Azeem Rafiq deserves a medal, but his case masks English cricket’s biggest problem: elitism

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Boris Johnson condemned the handling of an investigation into racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club as senior ministers said that “heads should roll” over the team’s “disgusting” treatment of the player Azeem Rafiq. /The Times, November 3, 2021)

Although Azeem Rafiq is one of many Black or South Asian cricketers to suffer racial abuse within first-class (professional) cricket, he, more than any other perhaps, deserves a medal as his fortitude, and refusal to accept a significant pay-off, looks as if it may well instigate real change.

The withdrawal of numerous sponsors, and the potential loss of international fixtures at Headingley, will no doubt sharpen minds in Yorkshire, but Rafiq’s battle with the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and the reticence of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to speed up a deeply flawed investigation, masks a deeper cultural problem within English cricket as a whole; for the “quintessentially English” game has always tended to divide, rather than unite, the English.

While there are, of course, several institutional and structural barriers to participation today (the ECB’s Clubmark scheme, and the spurning of clubs reliant on municipal grounds by ECB affiliated leagues for instance), much of this segregation, as in the past, is inherently tied to the game’s elitist culture. Not for nothing is cricket in England regarded as a “posh” sport and, as the ECB’s own research reveals, English cricket crowds today are overwhelmingly white British (94 per cent) males (84 per cent) who broadly identify as upper-middle, middle or lower-middle class.

Given their average age of fifty is much older than the global average of thirty-four, cricket in England is facing a demographic time bomb. The causes of this imbalance go beyond the ECB and the administration of cricket of course, as deindustrialisation and the privatisation of state-owned business led to the demise of workplace sport; the sale of thousands of school playing fields denied state-educated pupils opportunities to play; and the time constraints imposed by modern working practices have contributed towards a collapse in working class participation as either players or spectators.

The Conservative Minister Norman Tebbit’s antagonistic “Cricket Test”, the Test and County Cricket Board’s (a precursor of the ECB) drive to quieten crowds during the 1980s and, most obviously, the removal of domestic and international cricket from free-to-air television in 2006 have disenfranchised the bulk of working-class supporters. Even the playing of Sir Edward Elgar’s version of “Jerusalem” when the England team take the field in Test matches reinforces the rigid monoculture at the heart of the game’s image.

Rather than broaden the appeal of the England team, “Jerusalem” (and its adoption by the Barmy Army) can only restrict it further, and we ought not be surprised that many (a number of my friends certainly) “hate” cricket. Hate is a very strong word, and yet, the dislike of cricket and its image is nothing new, for the Picture Post highlighted the extent that English cricket was actively disliked during the 1950s.

By 1970, the game’s first maverick historian, Rowland Bowen, argued that cricket in England “has no chance” of shedding its elitist pretentions “so long as the higher administration of the game remains in the hands of people heavily imbued with that background and those ideas”. Regrettably, the ECB remains an organisation overwhelmingly dominated by white, public school educated men who have, as BeingOutsideCricket.comrevealed in 2017, “accounted for 80% of the ECB/ TCCB chairmen, 67.5% of the chairmen of selectors, and Test captains in 65% of the games” over the previous forty years.

Moreover, we appear to have reached a point where most white working-class children do not regard cricket as a game for them. As the same may be argued for the Black British community, it ought to be no surprise that South Asians make up a third of recreational cricketers in England (this figure rises to more than two-thirds in inner-city areas such as Birmingham). And yet, many of these players, their clubs and the leagues they participate in remain excluded from first-class cricket and the recreational mainstream that feeds into it.

If first-class cricket is to survive as anything more than a boutique pastime for the overwhelmingly white economic elites of this country, this informal apartheid must end. But, for this to happen, the cultural changes called for in Yorkshire are required nationwide and, most importantly, within the ECB itself.

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