Opinion

Against Darker Willows

Uncovering of a rash of disgusting, racist tweets by English cricketers shows how this canker thrives in the nation’s cricketing structure

Against Darker Willows
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Of all (in)human acts, the one that shows the greatest tenacity for survival, even after being discouraged, discredited, disparaged and widely criminalised, is racism. Liberal education and enlightened laws have worked, but have also driven much of it underground, where they fester, mutate and show up in ever finer, subtler ways. Though racism infects all walks of life, it draws the most outrage when it rears its head in sport, possibly because it so militates against the idea of ‘fair play’. Cricket, with its history of the coloniser introducing it to the Caribbean and the sub-continent, has run the gauntlet of racism and thus, a sudden spike of the scourge is distressing.

Forty-five years after a racist slur made by England captain Tony Greig whipped the collective pride of a touring West Indian team in 1976, England has slipped into soul-searching after a series of tweets, with misogynist and anti-Asian connotations, forced the England and Wales Cricket Board to ‘grovel’ at a time of an impending blockbuster Test series with India. With sport adopting a zero-tolerance approach towards racism and sexism, a clutch of England cricketers has been found to express their ‘superiority’, with inappropriate posts on social media. A worried ECB has initiated a ‘review’ of these old posts, fearing more skeletons tumbling out of the stinky cupboard.

Ollie Robinson, the 27-year-old fast-bowling all-rounder, could never have imagined that his Test debut against New Zealand at Lord’s would be ruined by the ferreting out of sexist and racist tweets he made in 2012 and 2013 as a teenager. Robinson took seven wickets and scored 42 in England’s first innings of the drawn Test, but the joy of an impressive debut evaporated as ECB suspended the Sussex cricketer pending a disciplinary investigation.

The Robinson episode left the ECB deeply embarrassed. It came on a day when England and New Zealand cricketers stood at the lordly Lord’s in a ‘moment of unity’, with England players wearing T-shirts denouncing various forms of discrimination. Soon, ‘netizens’ gave England the blushes by digging out tweets that exposed how James Anderson, Dom Bess, Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler had previously made disparaging remarks. Morgan and Butler, among the highest paid players in the IPL, made fun of the way Indians spoke English while Anderson’s homophobic remark at teammate Stuart Broad—“a 15-year-old-lesbian”—over a haircut revealed an ungainly aspect.

As critics pounded the ECB—former cricketers Farokh Engineer and Michael Holding were livid—its bigwigs were distressed that their “aspiration to become a more inclusive and welcoming sport” was “severely dim­inished whilst discriminatory content remains in social media”. England’s ‘moment of unity’ drew scorn from Holding, who thought the gesture was akin to saying “all lives matter” and which was in stark contrast to the spine showed by English footballers, who defied fans’ taunts to continue taking the knee at Euro 2020.

Whilst the UK government said Robinson’s apology was enough and the suspension was ‘over the top’, ECB went ahead to “address any historical issues, (and) remind individuals of their personal responsibilities….”

While the ECB’s quicksilver reaction has been in line with the world’s action on discrimination in sports, the errant tweets made by Robinson et al is indicative of a deep-seated problem in English cricket. Former umpires John Holder and Ismail Dawood have sued the ECB for alleged “institutionalised racism”. Mohammed Sadiq Patel, the lawyer representing Holder and Dawood, said the Robinson case “has reaffirmed institutional failings by the England and Wales Cricket Board concerning racism”.

Vijay Dwarkanath, a 44-year-old IT consultant from Bangalore, concurs. The “inequality” in ECB’s top list of umpires is blatant, he says. Dwarkanath, who is a level 3 umpire and coach at the Royal Ascot Cricket club, says non-English umpires “don’t have the right ecosystem to prosper”. There are just four Asian umpires among 120; even South African and Australian umpires face bias as they are not ‘pure’ English ‘White’, he alleges. In June 2020, former England batsman Michael Carberry said racism in cricket was “rife”, while former Yorkshire spinner Azeem Rafiq alleged “institutional racism” in the county.

Most top England cricketers come from private schools (only seven per c­ent of all English schools) for the aff­luent, points out Dwarkanath, adding that ‘ability’ is not a criterion for a cricketing career. These schools offer private coaching and employ county players who work as scouts/selectors. “It means government schools have no chance to produce cricketers as it is not part of the curriculum,” says Dwarkanath. “The restrictive nature of the pool is detrimental for kids under 14-15 years to seek cricket as a profession. A few (like Ravi Bopara or Monty Panesar) who made it to the top were exceptional,” he adds. In June last year, former England ODI batsman Vikram Solanki became the first from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background to become coach of Surrey, one of the 18 first-class counties.

The Robinson episode has injected a sense of urgency into the counties. Reportedly, Lancashire is looking into “more than 50 tweets” from five squad members dating back to 2011 and containing “racist, homophobic, anti-disability or misogynistic content”.

For a professional, fan or armchair expert, no cricketing pilgrimage or musing is complete without a stint, or a visit, to England. For those imbued with the charms, and picturesque env­irons, of English cricket, the current turn of events has come as a huge let-down.

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An Apology For Cricket

Recent instances of racism in cricket

  • India’s tour of Australia, 2020-21: Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah were called “brown dogs” and “big monkey” by a section of the crowd in Sydney during the third Test. Six people were ejected by the police.

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  • IPL 2013: Ishant Sharma had called his former Sunrisers Hyderabad teammate, West Indian cricketer Darren Sammy ‘Kalu’. Ishant clarified it was a common ‘nomenclature’, and not a racist jibe. Sammy, initially angry, accepted a ‘cultural gap’ in understanding.
  • NZ vs England, 2019: During Day 5 of the first Test at Mount Maunganui, Jofra Archer was subjected to racial slurs by a Kiwi fan. After a probe, the guilty person was handed a two-year ban.
  • South Africa vs Pakistan, 2019: Pakistan’s Sarfraz Ahmed was caught by the stump mike hurling racial abuse at Andile Phehlukwayo, addressing him as ‘kaale’ (black man). The keeper-batsman was banned for four matches.

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  • Ashes, 2015: Four years after the series, England’s Moeen Khan revealed that an Australian cricketer had called him ‘Osama’ during the Cardiff Test.
  • Sri Lanka vs SA, 2006: During the Colombo Test, the late Dean Jones called Hashim Amla a ‘terrorist’. Jones was taken off live commentary for several years.
  • India vs Australia, ‘Monkeygate’, 2008: Harbhajan Singh was banned for three matches when Andrew Symonds and his teammates alleged he called the latter a ‘monkey’ during the Sydney Test. It was later clarified that Bhajji had hurled an unsavoury Hindi slang. Since the umpires did not hear anything and Sachin Tendulkar clarified on behalf of Harbhajan, the ban was overturned.

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