ICEC report

The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report came out on June 26, 2023. In the 2024 edition of the Wisden Almanack, Michael Collins, a member of the ICEC, writes about the report.

It is unlikely to have escaped the attention of readers that the English game has been mired in scandals and conflicts relating to racism. To some, this may be an unwelcome distraction from the cricket, as if what happens on the field were disconnected from the wider context within which cricketers are produced. For others, allegations and denials, most consistently and publicly at Yorkshire, provide further evidence of a sport that has long been institutionally racist.

The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report, published in June 2023, was unequivocal that “deeply rooted and widespread forms of structural and institutional racism continue to exist across the game”. Writing here in a personal capacity, but as one of the four commissioners who worked under the leadership of the ICEC chair, Cindy Butts, I naturally – and fully – endorse that position. Racism takes many forms. It can be overt and explicit, verbally or physically. It may be sly, nagging, needling, wrongly dismissed as banter. Indeed, when he returned as Yorkshire chair in early 2024, Colin Graves apologised for doing just that during his first spell in the job. Our research made it clear racism remains prevalent within cricket. It has destroyed many lives, and inhibited the development of a swealth of talent. We must make sure this is a genuine moment of change. That requires leaders within the game to take a strong stand, particularly in cases where other powerful people are orchestrating processes of denial, obfuscation and backsliding. The ECB were told in a report in 1997 that cricket was blighted by racism, but did little to address the problem. They must not make the same mistake again.

But our report, as spelled out in its opening pages, was not just about racism. Equally importantly, we wrote, cricket is marked by “structural and institutional sexism and class-based discrimination”. In addition to entrenched racism, we found that women cricketers and staff are marginalised, and routinely experience sexism and misogyny. We also found, unsurprisingly, that class prejudice is extensive, that the dominance of private schools constitutes a deep divide – in terms of cricket’s culture and its resources – and that this schismunderpins cricket’s talent pathway, determining who gets to progress along it, and ultimately represent their country. We noted too that Lord’s, branded “the home of cricket”, still cannot find time for England’s women to play a Test match. It does, though, manage to fit in Eton v Harrow and Oxford v Cambridge, which typically have a dismal attendance and arguably present the worst images of elitism to the wider public. MCC have decided they would like this state of affairs to continue, at least until 2027. Our report argues that these matches should no longer be played at Lord’s, and be replaced – ideally with immediate effect – with the finals day of an open schools competition, with parents, family and friends, and an expectant new generation of young cricketers in attendance.

For largely historical reasons, cricket is still, notionally, England’s summer sport. Sadly, it does not represent our nation as it is today. This is not meant as an attack on the game: it is born out of a patriotic desire for cricket to grow and thrive. As Cindy Butts put it in her foreword, the report aims “to ensure that cricket can truly represent the best values and principles of our nation, and which everyone can be truly proud to call our national summer sport”. The report is a rallying cry for the democratisation of English cricket.

How did we reach these conclusions and make these recommendations? Our report, which runs to 317 pages, is based on two years of research, in-depth interviews, evidence gathering, and written submissions, from the grassroots of cricket to the upper echelons of the playing, administration and management cadres. These included the ECB, Heather Knight, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, MCC, and all first-class counties and their chairs, with one or two exceptions. Ian Botham, chair of Durham, was asked more than once to offer his views but, for whatever reason, declined.

The report contains an extensive chapter on schools and the talent pathway, presenting an unprecedented level of statistical data that shows the connections between private schools and the cricket Establishment. There is also a 10,000-word chapter on the history of cricket, which argues that the game, over the long term, does not simply represent hierarchies within British society, but deepens them.

The centrepiece lies in the more than 4,000 submissions to our survey. They are from cricket people: volunteers, coaches, parents, and players at school, club and county level. An astonishing 50 per cent – people who play and organise cricket in England and Wales – said they had experienced discrimination of some kind. And 79% classified themselves as “white British”, which implies significant levels of sex- and class-based discrimination.

As someone who played village cricket from the age of eight, continued to play through university until the present, coached juniors for more than five years, has two sons who passed along a county pathway, and has been writing about cricket at all levels for over 20 years, I have a wide range of contacts, colleagues and friends within the game. It was a source of great sadness that some responded to the report with  disbelief and disenchantment. Many volunteers felt it did not fairly reflect the benefits they delivered. In fact, it highlights a wide spectrum of positive developments, and frequently acknowledges the unstinting dedication of those who offer their time to support grassroots and club cricket. But just as class or social context structures the inequalities within the game, so it shapes our reactions to the report’s findings. For many of us who live in relative comfort, the evidence presented is almost unimaginable, even unbelievable.

It is worth recalling the initial response of Mike Atherton: “When sensible people are confronted with something they do not recognise, the prudent reaction is to stop, look and listen. That should be the reaction to the report from anyone, like myself, whose life has been immeasurably enriched by the game. It is important to accept that our experiences are not universal.” As with individual problems, so with societal or institutional ones: acknowledging the reality of a situation is the first step to change. That is why we called our report “Holding up a mirror to cricket”.

One of its most substantial, detailed and potentially far-reaching recommendations relates to schooling and the talent pathway – arguably the bedrock of inequality within the game. Whereas 93 per cent of the population of England and Wales attend state schools, the professional game is dominated by the privately educated. When the England men’s team played Australia at Lord’s last summer, not only  were they all white, but eight (73 per cent) had cultivated their skills at fee-paying institutions.

