Language matters. That much has become increasingly apparent with every new revelation in England’s ongoing racism reckoning. Whether the arrestingly awful headline slurs that Azeem Rafiq outlined during his emotional testimony at the DCMS hearings, or more insidious everyday micro-aggressions – such as Cheteshwar Pujara protesting on this website that he didn’t much like his nickname at Yorkshire of “Steve” – there cannot be many people within cricket who’ve watched this story unfold across the past three years, and not had reason to reflect on behaviours that would simply have gone unchallenged in a previous age.

But language matters in the other direction too. If, as the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) has set out to achieve, your aim is to speak devastating truth to a demographic that you suspect may be resistant to the message you are bringing, then the only hope you have of achieving any cut-through is to engage the brains of your target audience before they can withdraw them from the process.

For those who approach the ICEC report with an open mind, there’s a fascination to be derived from a historical narrative that delves deep into cricket’s colonial history, and draws together a range of disparate threads into a single, compellingly argued point: that a sport that was born in pre-industrial England but exported around the globe as a soft-power byword for imperial Britain’s underlying sense of fair play has had deep-seated prejudice baked into its soul from inception.

And for those less willing to give such findings the same slack, they might find it reads rather like a perfectly argued comment piece in your least-favourite newspaper. You can try to disagree with its at-times forensic findings if you really must. But should you dare to do so, you’d better come armed with facts to back up your opinions, because this is a work that is ready to take you back to school.

Take the report’s skewering, in a section called “Before we begin” (which in itself is a disarmingly candid turn of phrase, like Columbo turning fatefully to utter “just another thing”), of those respondents to the commission’s online survey whose views were much as you might expect to find in many a website comments section: “Don’t bow to the scourge of wokeness,” wrote one such contributor. “99.9% of people couldn’t care less [about race, class, gender],” declared another.

“So we begin this report with a request,” the ICEC narrative continues, “that people who hold views like these keep an open mind and accept the reality that thousands of people who participated in this review, and many more who didn’t, have experienced discrimination in cricket …

“Some people may roll their eyes at the perceived ‘wokeness’ of this work. However, as much as the word may have been weaponised in recent years, taking on a pejorative meaning, we consider – and it is often defined as such – that being ‘woke’ or doing ‘woke work’ simply means being alive to injustice.”

To that end, the ECB comes in for some justifiable early praise within the report’s preamble for “proactively initiating this process” and being “positive and brave” enough to open itself up to such forensic scrutiny. For if, as the subsequent narrative rather implies, cricket is a microcosm of the English establishment, then maybe the process of “holding up a mirror” to the establishment’s favourite sport could yet be a means for similar meaningful change to take root in society at large.

“The problems we identify are not, sadly, unique to cricket,” the report continues. “In many instances they are indicative of equally deeply rooted societal problems … change does not happen without understanding the issues that need to be addressed and so we believe the ECB is worthy of praise for undertaking this exercise.”

As a means to define the report’s terms of reference, therefore, it is incontrovertible; calm but firm. Precisely the sort of tone that this conversation has been crying out for, ever since Rafiq’s claims first burst into the public conscience, in part through ESPNcricinfo’s reporting in September 2020.

From that moment onwards, cricket has floundered for a coherent game-wide response, and failed with increasingly depressing inevitability – most damningly at the recent Cricket Disciplinary Commission hearings, a process criticised by ICEC as a case of the ECB “marking its own homework”, and from which most of the ex-Yorkshire defendants withdrew claiming, with some justification, that they did not believe it could give them a fair hearing.

“When viewed through a post-colonial lens, it is easier to see why race and class in particular are such fundamental barriers to cricket’s quest for greater inclusivity”

By that stage, of course, the “who” and “what” had long since been the most titillating source of media interest – what was it that Michael Vaughan said to his team containing four Asian players on the outfield at Trent Bridge, and who within the Yorkshire dressing-room truly believes the word “P**i” was acceptable banter? No matter how often it was claimed throughout this phase of the process that cricket’s attempt to heal itself would be focused more on institutions than individuals, the collateral damage of the past three years – from Vaughan, to Yorkshire’s back-room staff, to David Lloyd, and self-evidently Rafiq himself – told a different, more divisive tale.

