English cricket has evolved but pushed many of us into the margins: a personal experience of racism

Growing up as a child in the 1980s, my cricketing education began by listening to the clipped tones of Brian Johnston and watching successive touring sides beat an often chaotic-looking England team. The long summer series played back then, meant a familiarity with hitherto unknown faces; Terry Alderman and Malcom Marshall seemed ever-present on the BBC, presiding over another England batting collapse. But England were the only team I knew well. Yet it was hard to feel that they really were my team.

There wasn’t an obvious sense of English cricket being out of bounds to a second generation British Bangladeshi, but there was a pervasive feeling that to fully embrace English cricket culture, you had to look like the team itself: overwhelmingly white. Rose-tinted memories of watching my very first Test, at Lord’s itself, are of a child revelling in the minutiae of the game. I marvelled at the varying levels of applause, aligned to the significance of different milestones, the pristine outfield and the politeness of it all. It was only in my teens when I truly understood what division and discrimination looked like, in cricket and the wider world.

Confusingly for an adolescent, cricket in England often absorbed the ills of racism rather than act as a safe haven against them. I understood that the apartheid system in South Africa was founded on principles of racial superiority and subjugation, so it was impossible to comprehend why a group of English cricketers would want to tour the country, even if the financial incentive was clear. In the early 1990s I remember reading about increasingly fraught and volatile English cricket crowds – a pig’s head was tossed around by spectators in Headingley’s Western Terrace during the 1992 Test against Pakistan, a deliberately provocative gesture to opposing Muslim fans. Indeed, Pakistan’s encounters with England in that period were regularly laced with distrust and animosity. The Sun’s “Pak off” headline from 1992 summed up the mood.

It was little wonder that supporting any other team but England became so prevalent amongst South Asian and Afro Caribbean communities. Of course a winning team, playing dynamic cricket with a swagger, will always encourage support, which is why the West Indies had such a huge UK following. England seemed to care little about who supported them and it was this indifference coupled with a strong desire to feel belonging, which drove many away from the game.

All of those past incidents and memories came flooding back last Sunday at Lord’s. Just as the nightwatchman Neil Wagner top-edged an ungainly swipe into the wicketkeeper’s gloves, I’ve rarely felt so conflicted when applauding a wicket or more bemused by those in the crowd cheering with a fervour unusual for Lord’s. The wicket-taker was England’s best bowler of the match and the most talked about cricketer of the past few days, Ollie Robinson.

Setting aside for one moment the appropriateness of his punishment and whether he’s a reformed character (I sincerely hope he is), Robinson’s tweets took me back to the 1990s and a sense of not belonging. But it also did something more damaging, it triggered the trauma of my experiences of racism, long before tweets or social media ever existed. My direct experience of racism, like many others, is of the low-key variety: waking up to find dog mess on the doorstep and name calling from a faceless voice in a crowd. They were routine occurrences during childhood, so much so that they almost became mundane events.

Clearly much has changed in society in the past few decades and progress made in the fight against discrimination, of all forms. English cricket has also evolved and in many ways has never felt more enlightened. The 2019 World Cup win felt like a genuine watershed moment, finally England had won a World Cup and with a team that embodied the diversity of modern Britain. But as with many epic battles, progress can be slow and often thwarted by opportunists. English cricket still has much to do, in order to demonstrate genuine inclusivity. The ongoing investigation at Yorkshire CCC, into serious allegations of racism by Azeem Rafiq, and the case of institutional racism against the ECB, brought by respected umpires John Holder and Ismail Dawood, have highlighted failings.

At least one generation of talented cricketers have already been forced into the margins of the game, as characterised by the abundance of cricketers with South Asian heritage playing the game at non-professional and recreational level. They can be found playing in obscure leagues up and down the country, on under prepared pitches and with inadequate umpiring. Their skill and dedication deserve so much more. Whether by accident or design, Ollie Robinson’s tweets have fuelled further division and exacerbated the likelihood of potential stars leaving the game behind, it’s everyone’s responsibility to right the wrong.

Broadcast Schedule

England v Ireland ODI series
ENG v IRE 3rd ODI, County Ground, Bristol
26th September
Start time: 12:30 pm BST