Ollie & Joe: The Perfect Twitter Storm

In the space of two days, the usually genteel world of cricket twitter turned feral. Themes of discrimination, redemption and culture war resonated, as the murky backstories of Ollie Robinson and Joe Clarke took centre stage once again.

Ollie Robinson, what’s he done now? Well actually not an awful lot, which is part of the problem in more ways than one.

The publishing of the annual Wisden Almanack, accompanied by the five selected cricketers of the year always raises talking points. Last Wednesday’s announcement was no different, although rather than meticulous and statistical based arguments about the merits of one cricketer’s selection over another, something altogether more fundamental took place. Ollie Robinson’s character was being called into question, his morals and ethics.

Despite being England’s best Test bowler last summer (which given the team’s form isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his greatness) his historical racist, sexist and Islamophobic tweets uncovered during his Test debut are still viewed by many, at the very least, as an uncomfortable truth yet to be resolved.

It fell to Mark Butcher, former England Test opener turned pundit, to voice the counter narrative around Ollie Robinson’s award. In an exceptional episode of the consistently brilliant Wisden Cricket Weekly podcast, Butcher’s apt summary was that “it sticks in your craw”.

Those who are discriminated against rarely get to experience the slate being wiped clean, let alone make influential and powerful decisions about their transgressors. For many, Ollie Robinson’s award will be seen as further evidence that when the most difficult issues are raised, English cricket closes ranks and carries on serenely along a well-trodden path, oblivious to reality.

Unfortunately, the progressive coverage in this year’s Wisden (disclaimer; I’ve not read the book) about the Azeem Rafiq affair, which he writes about himself, will fall on deaf ears. It suits those who are entrenched on either side of the debate, to ignore it. In any case, it’s a narrow argument to assume that one unethical decision can be offset by demonstrating good intentions elsewhere.

Wisden clearly doesn’t represent English cricket, but it enjoys exalted status within the game. It’s affectionately known as “the bible” in cricket circles, and it maintains considerable clout. The arduous task of compiling a book that documents every cricket match played, is no mean feat.

The quality of its contributors is beyond reproach. And yet I’ve never bought a copy or read more than a few of its ample pages. As a teenager, I was given three Wisdens by an uncle, all dating back to the 1950’s. I remember enjoying the novelty of scorecards from matches between obscure teams, in far flung places. Although the books felt important, they didn’t seem relevant.

Obviously, a lot has changed in Wisden in the intervening decades, including a generally more contemporary and inclusive outlook. Frustratingly, by rewarding Ollie Robinson, the book has taken a backwards step, inviting accusations of being out of touch.

Perhaps the crux of the debate around Ollie Robinson is about redemption, rehabilitation and contrition. Those themes were echoed in the May edition of the Cricketer magazine, where the highly respected George Dobell put forward the case that despite his previous close association with a convicted rapist, Joe Clarke is deserving of another chance and an England cap.

Predictably, there was a social media backlash with angry charges of misogyny levelled against Dobell and The Cricketer. There are no easy answers but many pitfalls in all of these debates and the binary world of twitter is ill equipped to adequately seek resolution.

Both Robinson and Clarke, have been accused of not showing enough contrition, empathy or even acknowledgment towards those they have discriminated against. In many ways it’s unsurprising that their apologies have been seemingly cursory. A consequence of the Prime Minister being forced into one mealy mouthed half-hearted apology after another, has been the normalising of such behaviour.

Maybe Robinson and Clarke are truly sorry for their past misdemeanours but whether one likes it or not, public pronouncements mean everything and my sense, in both cases, is that they have been largely absent. In contrast, the actions of Azeem Rafiq since his anti-Semitic tweets emerged have entailed courage and determination – a point that George Dobell makes in his Cricketer piece. Almost everyone deserves a shot at rehabilitation, but it must be a two-way process.

Ultimately, the judgement on whether Robinson and Clarke are deserving of redemption, must come from those who have been marginalised, not from middle aged white men, however well-intentioned they might be. Cricket has the unique ability to harness goodwill, it’s up to everybody to ensure that quality isn’t eroded.

A cold and windy day at the Oval, watching the age-old rhythms of county cricket, Surrey resurrecting their first innings, smiling at strangers, inane conversation – that’s the essence of cricket. The righteousness and toxicity of the debate that’s raged in the past two days, couldn’t be further from that ideal.

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