Tin-eared county chairmen show why English cricket is in trouble

·6-min read

“The other thing in the diversity bit is the football and rugby worlds become much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community. In terms of the south Asian community, we find that they do not want to commit the time that is necessary to get to the next step. They prefer to go into educational fields.”

“I know one Caribbean overseas player … who termed himself ‘Token’, so there was a degree of humour in it … It’s difficult to call it offensive.”

“We have a women’s section.”

Scroll to continue with content

“We have a full-time female physiotherapist.”

“I had dinner with Desmond Haynes recently.”

Thank you gentlemen. Thanks for coming. Thank you for shedding an entirely unintended shard of light.

Related: Middlesex chairman condemned for ‘outdated’ views at racism hearing

In decades to come, as future historians of what was once the national summer sport come to pick over those jealously tended ashes, trying to understand how English cricket fostered its self-sabotaging culture of exclusion, they would do well to examine the contents of Tuesday morning’s hearing before the digital, culture, media and sport select committee into how the county game hopes to address the problems around diversity and reach identified by Azeem Rafiq and others in the last year.

Called to give evidence, Mike O’Farrell and Rod Bransgrove, the chairmen of Middlesex and Hampshire, dished up a performance that was often tin-eared, frequently painful, at times verging on parody; but always unintentionally illuminating.

There were some good intentions here and some fine words, mixed in with the dreadful, elbow-gnawing ones. Mainly, what the men in the committee chamber told us was exactly why English cricket is in trouble: because people like this are in charge.

The most notable moment came as O’Farrell tried to explain why black and south Asian cricketers don’t progress through his county’s academy to the first team. His comments, quoted at the top of this page, sparked a spasm of digital disbelief. They were subsequently retracted and “clarified”, where “clarified” means using completely different words to describe a totally different idea. Which is at least a step up on saying the unsayable thing out loud by mistake.

It was a moment of genuine double take. Here we had the chairman of a professional county in one of the largest and most diverse catchments appearing to state, with a reassuring smile, that the problem is black people just don’t like cricket; and that Asian people are interested in schoolwork and therefore not committed enough.

Where to start with this? Most obviously, it involves taking a trite observation and spinning it out into generalised gibberish. The popularity of football isn’t pigment-specific. Neither is wanting to do well in school. But these are tropes that are often trotted out around cricket, pub-chat nonsense that becomes genuinely restrictive, the blanket dismissal of an entire slice of humanity, when it is being trotted out by the head of a pathway that goes down to age 11. Ask yourself, Mike, exactly why some of those kids might prefer to get an education.

Perhaps the most significant element was that nobody in the parliamentary committee room batted an eyelid. Presented with some entry-level stereotypes, literally the exact thing they were there to dissect, a room full of MPs and cricket chairmen just waved it through. These are people in positions where there is a duty to be informed, to understand how talent is shut down and opportunity denied. There it is, right in front of you, speaking into the mic. Nobody present heard a false note.

Within a couple of hours Middlesex had issued a formal rebuttal. “I wholly accept that this misunderstanding is entirely down to my own lack of clarity … I was aiming to make the point that as a game, cricket has failed a generation of young cricketers,” O’Farrell said. And to be fair he did make exactly that point. Just not in the way he intended.

On balance Bransgrove of Hampshire had an even more haphazard time in front of the cameras. His first act was to deny he had recently told a gathering of county chairmen that he understood racism because he was a 60-year-old white man, and that the real problem is people have “forgotten the worth of the white man”. Ah. Some potential problems there, Rod.

Bransgrove said it was “absolute nonsense” to suggest he would ever say this. Perhaps by way of example, he proceeded to offer up some absolute nonsense of his own, including but not limited to the anecdote about “Token”, a story that seemed to make him feel good, as opposed to ashamed and uneasy.

At one point Bransgrove said: “I don’t know how a streaker runs across the pitch. If you did that in public you’d be on the sex offender list.” Rod: thanks for that. A bit later he suggested that one of the best things about cricket is you don’t need height or muscle mass, and as a result is also open to “disadvantaged people”, who perhaps in his mind seem to live in Dickensian squalor drinking rainwater and eating toenails. It was Rod who had dinner with Desmond Haynes. His favourite cricketer no doubt. Along with Mr Gordon Greenidge.

It is of course easy to laugh, without humour or pleasure, at the clueless executives, charged with overseeing cricket’s farrago of structural problems. And while we should still laugh at the clueless executives, it was the afternoon session at the DCMS committee that provided the more pertinent action. Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive, had been unctuous and slightly harried at the initial DCMS committee hearing in November. Here he came tooled up with slogans, numbers and mission statements, a marketing man with his pitch down pat.

Harrison began by saying that everything in his seven years at the head of English cricket had been geared towards growing the game, and that the Rafiq affair had only given extra impetus to his reforming zeal. Both of these statements are demonstrably false. Harrison has overseen a continued shrinking back of the summer game. He also had prior knowledge of Rafiq’s complaint but only began to act or make any comment when public opinion left him no option. But hey! Why spoil a good line?

There is now a hard edge to these concerns. A quarter of a century after the first alarming report into systemic racism was delivered to the ECB, and after decades of window dressing, the DCMS committee has suggested future public funding might be dependent on the ECB showing it is making tangible efforts to remove barriers to entry and progress.

Nothing will be resolved by these televised talking shops. But by providing a stage for the ECB’s slick corporate deflections, for the half-formed thoughts of the county chairmen, they do at least tell us one thing. It’s pretty obvious where the problem lies.