But for the sake of a true advancement of the cause of equity, the ICEC report has rightly recognised that “how” and “why” are the only questions that matter now, with a pivot away from personality-based explanations, and a deep-dive into the longstanding root causes that any cricket fan with a conscience would be able to recognise as complicit.

Certainly, when viewed through a post-colonial lens, it is easier to see why race and class in particular are such fundamental barriers to cricket’s quest for greater inclusivity (and why the women’s game, to quote the report’s brutal assessment is “frequently demeaned, stereotyped and treated as second-class”).

It was some four decades ago that the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit suggested that immigrants who support their native countries rather than England during Test matches are not significantly integrated into the UK. And yet, that delineation still endures – and in many cases is joyfully celebrated by the communities concerned, even several generations later – perhaps most notably in recent weeks when Bangladesh took on Ireland in Chelmsford back in May, and the vast British-Bangladeshi communities of East London flocked to the three-match series, to rally around their cultural heritage.

That’s not to say that the traditional rivalries that form the version of cricket that still pays most of the bills and draws most of the crowds in this country are the root cause of the sport’s ills. But given the oft-quoted figures about the popularity of cricket among ethnically diverse communities, compared to the conversion of that interest to the professional game (30-35% to 8.1% in 2021), the ICEC is within its rights to infer that a degree of “them and us” has been hard-coded into the sport’s pathways.

Perhaps the one truly sour note about this report is the timing of its release. A bombshell dropped on Lord’s, the focus of much of the ICEC’s righteous anger, 24 hours out from a must-win Ashes Test in a summer that feels disproportionately important to the overall health of English cricket.

The logic of the drop is sound enough in isolation. The contents of this report are too important to be snuck into the news cycle on a day when the media’s attention could conceivably be drawn elsewhere. This way, the rug is pulled from under the game before the report can be swept under it. And, for the next five days, whenever the cameras cut to those egg-and-bacon types in the pavilion, or to the punters in the stands with their stereotypically white, male and affluent profiles, it would be astonishing if there was not at least an incremental uptick in the number of people checking their privilege along the way.

It does, however, feel like a punitive piece of timing, if the overall aim of the ICEC report is to unify for the betterment of the game as a whole, and perhaps one that’s been designed with Lord’s as the specific target, rather than an England team that has been visibly eager in recent years to fulfil its social obligations – not least, of course, in their at-times evangelical determination to entertain and inspire a new generation.

For if there is a villain of the piece, it is Marylebone Cricket Club – the embodiment of the ancient order, the root of all the sport’s inequity (and, to judge by the language that the report uses, its iniquity too).

Whether it’s the damning assertion that the “the ‘home of cricket’ is still a home principally for men”, or that the MCC’s ban on musical instruments has been disproportionately offputting to the Caribbean community, or the remarkable fact that the Eton-Harrow match at Lord’s – ostensibly an anachronism with no relevance beyond the narrow social confines to which it appeals – is deemed to be one of the 44 most urgent issues that the sport needs to address.

For the time being, a brief statement from Guy Lavender, MCC’s chief executive, is the sum total of the club’s response, with its commitment to reflection, and a focus on making sure that Lord’s is “a place where everyone feels welcome”. The language you might expect from an embattled organisation at such a critical juncture, in other words.

But it’s the language of the ICEC that offers the most startling critique, within the broader context of its findings. “We respect and value many of the traditions of cricket generally, and Lord’s in particular, but not all,” the commission writes. “Some no longer have a place in contemporary Britain.”

And as a consequence, for the next five days, contemporary Britain will be watching the goings-on in NW8 with perhaps a touch more scrutiny than the grand old club is used to feeling. As a proxy for cricket’s wider problems, which the ICEC is now seeking to drag into the light, it’s clearly as good a place to start as any. And in terms of underlining the issue’s existential importance, to unveil it right now is a reminder too that the sport cannot get away with standing on ceremony any longer.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket


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