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.