Since we are all looking backwards, let’s go a little further, beyond 2018, when Eoin Morgan sent a tweet saying “sir, you’re my favourite batsman”, spoofing comments he receives on social media from Indian cricket fans; beyond 2017, when Jos Buttler sent a similar one reading “much beauty batting you are on fire, sir”; beyond 2012, when Ollie Robinson “joked” “my new Muslim friend is the bomb #wheeyyyyy”; beyond 2010, when Jimmy Anderson wrote one in which he said Stuart Broad’s new haircut made him look like “a 15yr old lesbian”; all the way back to 1999, when the England and Wales Cricket Board published the results of a survey on racism in sport.
More than 58% of those 1,037 who took part said they agreed that racism was a problem in English cricket. Given that West Yorkshire police had only recently announced that they were going to start sending plain-clothes police officers into Headingley to clamp down on racist chanting and hooliganism in the Western Terrace during Test matches, you have to ask on exactly what grounds the other 42% disagreed with the statement. Still, at least the ECB seemed to take it seriously.
“Lord’s declares war on racism,” the Guardian reported. “English cricket officials have voiced their intention to implement the most concerted anti-racism campaign in the game’s history.” Reading it all back some of the proposals come across as being laughably archaic even then. The ECB promised to start training stewards to take action against racist chanting, to ban anyone caught doing it, to put an “anti-racism statement” on all match tickets, and to prohibit “the sale and distribution of racist literature in or around grounds, especially on match days”. A reminder (yes, best double-check), this was 22 years ago.
No doubt those cosmetic changes did curb some of the more blatant racism in the game. That says less about how far we’ve come than it does about what a long way we had to go. For all our obsession with cricket’s history, we tend to leave out some of the uglier bits. Such as the fact that in the 1980s there were crowds at matches who were still racially abusing players, and in the 1990s there were crowds who were still racially abusing rival fans. I’m unsure just how much credit the ECB gets for taking 13 years to make sure people would get banned for shouting out “black bastard”, as they did to Viv Richards at Weston-super-Mare in 1986.
Some of the other measures, though, the ones designed to fix more insidious structural issues, sound disarmingly familiar. The ECB promised forums with “allied agencies” to discuss “the problems facing ethnic minorities”, it promised “development plans” and “activity programmes” to “initiate/extend/embrace ethnic minority schemes”, it promised to “increase and improve opportunities in coaching, umpiring, and administration”, to encourage ethnic minority clubs to become “an integral part of the cricket family by embracing and accepting diverse cultures”, and it promised to “extend talent scouting systems to ensure the identification of ethnic minority talent”.
All of which sounds uncannily like some of the things said in the last year, while reckoning with what the ECB chief executive officer, Tom Harrison, has described as “some uncomfortable truths”. This time the ECB has promised a new anti-discrimination code of conduct, just like in 2000, a forum to discuss race in cricket, just like in 2000, to implement bursaries and other schemes to increase diversity among coaches and match officials, just like in 2000, and to expand plans to improve engagement with minority clubs and talent identification among minority communities, just like the ECB did in 2000.
Put another way, if you’re a middle-aged English player or fan from a minority background, you’ve been listening to the same sort of people make the same sort of promises to deal with the same sort of problems for the past 20 years. The ECB knew what needed to be done. Judging by what’s happened since, it has lacked the ability, the drive, or the resources to do it. Which is why the anger those same players and fans have been expressing in the past few months, weeks and days is so very necessary. In fact, the game should be glad those people still feel it, because the alternative is worse. As one of the retired first-class cricketers I interviewed last year said: “When the BLM movement started in cricket I almost didn’t really want to get involved, because I wasn’t sure if this was going to be something that only lasted for a week or two. I’ve done all that before. I did ‘Kick Racism Out’, I did ‘Say No to Racism’.” He wasn’t around in 2000, when the ECB’s motto was “Clean Bowl Racism”.
It is also why the government’s intervention this week didn’t help anything except its ambitions to boost its electoral prospects by stoking up a bigger culture war. What really matters here has got less to do with which players tweeted what when, but whether the ECB is going to follow through on making the structural changes which will reform the culture those players grew up in.
While everyone’s worrying about whether Robinson should be punished for something he wrote on Twitter nine years ago, who’s counting how many black people are on the executive management team at the ECB? There are fewer headlines in it, and fewer votes, too, but the answer, if you’re interested, is none.