No Country for Cricket Men

How Cultural Maoism has Taken Over English Cricket

As a young firebrand of the New Dissident Right, it’s highly likely that you don’t know or care much about cricket. That’s OK – the story I must tell could be about the perilous future of any traditional past-time or hobby you enjoy. The agenda currently destroying cricket is the same agenda seen so frequently in the recent cultural milieu that it would be easy to begin with the comedian’s refrain “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.” Except there is no punchline.

Cricket has been my great love since accidentally catching a match on TV aged eight. It is a sport rich in statistics and history; the game of Empire as famously evoked in Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada, exhorting patriotic young men to “play up, play up, and play the game” in service of Her Majesty. It has existed quite comfortably in the lives of Britain and its colonies for well over two centuries. True, it has occasionally been inconvenienced by a world war, but once normality returned, so too did cricket. A game that rarely changed and was eminently pleasing in its constancy became a comforting and reliable ritual of the fleeting and sweet English summer.

Innovations inevitably arrived. Shorter formats of the game, different rules, new initiatives to get bums on seats and crack open the fabled ‘new and diverse’ audiences. All of this had varying impacts on engagement, but county cricket, the vanguard of tradition with eighteen teams representing eighteen traditional English counties had largely been undisturbed. The hardcore, if that term can be accurately used to describe retirees with fleece jackets and thermos flasks, stayed loyal to their beloved county sides and hunkered down, hoping their hobby would be left alone.

No such luck. In 2020 during the Summer of Floyd — and then again at the end of 2021 — a former player, Azeem Rafiq, made headline news with allegations about his time at Yorkshire County Cricket Club (he since became the target of multiple accusations himself). It was found that Rafiq was the victim of racial bullying by his former teammates, including his (former) best friend and captain. Due to the inquisitorial BLM-induced climate, heads rolled, teeth gnashed indignantly, and hairshirts were donned. This was not just a bullying case to be dealt with internally, race was involved and therefore an opportunity to vivisect the game presented itself to parties entirely unconcerned with the welfare of the great game.

Yorkshire’s Headingley stadium was banned from hosting international matches for at least a year, hitting the club in the pocket as well as their pride. Capricious and unprecedented, the authorities sought to make an example of the club and — to borrow Churchill’s phrase — make an offering to the crocodile in the hope that they were eaten last.

Cricket is not a rich game, and for the stadia good enough to be selected for international competition, the cash injection is likely to see them and their staff through the financial year. Local caterers, security, and part-time bar staff all rely on the revenue from this annual fixture. It could be suggested the Yorkshire public themselves were being punished.

The club, acting on advice of their freshly installed chairman Lord Patel (the previous chair resigned in ignominy over this case), sacked all sixteen members of their coaching staff in one fell swoop — regardless of any guilt or involvement in the Rafiq affair. The witch hunt was on.

The cricketing fraternity is small and tightly knit. The reputations of all sixteen are now ruined. Some were named by Rafiq – many were not and are now forever tarnished, falling prey to a grim prosecuting mania where the principle of innocent until proven guilty was cast aside as a quaint irrelevance.

Rafiq testified to a Department of Culture Media and Sport select committee convened in outrage in November 2021, with findings recently published. Whether all alleged bullying victims are to be offered a government inquiry remains to be seen. The DCMS report has threatened that unless cricket’s “deep seated” racism is tackled head-on and with fury, then the game will lose its vital government funding. What’s happening in cricket is a facsimile of so many other familiar case studies. The accusation, the media outcry of the chattering classes, the government or authority intervention and the introduction of new, approved players and officials who think the ‘right way’.

Taking the temperature of the global media-sporting climate, it’s easy to hazard a guess at what this will look like: black and minority ethnic players promoted over the traditional ‘pale and stale’ intake, a fracturing of the relationship between the game’s heartlands in the rural shires and an earnest push to get the disaffected inner-city youth to put down their machete and pick up a cricket bat. Commentators with a Multicultural London English patois on our TV and radio describing it all.

And what’s wrong with any of that? Well, much.

Part of the allure of cricket is its past. The wholesome cloak of legend in which it is so proudly shrouded. It inspires devotion, reverence and is treated with love in a way other sports aren’t. Cricket for many is a family heirloom, something our father handed down to us, and their father handed down to them. It is of a different era, an anachronism best displayed by the fact that the premier way to enjoy the game is not on television, but radio.

