arrogance. As each revelation came out, they just kept digging themselves deeper and deeper. They were clearly incapable of running a cricket club.

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison has watched from the sidelines whilst this slow motion trainwreck has taken place and done sweet fuck all. He has defended his inactions with the following statement:

“What we were asked to do was join the Yorkshire panel to be part of the investigation, which clearly we cannot do. We are the regulator, we either run the investigation in its entirety ourselves or we let our stakeholders run an investigation in the entirety itself.”

Let us take one single aspect of Azeem Rafiq’s experience: In August 2018, he made several complaints to Yorkshire CCC officials at a meeting attended by a PCA representative. This was reported in the Guardian (and quite possibly elsewhere), two years later in September 2020. That is also when the Yorkshire CCC investigation into Rafiq’s allegations began. The ECB’s Anti-Discrimination Code states that it is a breach of the code for an organisation to “fail to provide an effective, timely and proportionate response.” Yorkshire CCC literally did nothing for two whole years. There could not be a clearer breach of the ECB’s code. Nor, frankly, of basic human decency.

It is a very simple charge to prove, with independent witnesses. There is no reason why this specific matter could not have been dealt with by the ECB immediately after it was first reported, rather than waiting over a year. The ECB instead chose to wait until after the ‘independent’ report was completed. When that started, it was due to be finished within about two months. Instead, the final report wasn’t delivered to Yorkshire CCC for just under a year. Even when that happened, the ECB granted Yorkshire CCC a full two months to hand over the report.

No aspect of this has been conducted in an effective, timely, or proportionate manner. Not by Yorkshire CCC and, crucially, not by the ECB. If the “regulator” is not minded to follow its own code of conduct, why would any of the clubs it is purporting to regulate?

Speaking of the ECB’s Anti-Discrimination Code, it is very interesting to compare it to their Anti-Corruption Code. In matters of matchfixing and gambling, it is considered a serious and explicit offence to refuse to cooperate with an investigation or fail to report an approach which you have witnessed. Now consider how many players, coaches and administrators refused to help the Yorkshire racism investigation. If they had acted in this way in a matchfixing inquiry, they could face up to a five year ban. It is clear, from both the text of the rules and the application of the rules, that the ECB place almost no importance of the issue of racism within the sport compared to the threat of intentionally losing a match.

This is not to say that the ECB have done nothing to combat racism. They required that the England team wore t-shirts with the motto “We stand together against racism”. They tweeted a lot about the ACE Programme. They promoted Black and Asian players disproportionately often before and during The Hundred. Such PR can be important. The idea that you ‘fake it until you make it’ with regards to equality isn’t entirely ridiculous. There will have been Black and Asian parents and children who will have gone to their local cricket clubs after the various promotions, press articles and social media posts that the ECB have offered in recent years. Marketing is fine, but it also has to be backed up by real action to be worth a damn. All of those campaigns, including the most recent #BlackHistoryMonth posts, have now been overwhelmed by reporting on Yorkshire CCC.

Let us not forget that the ECB have had their own issues regarding racism being discussed in the media. Ismail Dawood, John Holder and Devon Malcolm have highlighted that the ECB has not added a single Black or Asian to the first-class umpire and match umpire lists since it was formed in 1997. Their handling of past cases of racist abuse has also been in the spotlight. Although England bowler Craig Overton and Yorkshire head coach Andrew Gale were punished for on-field racist abuse, both were found guilty of a lesser offence. The ECB has never publicly explained why both players didn’t face the more serious Level 2 charge of racially abusing an opponent, with the greater penalties that would apply. In fact, Ollie Robinson might be the only person ever to be punished by the ECB where racism was considered an aggravating factor in his punishment.

Given Tom Harrison’s assertion that the ECB either runs investigations itself or lets the counties do so, one might wonder whether any action took place regarding allegations of racism within county dressing rooms made by Michael Carberry and Ebony Rainford-Brent, amongst others. Outside of matters relating to Azeem Rafiq and Yorkshire CCC, there hadn’t been any mention of investigations by other counties or the ECB in the press until after politicians started intervening.

Which brings us to the title of the post: Who watches the watchmen? The ECB has been at best passive when faced with evidence of racism within English cricket, and have arguably been complicit in suppressing and minimising the reports that have made it into public view. Given that they are (or consider themselves) the regulator of English cricket, who regulates them?

The answer, it appears, is the counties. The ECB is overseen by its 41 members, with representatives from the 18 First Class Counties, the 21 Cricket Boards of the non-First-Class Counties, the National Counties Cricket Association and the MCC. This would appear at first glance to be a colossal conflict of interest for a body which is supposed to act as regulator for the counties. If the Yorkshire CCC board’s reluctance to see the experiences of Rafiq as racist abuse is respresentative of other counties, and there’s little reason to suppose this is not the case, it isn’t surprising that the ECB apparently considers dealing with such issues as a very low priority.

The circular structure of English cricket, with the ECB both governing and being governed by the counties, means that the counties are essentially self-regulated. They have the power to set the rules, decide what the punishments will be, and who will be allowed to judge them. There is also no one who people can escalate their complaint to if the ECB fails to thoroughly investigate allegations made to or about them.

I believe that this inherent flaw within the ECB cannot be remedied without changing its entire structure. Fundamentally, the ECB is supposed to be run for the good of cricket at all levels within England and Wales but there is no one ensuring that they do this. They make decisions with no consistency, and they also have the ability to suppress or selectively release information in order to support whichever argument they are making. At this moment in time, only Parliament and the DCMS committee seemingly have the ability to hold them to account.

In order to address this, I would form a board of trustees to challenge the ECB. It would contain representatives from all aspects of the sport that the ECB governs, from fans to players (through organisations such as the Cricket Supporters Association and the Professional Cricketers Association), from amateur to professional, from men’s to women’s cricket. They could have monthly meetings with the ECB board, so that the board can justify their actions (or inaction). If they are not satisfied with what they hear, or receive a complaint regarding the ECB, they could have the power to investigate and, if necessary, punish wrongdoing.

There is no doubt that the ECB (and many counties) will be dealing quickly and firmly with allegations of racism in the near term, with even minor accusations becoming national news. However, the attention of the media will largely stray elsewhere and I see few reasons to think that they won’t revert back to their previous pattern of minimising and hiding complaints. If fundamental change is going to occur, it must happen now. Otherwise, in a few years, English cricket will likely go through this ordeal all over again.

Once is enough.