Private schools operate in a marketplace, and engage in a sporting arms race as part of their business model. That is not the fault of private schools per se, even if it does complicate their charitable status. Many offer facilities that exceed the quality and scale available to some international teams. The provision of scholarships to promising players from the state sector is great for the lucky few, but does nothing to solve the structural inequalities between the private and public sectors. If anything, it entrenches the divide, and begs the question: is there a pathway to elite cricket and England colours that does not run through a private school? If you are a bowler, the answer – as evidenced in our report, and by recent research at Birmingham City University – is “not very often”. If you are a batter, it’s “almost never”.

How has this come about? Privately schooled children have an enormous inbuilt advantage over their state-school counterparts, exacerbated by the nature of the selection process employed by most counties. Many select as early as nine or ten, an age when most state-school primary children have never played cricket; if they have, it will be with a plastic bat and a tennis ball. Their privately schooled counterparts are likely to have been playing hard-ball match cricket with full equipment, possibly from seven or eight. Simple game awareness puts them at an advantage, but they are also likely to have had access to specialist coaching through summer and winter, developing technical skills that are far ahead of the state-school children they are ostensibly competing against – apart from, perhaps, a small number from cricket families.

This scenario – played out across the country, particularly in the south of England – is a good example of “structural discrimination”. County coaches do not get up in the morning aiming to put children from state schools or working-class backgrounds at a disadvantage. But when it comes to selection for a county representative XI, they are obliged to choose from the players they see in front of them. Where selection occurs at such a young age, discrimination is enacted not by individuals, but by the nature of the system.

What can be done? One of our more radical suggestions is that we should not merely tinker with the selection system in these early years, but abolish it. Between the ages of ten and 14, counties should select as many children as possible; some have already embraced a system of intra-county regional matches. These games can be played in generic whites, without the need for expensive branded kit. Since we have recommended that cricket find the resources to make the talent pathway free of direct participation costs, cricket should also minimise travel and time commitments that disproportionately affect working parents and families on low incomes.

The next step is to dispense with the selection of a representative XI playing costly competitive fixtures against other counties. They may well make a small number of players and their families very proud, but the presence of any player in such a team is actually based on flimsy sports science; most experts agree that talent identification in any sport before puberty is extremely difficult. Selecting from as wide a range of ten-to-14-year-olds as possible would allow for uneven changes in physical development and ability, and avoid the creation of toxic hierarchies between the anointed few and those left behind. Beginning representative cricket at a later stage would bring England and Wales into line with India and Australia. There is no representative state-level cricket in India until the age of 14; Australia also fosters a non-specialised, multi-sports approach in the early years of physical development.

It is encouraging that the ECB’s formal response in September to the ICEC report acknowledged the issue, and committed to redefining the “overall structure of the talent pathway”. They added: “This will incorporate the introduction of an early engagement stage, thereby extending the talent pathway, creating greater opportunity for more players to develop, prior to the County Age Group phase. As a result, the introduction of formal CAG cricket will be delayed.”

Part of the rationale for ending the tradition of representative cricket from 10 to 14 is to allow county coaches more time to engage with local state schools. Delaying selection for representative county teams is also vital to allow time for successful projects such as the African-Caribbean Engagement programme, and any other intervention that targets the state sector, to nurture talent, then to compete for representative honours with the privately educated on a more level playing field.

But counties cannot achieve this on their own and, in isolation, delaying county selection is no panacea. There is reason to hope the ECB understand this too. The Lord’s Taverners and the MCC Foundation’s national hub network – which provides training and match-play opportunities for state-school pupils – must be part of the solution. Chance to Shine do excellent work, but only at primary-school level. The secondary-school Years seven to 10 are a vital period of physical and mental development, and this is where the real investment is required. Adequate funding for state-school cricket for these age cohorts will be achieved only if a range of different stakeholders, including government, the ECB, broadcasters and potentially the private sector, invests in facilities and coaching.

Real change will come from a concerted effort to democratise and open up participation in, and progression through, cricket. If successful, the profile of future players and administrators will change in ways that also address problems connected to sexism and racism. Most young cricketers fromminority ethnic backgrounds are schooled in the state system. What may be less appreciated is that girls’ cricket is skewed towards the private sector. Investment in state-school cricket cuts across all three vectors of discrimination: class, ethnicity and sex.

Cricket is a unique sport in terms of England’s history, culture and social make-up. The cricket club is one of those “little platoons” – family, church, and community groups – that can, at its best, embed individuals in wider contexts of meaning and belonging that enrich lives. This is true as much for predominantly white communities in the shires, or rural parts of northern England, as it is for urban, minority ethnic communities. It is certainly the case in northern counties where cricket still has a foothold in traditional working-class areas.

Cricket is proud of its history, but English cricket is held back by an implicit belief that its best times were in the past. As the historian Derek Birley put it: “Cricket mythology requires us to believe in progression from rustic innocence to a golden age, followed by a decline.” It does not have to be this way. History need not make us prisoners of the past. Recognising and understanding the weight of what has gone before is also a route to creating a new and different future. Despite its many problems, cricket can be a wonderful vehicle for social change and cohesion.

A starting point is to recognise that English cricket does not belong to any particular group of people – and then to make good on that claim. The ECB’s mantra is that cricket should be “a game for all”. It is a simple one, somewhat cliche´d and easily mocked, but it is a noble aspiration. All that is required is to turn it into a reality.

Michael Collins’s book Windrush Cricket: Caribbean Migration and the Remaking of Postwar England is due to be published by Oxford University Press.

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