To call BBC’s Test Match Special “sports commentary” is like describing Rembrandt’s Night Watch as “a drawing.” Six hours a day, for five whole days of measured and insightful analysis, with occasional endearing English silliness. Rich voices floating over crackly longwave, evocative of long road journeys under grey skies to soggy holidays in Cornwall. Sadly, not even the sacred Test Match Special has avoided the puritanical meddlers. Whereas once you needed to know lots about cricket and it was advantageous if you had played the game, now commentators just need to have played the game and it’s a bonus if they know anything whatsoever. And if they are non-white and non-male, even better.

Sir Geoffrey Boycott, kind of a cricketing Prince Philip character whose knowledge of the game and love for his country is only matched by his opinion of himself and enjoyment in being rude to others, left (read: was pushed from) the flagship show in 2020, stating “I think it was getting to the point where political correctness was more important than whether you were an expert at cricket, put it that way.”

Boycott has been cleared out. So too his TV counterpart David Gower. Both former England captains with adept knowledge of the intricacies of the highest form of the game. In their place, shouty young women who present podcasts.

It appears there is no place left for even the most knowledgeable who bear the albatross of being both white and male. The tedious zeitgeist ‘representation’ – how is the audience represented by the hosts of the media consumed, seems to have been replaced in cricket — and perhaps all sports — by an ‘imagined representation’ of how the authorities want their audience to look, as if they could close their eyes and wish really hard they might somehow find that all the middle-aged white men who love the game are replaced by drill rappers, lesbians and inner-city chemists. That this is happening all over the world is evident. Why it is desirable is open for debate. One wonders, for example, why the marquee Nike commercial during last summer’s European football championships featured a female Somali referee in a hijab when the likelihood of such a person existing in marketable quantities is vanishingly small.

This speaks to a bigger issue in the contemporary West. The oft-derided inanity of the safe space seems a perfectly reasonable demand too much of the media class. Conversely, a space where grumpy middle-aged white men can be left alone to enjoy the things which they like seems unconscionable, unpalatable. It happened in Rugby where a team could no longer be called the England Saxons for reasons of diversity and inclusion. It’s happened to Premier League Football, it has happened to episodic TV (black Anne Boleyn, anyone?) and now it’s happening to cricket. This is no country for middle-class white men.

No pastime, however cherished, is safe. All is before the tribunal and the message is clear: That thing you like; that thing that’s brought you so much joy, that thing you loved watching with your father, and he enjoyed watching with his? We don’t like that you like it. You can continue to like it – because you subsidise it — but it must be on our terms.

Cricket is not a racist game. The greatest team that ever stepped onto an oval were the fearsome West Indians of the 1980s, eleven ultra-professional athletes who conquered all before them. No one refutes this. The team was adored in England and Australia. The two greatest batsmen of the modern era were a princely little Indian named Tendulkar and a plucky Trinidadian named Brian Charles Lara. The game itself is most popular in India and Pakistan where it nears the status of a religion. That some top-class players may have said and done some very unpalatable things is highly likely. There is no reason to disbelieve the findings of the inquiry and the apologetic testimonials of those involved. If you look at high testosterone, high-pressure environments in any context you will find high-status men being mean to each other. We can purse our lips and demand regulation all we like, but to invoke the Trump defence: “locker room talk” is a fact of life.

In this case, Azeem Rafiq’s issues have merely given pretext to enact something that was always going to be enacted anyway.

An institution as traditional, as unchanged, and as beloved as cricket could not be allowed to go unchallenged for long. Despite the protestations of its core audience, cricket now belongs to The Blob. An Orwellian language shift is already well underway; for instance the elegant and historic noun ‘batsman’ has been sinisterly replaced by the gender nonspecific and soulless ‘batter’ almost overnight. The Ashes, a bilateral series played between England and Australia which dates to 1882 is now referred to as the Men’s Ashes, drawing parity with a contrived female version of the competition which didn’t exist until 1994. This attempt to be inclusive excludes those who care most about the game and its history. One almost suspects that is the point. They have ruined football and pubs and all manner of good things, and now they come for cricket. And that will be England gone.

Dan Simons is a teacher from the Midlands of England who wishes he wasn’t.

Cover photo: England’s national cricket team look on after losing to India, 1971.

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