On 8 July, Test cricket returned, the first international sport to do so since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst this is cause for celebration for many not just in England and the Caribbean, but cricket fans worldwide, if there is one thing the past few months has taught us, it’s that there are far more important things than sport. With Black Lives Matter protests taking place worldwide, huge attention was rightly placed on how the sport would respond to and engage with the movement. Before the first series began, it was announced that both teams would wear the Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts, and would also take a knee before the beginning of each match, as had already been seen in various other sports. The sight of all players on the field taking a knee, along with those on the boundary, was a powerful one, and I am certain it was one in which the majority of cricket fans, both English and West Indian, will have taken great pride in seeing.
However, as stirring a moment as it was, what happened during the rain delay before the start of play had a greater impact by far on me, and I suspect most others who was watching the coverage on Sky Sports. For just under an hour, Michael Holding, the great former West Indian bowler, and Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first Black woman to play cricket for England, were centre stage, first in a prerecorded segment, then live, in what was one of the most powerful piece of sports broadcasting I have seen.
First, the prerecorded clips of Holding and Rainford-Brent talking about their experiences with racism. Filmed in darkness, with just a spotlight lighting their faces, the focus was purely on what was being said: no superfluous interviewers, no distracting background, it was impossible not to listen to what they had to say.
Holding remained his characteristically calm, composed self, speaking with the wisdom and clarity we have come to expect from him, as he spoke about the importance of education in bringing about meaningful change, and providing a compelling refutation of the phrase “all lives matter”, saying “when you say to somebody that Black Lives Matter and they tell you that all lives matter or white lives matter, please, we black people know that lives matter. I don’t think you know that black lives matter. So, don’t shout back at us about all lives matter. It is obvious – the evidence is clearly there that white lives matter. We want black lives to matter now. Simple as that.”
Rainford-Brent provided a contrast to Holding’s composure, becoming visibly emotional, eventually moved to tears, as she spoke about her upbringing in multicultural London, and the racism she faced particularly as a player in team environments. From comments about her name and appearance, to the food she ate, to the area she grew up, Rainford-Brent’s words about her experiences were raw and impassioned: it was hard to listen to, but impossible to turn away from.
Following this came a live discussion with pundits Ian Ward, Michael Holding and Nassar Hussain, during which Holding was allowed to speak, uninterrupted, for four minutes. Again, Holding reiterated the value of education, citing many instances in which education has driven the narrative that white is good, and black is bad. Though clearly Holding and his words were the focus in this piece, I was impressed by Ward, whose performed his job as the lead presenter excellently, by which I mean he barely spoke at all. His recognition that his role in this conversation was simply to let Holding speak, and to listen, should be a lesson to all those watching.
These two segments created something far greater than any cricket that might have been played that morning. They were thoughtful, intelligent, and informative. I hope that many more such conversations will take place both within cricket, and the world in general. However, for real progress to take place, we need more than conversations: we need real action. Cricket in England has an image of being a sport for white middle-class men, and unfortunately this is a reputation supported by facts. 80% of all ECB employees are white, and 90% of the board, while there is currently one Black player in the England men’s test squad (and it is important to note that Jofra Archer only came to England from Barbados in his late teens). Cricket in the UK in particular has struggled with engaging young Black players, and even more at retaining them in the professional arena. Indeed, where most sports have improved over time in their efforts to address lack of diversity, cricket has actually gotten worse in recent years.
The question is, therefore, what is being done, and what still needs to happen for cricket to change and improve? The ECB has announced a series of initiatives aimed at increasing inclusion and diversity in English cricket, including a game-wide anti-discrimination charter to span players, coaches, fans, media and clubs. They have also committed to increasing the ethnic diversity of their board, and to helping counties to meet representation targets on their own boards. Regarding coaching and players, there will be a bursary for future black coaches, and an increase in cricket in primary schools, with a focus on ethnically diverse areas. These are all great steps in the right direction, though we will have to wait and see the results of the ECB’s actions. It will be particularly important that, as social media feeds return to normal, and protests become fewer, these initiatives are not forgotten, and the ECB are held accountable to their promises.
In terms of engaging Black players, more must also be done. The number of Black professional cricketers has decreased in recent years, likely due in a large part to the fact that cricket is now rarely offered in state schools, and it is therefore private schools, with mostly white student bodies, where young cricketers are typically starting out. The ACE programme (African-Caribbean Engagement Programme), started by Ebony Rainford-Brent at Surrey, has the explicit goal of engaging the local African Caribbean community, by providing coaching, equipment and travel grants to 11-18 year olds with sporting potential. It has so far been a success, and is being expanded. Surrey, as one of the wealthiest county clubs, have far greater resources than most counties to offer programmes such as these, and therefore it is unlikely that most counties are able to set up similar initiatives without support from the ECB, but it would be good to see more of these types of programmes being implemented in the future. If cricket continues to decrease in schools, they will be crucial in ensuring the BAME community is given the same opportunities as white players are.
It is good to see these steps being taken, and hopefully we will see positive results in the coming months and years from initiatives currently in place. However, I think it is important to acknowledge that, although within the professional sport administrators certainly have the burden of responsibility to bring about systemic change, there is much else that can, and should, be done. We – fans, club cricketers, coaches (particularly in clubs and schools) – have the power to help change the image of cricket in this country, and to make it clear that everyone, regardless of race, is welcome in our sport. Though the majority will have appreciated Sky’s engagement with Black Lives Matter, I came across a fair few who complained on social media about the coverage, and about the players taking a knee, saying that such gestures have no place in sport. As I write England star Jofra Archer has just stated that he has been receiving racial abuse on social media. Ultimately, we all have a role in ensuring that the perception (and let’s face it, reality) of cricket as being inaccessible due to race in this country is eradicated.