Time is a luxury seldom afforded to any governing body engulfed by public rage. As such, the England and Wales Cricket Board, fresh from their witless performance under parliamentary scrutiny, have scrambled more responses to the cancer of institutional racism in 10 days than they had managed in the previous 10 years.
Where before they had sheltered behind vapid corporate-speak, the 12-point plan to be announced on Friday includes not just an unreserved apology to Azeem Rafiq for the discrimination he suffered at Yorkshire, but enough benchmarks and performance indicators to keep even the most diligent diversity officer happy. And yet a worry persists that this document signals less a cultural revolution than an elaborate piece of theatre, a hastily-conceived case of anti-racism by numbers.
For an illustration, look at the commitment to ensure that every county delivers 30 per cent “boardroom diversity” by April 2022. On the surface, this is a flashy headline, a reassuring sign of cricket’s resolve to shed its image as male, pale and stale. Alas, it is also absurdly unrealistic. The ECB demanded in 2019 that counties’ leadership teams should reflect 30 per cent female representation, but so far only one, Derbyshire, has unequivocally reached this figure. To expect that the remaining 17 first-class counties can redress not just their gender divide but their deficit of ethnic mix within just five months is a flight of fancy.
Besides, are boardroom purges the answer? The statistic that shames cricket is the fact that while a third of recreational players are of South Asian origin, only four per cent go on to compete professionally. In Yorkshire, as Julian Knight MP pointed out during last week’s damning select committee hearing, the vast majority of children pitching up for net practice in Bradford were of South Asian descent. But how many British Asians have turned out for the county’s first XI in the past decade? Four. If the ECB insists on targets, it should focus less on executive boards than on the make-up of teams out in the middle. Among the sport’s disenfranchised communities, the old maxim holds true that if you are going to be it, then first you have to see it.
Equally, there is the nagging question of how the money will be spent. The ECB confirms that it has earmarked £25 million of “strategic funding” to fight racism in cricket over the next five years, but omits any guarantee of financial support for British Asian or Caribbean clubs at the grassroots, despite this being the area where investment is most desperately needed. Many of these clubs are existing at subsistence level, lacking even grounds on which to play. While the ECB spelt out a short-term programme in 2018 to install or upgrade 25 turf pitches in urban areas, this modest objective remains unfulfilled three years on.
Local coaches desperate to tap into the untapped potential of forgotten youth will roll their eyes at talk of another ECB mission statement. After all, they have one already, in the shape of the 2018 South Asian Action Plan, a programme heavy on noble intentions but painfully light on execution. The idea of having five Community Talent Champions, for instance, sounded wonderful in principle, a means of bridging the yawning chasm between Asian club cricket and the county game, until it transpired two years later that nobody was putting the money up.
In a reputation-defining moment for the ECB’s Tom Harrison, the chief executive has been quick to react. What remains unclear, though, is whether he truly, deeply understands the scale of the crisis that has unfolded under his watch. Perhaps the ECB’s most conspicuous shortcoming is that not one member of the 10-strong non-executive board has played a single game as a professional cricketer. When Harrison, at his ill-starred appearance in front of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, deflected to Alan Dickinson, a commercial banker, to read out a statement on the board’s behalf, Knight understandably refused even to give him the time of day.