Jofra Archer has been an international cricketer for just over six months and has been racially abused twice. Those are just the two incidents we know about. As many people of colour will tell you, for every comment that comes to light, there will have been dozens more that go unheeded: ignored or shrugged off so as not to cause an unseemly fuss, internalised and rationalised as simply the price of doing business as a non-white athlete in 2019.
In September Archer was subjected to racist barracking from Australian spectators during the Ashes Test at Old Trafford. Now, after the first Test between New Zealand and England at Mount Maunganui, he revealed he was targeted by a fan “yelling bbc and bc from the scoreboard area”. The precise content of the insults remains unverified but we can be fairly certain the fan in question was not proclaiming his love of the Black Caps. More telling still was Archer’s characterisation of the abuse he received: not shocking or surprising, but merely, as he put it, “a bit disturbing”. This was, after all, hardly a new experience. He remembers early in his county career sitting with his bib on in front of the pavilion at Tunbridge Wells when an elderly spectator asked him incredulously: “How are you playing for Sussex?”
So yes, it is fair to say this is something of a problem, albeit not one that many in cricket like to talk about. For there remains in many quarters a curious complacency about racism, one that occasionally even lapses into a delusion that cricket’s broad geographical spread and in-built multiculturalism render it somehow post-racial. While a superficial comparison with, say, European or South American football may bolster the case, the abuse of Archer is a reminder that racism remains as stubbornly ingrained in cricket as anywhere else.
Partly this is a product of the game’s vaguely unsettling relationship with alcohol, those long baking hot Test afternoons when the most reliable form of entertainment is to get tanked up and shout the most attention-seeking thing you can think of. It is possible, for example, that this may have been a factor at the MCG last December, when Australian crowds were heard directing abuse at Virat Kohli and the touring India side. Or on England’s last Ashes tour, when Moeen Ali recalls a fan asking him what time his kebab shop opened.
Very little of this ever gets logged in a report or raised with authorities. But it’s always there, as intrinsic to the basic viewing experience as crowd catches or complaining about declarations. If this were all the work of a few beery miscreants, cricket could probably rest easy. But racism does not simply disappear when you step on to the field of play. Craig Overton’s England recall this summer raised barely a murmur of dissent, despite the fact that four years ago he escaped with the barest of punishments for allegedly telling an opponent to “go back to your own fucking country”. Moeen speaks of being called “Osama” by an Australian player during the 2015 Ashes. In January the former Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed was banned for four matches after racially abusing South Africa’s Andile Phehlukwayo during a one‑day international.
The last of these incidents remains one of the few occasions when cricket’s response to racist abuse has been fit for purpose. Elsewhere its perpetrators have been tolerated, indulged, even celebrated. Darren Lehmann, who as a player in 2003 described Sri Lanka players as “black cunts”, was not banished from the game but instead handed a succession of plum coaching jobs. The former Australia batsman Dean Jones, who once described Hashim Amla as “a terrorist” live on air, has just walked into his latest post in the Pakistan Super League. In 1995 the commentator Henry Blofeld described a hotel balcony at Headingley from which people could watch the cricket for free as “the Jewish stand”. Two decades later he was given a standing ovation at Lord’s at the culmination of a long and illustrious broadcasting career, his misdemeanour long forgotten. (Ahmed, Lehmann, Jones and Blofeld all issued apologies after criticism).
For decades the sport tolerated these incidents because it did not really care enough. The legacy of that era persists to this day. Next summer English cricket will warmly embrace Lehmann as the coach of the new Leeds-based Hundred franchise. On Monday Jofra Archer was racially abused by a spectator for the second time in a few months. Cricket’s original sin is plain for all to see. The real question is whether anyone in the game wants to acknowledge it.