ECB and Cricket Australia blundering deeper into crisis with Ashes looming | Andy Bull

So, how’s that Ashes phoney war going? Back at the beginning of November the headline problem in English cricket was who would bowl in the death overs now Tymal Mills was injured. Three weeks later, the government is threatening to bring in an independent regulator to oversee the ECB, whose chief executive, Tom Harrison, is fighting to hold on to his job, because England’s most successful county club, which has lost its CEO and chairman and suspended its head coach, has been called institutionally racist, while a slew of current players and commentators have been accused of racist and discriminatory behaviour.

Less than a week ago Australia were celebrating their first-ever World T20 Trophy. Now they have lost their Test captain, Tim Paine, because of a sexting scandal that happened the last time England were in Australia, in 2017. Paine sent an unsolicited “dick pic” to a female employee of Cricket Tasmania with the caption “finish me off right now”. Four years later, she has, and now Australia have got a fortnight to find a replacement. Cricket Australia cleared Paine of breaching their code of conduct in an investigation they held at the time, but now it’s finally gone public, have decided that they don’t “condone his language or behaviour” after all.

There are some common themes here, of players who seem oblivious to the impact their behaviour has on their colleagues, who seem to feel free to abuse the power they have over people junior to them, and of bosses who have failed to hold those players to account until they’ve been shamed into doing it.

This is the same Cricket Australia who were making great play of their plan to commission two new statues of female cricketers as a demonstration of their “commitment to challenging ourselves to continue to address gender inequality across our game” even while they were sitting on a report about Paine’s behaviour, the same ECB who had their players dress up in “anti-discrimination T-shirts” as a display of their “collective stance against any form of discrimination in cricket” even while they, and Yorkshire, were dragging their heels following up on Rafiq’s allegations, which had been made the previous year.

This is the behaviour of executives whose principles are dictated by public relations, who believe in doing the right thing as an exercise in damage limitation. The ECB were at it again on Friday, putting out a statement following their “all-game meeting” that offered a series of platitudes about “making cricket more open and inclusive” and “ensuring effective governance and leadership”, and promises of “a series of tangible commitments to make cricket a sport where everyone feels safe and everyone feels included”. There was absolutely no information on what, exactly, those tangible commitments might be. Apparently they still need to “consult with their stakeholders” before finalising the details.

Tim Paine resigns as Australia Test cricket captain over texting scandal – video
Tim Paine resigns as Australia Test cricket captain over texting scandal – video

It’s a bureaucratic word salad, institutional gobbledegook leavened with meaningless poster slogans like “we stand together against discrimination in all its forms” and “our game must win back your trust”, the language of people who have forgotten how to talk honestly, and who are hopelessly out of touch with basic human emotions at play here.

One of the great lessons in all this is that language matters, how one small phrase, even when it’s apparently meant in jest, can cause lasting pain and trauma. This week the ECB’s executives have given us a variation on the same lesson, it’s been one long demonstration of how it is possible to say so much and have no real impact at all.

“We are truly sorry,” the statement says. How reassuring to know it’s not one of their insincere apologies. And a sincere apology, Rafiq said in parliament on Tuesday, was “all I ever wanted”. How they must wish they had given it to him then, in the plain and straightforward language some of those same Yorkshiremen who have been accused of discriminating against him are supposedly famous for. The lawyers who (you imagine) are vetting their statements seem to be more prolix.

In among the blizzard of allegations, accusations, and apologies, Rafiq gave one himself when screenshots began to circulate on social media showing a series of antisemitic messages he had sent 10 years earlier.

And typically, his was a model for everyone else to follow: swift, unmitigated, and humane, it sounded like he had written it himself, rather than had it done on his behalf. Rafiq’s messages didn’t diminish his testimony about the culture of the club. If anything they are more evidence about how commonplace racist language was at Yorkshire while he was playing there.

It’s too late for a sorry to suffice now, even if the ECB was capable of giving a good one. It’s been 14 months since Rafiq first described how he had considered suicide because of the institutional racism he’d faced at the club, and sorry is not enough. Not any more. The speed with which this has all unravelled is in inverse proportion to the time in which it’s been building, and all the years of institutional failure to address the problem.

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Rafiq was the crack that broke the dam. The ECB says that more than 1,000 people have contacted its inquiry into discrimination in cricket in the last week alone. It has already grown well beyond what they are capable of handling. The ECB can’t even be trusted to run a cricket competition without alienating the vast majority of cricket supporters, and that’s what it is supposed to be good at. The idea that they’re in any way equipped to take on a social, political, and cultural problem of this size is utterly laughable.

If there’s one positive in all this, it’s that everyone now has a clear idea of the scale of the problem the sport has been fighting against – and there are, even at the ECB, lots of good people fighting against it. Australia don’t have that, yet, and there is a clear sense of a wider problem lurking under the surface there, too. But then you don’t have to look too hard, or ask too loud, to find evidence of endemic sexism in English cricket either. The Ashes is three weeks away, and the two countries are slouching towards Brisbane.