Levelling the pitch?

by | Blog

The Equity in Cricket Report will ring lots of bells for those of us who love the game more than the social environment in which it is often played.

The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket’s identification of racism, sexism and class privilege as barriers to free and open participation in the sport is something that has bothered me all my playing life.

As a white male, the first two hurdles have not directly troubled my progress in the game the way it has so many of my fellow citizens. But as a Yorkshireman growing up in a community where Asian cricketers felt they had to set up their own leagues, the paradoxes were readily apparent from an early age.

In one cup match, I played against Sonny Ramadhin, the West Indian Test spinner who in semi-retirement ran a pub in the nearby Pennine village of Delph. There was nothing but admiration for this modest and hugely skilful cricketer as there was for his fellow West Indies Test players then and has been since. But there wasn’t much for other black and Asian players progressing their careers in the White Rose county.

A few years later came the huge political controversy over non-white South African cricketers, one in which the conservative and racist attitudes of those running and commentating on the game I have written about before. Peter Oborne and Richard Parry are two authors who have explored these matters and their widespread consequences at much greater length.

While clearly many women enjoy the game several friends of colour I’ve taken to matches have refused to accompany me to further ones. It was not just because my performances failed to impress, but because they quickly picked up hostile attitudes beneath the cricketing courtesies.

When I was the only white man in two teams – the Pakistan Embassy XI in Washington DC and a team of Sri Lankans in London – I felt no such unfriendliness. In fact in the US capital it was my Yorkshire origins that initially commended me to the diplomats as one of them had been brought up in Bradford.

Obviously the sexism identified in the report was no barrier to me. But what became apparent as I stumbled my way into opposing it through having strong feminists in my life, were the attitudes of many fellow cricketers. It was more than regretting that wives and partners were no longer willing to provide teas: it was learning from female students of mine just how some of my teammates behaved towards them when on work experience and at job interviews.

As for class barriers, let me just recount this. Last Saturday I heard from one of the talented youngsters I help coach that the batting surface he’d played on that day in an away game was so poor it was barely distinguishable from the outfield.

A fortnight earlier I’d played in a charity game at a public school in the south of England on a pitch so flat my old Yorkshire mates would have said: “You could get runs on that with a bucket on your head.” I complimented the head groundsman who told me that the school has eight pitches and more than a dozen nets with full-length artificial surfaces.

A different public school less than a mile from my London inner-city borough which had just one pitch for more than 200,000 residents had similarly manicured wickets standing empty most of the week.

We have far to go to give all our children the chance to shine.

May I make one plea to those charged with responding to this important and long-overdue investigation of the game? That’s not to wheel out the clichéd desire for a future “level playing field”.

It’s a phrase that suggests fairness and decency.

But in a lifetime of enjoying active sport I have played on far more fields that aren’t level than ones that are. What matters is not the lie of the land, but the tea interval and the half-time whistle.

For in the second half of the game the conditions experienced by the first side to bat or kick uphill into the sun, wind or mud will be those the other team has to encounter. That’s real fairness.

“Level playing field” is quite a conservative notion.

The poor state of our cricket, as the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report tells us, requires action far more radical than that.

If you would like to be notified by email of new posts please sign up to my mailing list