Cricket has made a start in tackling discrimination – it must see it through | Chris Grant

There is a maxim in modern, systemic approaches to leading organisations through change: “They say that, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The truth is that, if you don’t acknowledge you’re part of the problem, you can never effectively become part of the solution.”

In the run-up to last week’s hastily convened meeting of cricketing bodies at the Oval, it seemed that the protagonists were preparing to point fingers rather than look in the mirror. That’s why, in an open letter, I stressed that, for me and I believe many others, the only acceptable outcome from the meeting was “A credible statement – with evidence behind it – that you are prepared to acknowledge that the game you love is deeply flawed, and that you’re willing to be held individually and collectively accountable for fixing it”.

So have cricket’s leaders delivered? It’s tempting to hide behind the obvious truth that only time will tell. Also, as the England and Wales Cricket Board statement points out, English cricket has a serious trust problem: not so much a deficit, more a vacuum, ingrained in the roots of the game and reinforced down the decades: from the Basil D’Oliveira affair in the 60s to the active exclusion of players and fans with Caribbean heritage in the 70s and 80s, right up to the recent cancellation of the men’s and women’s tours of Pakistan. Then, of course, there is the insult and injury heaped on Black and Brown players and lovers of the game.

This last element goes some way to explaining the gulf between the volume and vibrancy of support for events such as the 2019 one-day World Cup, and the tumbleweed that blows across most county grounds through much of the season. It also means that Azeem Rafiq is far from alone in not wanting his children to go anywhere near cricket.

Pakistan and India fans at Old Trafford during the 2019 World Cup
Pakistan and India fans at Old Trafford during the 2019 World Cup, which brought vibrant multicultural crowds through the turnstiles. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Perhaps it is because there has been a ripple of recognition through the game of the enormous cost of all this that Friday’s statement ticks some important boxes.

First, while stopping short of using terms such as “structural”, “systemic” or “institutional”, the pledge and commitments make it clear that racism permeates the structures and practices of the whole game, rather than being restricted to isolated pockets, or incidents, of bullying and harassment. Of course any instances of overt racism must be properly addressed, but to focus only on these would miss the point. It would also condemn everyone to the classic and ultimately unhelpful phenomenon of what I call “whack-a-mole anti-racism”, where – when new allegations come to light, as they surely will – organisations find themselves trying to deal with a stream of individual cases, all the time adding to the impression that the game is riddled with unaddressed wrongs.

Structural racism requires a structural response. The overhaul of governance and regulation; the establishment of a new anti-discrimination unit and the inclusion of diversity and inclusion standards within the criteria used to evaluate venues for international matches all fall into this category. Yet initiatives such as this can never be enough, and often take too long, or generate unintended side-effects. The major “pivot points” that can shift culture tend to show up as barriers or bottlenecks. So a plan that is packed with “positive” actions and initiatives, but which doesn’t target negative features of the current landscape, will generally fail. With its stated intention to “identify and remove structural and cultural barriers in our elite talent pathways”, or to invest in “detection, enforcement and sanctions against discriminatory and abusive crowd behaviour”, the plan passes this test.

Perhaps the most important ingredient in a convincing change effort is leadership. The impact of Lord Kamlesh Patel within his first month as chairman of Yorkshire illustrates how quickly the right leadership approach can start to detoxify even the most polluted of environments. In a recent edition of Desert Island Discs, Tom Ilube, the tech entrepreneur and chair of the Rugby Football Union, recounted how, during the first week of his first job in the City of London, a senior colleague took him to one side and said: “Tom, there are friends of mine who would have you swinging from the nearest tree.” This kind of story is familiar to many of us who started our careers in the 70s or 80s, and I wouldn’t wish the associated pain and confusion on anyone. Yet it’s also obvious that the presence at senior levels of people who have been on the receiving end of such things makes it far less likely that an organisation will ignore, underestimate or even try to cover them up, as has been the case for too long in cricket and many other sectors.

Lord Kamlesh Patel
Lord Kamlesh Patel has already had an encouraging impact since becoming Yorkshire chairman. Photograph: Allan McKenzie/

Ironically, the commitment that seems to have posed the most problems in winning support from all the cricketing organisations – improvements in board and leadership diversity by April 2022 – is something the broader sporting sector has already demonstrated can be achieved. Step one came with the introduction of a governance code, which mandated term limits to board appointments, and immediately created a situation where vacancies would occur. Step two was to put the message out to the many highly qualified people from diverse backgrounds, who either had not considered applying for board positions in sport, or who had anticipated and, in some cases, experienced discrimination, that they were wanted, and would receive fair treatment.

The results have been striking: since 2015, the proportion of board members with Black, Asian and other ethnically diverse backgrounds in organisations co-funded by Sport England has risen from 4% to 13%. Interestingly, one of the action points in cricket’s plan is to piggyback on the process that has delivered these advances. The profile of executive leadership will take longer to change, but the adoption of anonymised recruitment tools, along with the recognition that the game and its organisations can only flourish if its leadership reflects and relates to the whole of society, should deliver visible results within months.

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The statement’s commitments relating to investment and transparency are very important, and must be honoured. Is every signatory to the letter, with its impressive expressions of contrition and unity, sincere? Probably not. Do they really understand the issues? Certainly not, but the point is that they’ve acknowledged their accountability for the current realities of the game and for its future healing and improvement.

We should all hope they’re successful. As I said to them: “You have the opportunity to do something good and important – not only for your game but for all of the people who love or could love it; for all of the people who have been wronged by it and for a country which, frankly, can’t afford to do without the kinds of benefits that a healthy, accessible, happy game of cricket could deliver.”

Chris Grant is a leading sports administrator and independent non-executive board member of Sport England

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