It’s only Wednesday, but by now if your favourite sport or team has not come out with anything ranging from anger at the death of George Floyd, acknowledging it or simply posting a black screen, then go ahead and find yourself someone and something new to follow.
Perhaps they have reacted, in which case the next item on the flowsheet is to see if they had previously turned a blind eye to such racial injustices because, well, none of this is new. And even further, how much of their institution and how many of their behaviours have been allowed to go unchecked and unscrutinised.
Not many will have made it out of that second paragraph intact. And not much of it will matter. Sport’s hold on people’s emotion commands a loyalty like no other. Still, they will come, through thin and thinner.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
But if there is a realness this time around it’s because of what we are being confronted with so uncomfortably when we turn on our TVs and refresh our timelines. Finally, through previously reluctant figures, sports are ready to align with #BlackLivesMatter – a movement that started six years ago, not last week. “Too little, too late” it is, but high stakes has been shown to equal lower social expectations. “Too little too late” is better than not at all.
If sports are willing to look into their own shortcomings, that should be encouraged. Not all shortcomings are so obvious. But for cricket, they are more exposed than most.
That’s probably to be expected of a sport with British Imperialism at its core. Its introduction to the subcontinent, for example, was used to reinforce a distinction of the ruling classes.
You don’t need to go as far back as that for incidents that “wouldn’t happen now” but still do. Jofra Archer was racially abused during a Test series in New Zealand last winter. In 2019, Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed was banned after a slur against South Africa’s Andile Phehlukwayo was picked up over the stump mics. In 2017, Abhinav Mukund felt compelled to release a statement urging his Indian fans to stop making disparaging comments over his dark skin.
The microaggressions are plentiful. Like Australia’s Usman Khawaja asking to be let into his dressing room and being directed to Pakistan’s (at the Gabba, his home ground, no less). Or someone at an England players event asking to feel Moeen Ali’s beard. And the Caribbean journalist who, upon leaving Lord’s after a day’s work, was asked by a cab driver if they had just finished a shift behind the bar. Not everything’s a crime, and not everything is innocuous.
In a world as insular as cricket, the victims and those culpable roll side-by-side. And it is not for nothing that West Indies’ 2016 World T20 winning captain Darren Sammy took to Twitter to demand support from cricket’s governing bodies: “@ICC and all other boards, are you guys not seeing what’s happening to ppl like me? Are you not gonna speak against the social injustice against my kind.”
Sammy’s tweets on Monday evening arrived at a time when there had been nothing from the International Cricket Council, which remains the case at the time of writing. Or from his own board, Cricket West Indies, who took until Tuesday evening in the Caribbean to release a statement. All were silent. Except for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
It was a simple sentiment with a powerful photo: “We stand for diversity. We stand against racism” accompanied a photo of an embrace between England’s Jos Buttler, Adil Rashid and Archer after last year’s World Cup final. Born of Somerset, Bradford and Barbados.
“Diversity” has been a buzz word among this group – a trait positioned as strength of character and determination, drawn from a variety of sources from private school straight-and-narrows through to the teachings of Islam. Eoin Morgan’s press conference comments after the World Cup win, boasting that England had Allah and the luck of the Irish behind them, was the zenith.
Beyond the 2019 World Cup, perhaps the most prescient success has been a sharing of cultures. Even little things, like not spraying champagne around Ali and Rashid, to being aware of the language used to abuse Archer over private messages can rank as progress in the landscape of international sport, where empathy is so often pegged as weakness.
Most were active participants in Tuesday’s blackout, which is in keeping with worldwide trends when it comes to activism among their generations. Time will tell how much of that was performative. But when asked about the importance of England cricketers using their platforms to shine a light on such injustices and show solidarity to the cause, Root was both all for it and unable to hide his dismay that it was required at all.
“Being truthful, it’s a very difficult thing to talk about because it shouldn’t be part of the world we live in right now. This shouldn’t be a question that’s asked of anyone really.
“That’s one thing that’s a massive driving force for our team, the diversity of the side is a big part of our culture. It’s a big thing in our future and it’s something that we’ll hold very dear, and it’s been a big part of our successes as a team, on the field and off it. So absolutely, it should be [important], yeah.”
There is much to unpack in that answer: the notion that racism “shouldn’t be part of the world” and diversity being “a big part of our culture” is probably a good place to start. For Root, the two do not tally together. But, really, the need for the latter is fuelled by the former.
That’s not to say Root is wilfully naive. He may have been deigned to be a cricketer from birth, an England player by age-group level and a Test captain by right of talent. But his learnings on different individuals and cultures outside of this ecosystem have come from those around him in the dressing room. At seeing what some of his team-mates have to put up with.
When you break it down, that these England cricketers are together in this timeline has happened by chance. Because this England team is not reflective of English cricket.
There are a dearth of black cricketers across the men’s and women’s game, a lack of ethnic coaches at first-class level and a pathway so reliant on the private school system that it is skewed against those from working-class backgrounds. On the administration side, the only person of colour on the ECB’s board, Lord Kamlesh Patel, is stepping down from 31 August.
Indeed, the men’s team are something of an island: a triumph of different journeys to the top, all on merit, earning success and pushing on the conversation by simply doing their jobs. If English cricket is willing to address its deep-rooted inefficiencies, then they already have a headstart over other sports with their most identifiable athletes.
Otherwise not only with this time have been wasted, but so will this team.