English cricket takes first step to addressing its deep-rooted flaws

“It feels like an earthquake has hit us,” said Tom Harrison on Friday afternoon. The ECB chief executive was speaking from Lord’s having finally ratified an action plan to tackle racism and all forms of discrimination at all levels of cricket.

That it arrived two days later than expected speaks of the challenges of compiling such a body of work which on the face of it looks very similar to previous iterations. The difference this time around is the climate around the game and its perception. From the outside, it has never been more toxic. From the inside, it has never been more amenable to change.

Cricket has stumbled into this space: forced most of the way before taking more deliberate steps, of which the 12 parts of these five points are just one. Everything from education, investigations and recruitment feature throughout.

The desire for this “meaningful change” was brought about by the stories of Azeem Rafiq and others who exposed a rotten core, replete with the kind of evidence that had previously been regarded as anecdotes. The more cynical have been wondering if the ECB are merely reacting to the bad publicity, and to be fair, that is no bad thing. Harrison made reference to the game “being portrayed in the worst possible way in the world’s media” on Friday, and no doubt this public shaming has forced all institutions within English cricket to front up on these matters as quickly as possible.

Now comes the hard part – actually following through with actions. And the difference this time around is that they will actually have to happen. The measures outlined around dressing room culture, crowd behaviour or recruitment skewed against minorities, for example, exist in the pages of previous manifestos though now will be more susceptible to scrutiny from the public and government. The threat of the “nuclear option” of an independent regulator, as sports minister Nigel Huddleston put it, will remain above the heads of the ECB for the foreseeable future.

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No doubt this plan does not contain all the answers, but the question to ask is how does cricket make up the acres of ground to catch up? What we have found out over the last 18 months is that it has been an environment where the prejudices in society have been allowed to thrive. Therefore the issue will become how effectively they will play out when hurried. As oven-ready as these proposals may be, they are being chucked in a microwave.

There are many parts to all these – stakeholders if you will – and as ever with this kind of collective march forward, change will only be as quick as the slowest (ergo, most reluctant). A snapshot of this was provided last Friday during the in-game meeting at the Oval.

A collective of the ECB, MCC, Professional Cricketers’ Association, National Counties Cricket Association and the first class and recreational county cricket network discussed wide-ranging action to tackle discrimination and promote diversity and inclusion at all levels, all offering unanimous support. The public statement issued, however, was chock full of platitudes. A by-product of those 51 present wanting to be part of the solution but will very little idea what that solution may be. There’s a phrase about horse design, committees and a camel that fits neatly right about here.

That’s not to say these discussions are not without the best of intentions, nor should it be assumed that descent into management speak is merely deflection. Though there is a quiet irony that administrators, for the time being at least, are sticking to what they know. Something which has been part of the problem all along.

Even with unanimous support, there will remain a degree of dragging counties into a world and mindset that should have already been the norm. The fear from players of colour, in the men’s game especially, is that forcing change too quickly will only exacerbate certain ill-feeling many have publicly and privately complained about or simply let slide.

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison admitted the ECB’s 12-point plan could have been firmer

What’s clear is the ECB believe administrative change at the top of the game can come quickly, which is perhaps why this action plan has taken so long to ratify. The aim to have thirty per cent of roles in all first-class county and national county boardrooms must be held by females or ‘representative ethnicity’ of the area was mooted for April in the original draft. Now, counties will have to show their working if they have been unable to comply.

A partnership is due to be set-up with Sport England and Perret Laver – an executive search firm – to make use of the Diversity in Sport Leadership programme established in 2018. The ECB will look to recruit those who have emerged through this scheme, which prepares leaders from private sector for roles in leading sporting organisations, as well as target names already within cricket.

Convincing them to come to cricket is no certainty, just as there will be a challenge to convince others to stay. On Wednesday, Mehmooda Duke stood down from her role as chair of Leicestershire. Dyke was the only female chair of a first-class county, and one of three female board members from a minority ethnic background.

The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), set-up last year, have received over 2,000 responses through their online survey which went live on 9 November. As well as allegations of racist abuse from current and former cricketers connected to all 18 first-class counties have been comments about sexism and other forms of discrimination from those either still involved or have left cricket.

The adoption of a fully independent system to report, investigate and respond to complaints and allegations across the game was also mooted and is at least another positive step to meeting whistleblowers more than halfway. This, ideally, will build on the work of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), headed by Cindy Butts.

The ICEC is still at the data gathering stage. Once that has been completed to a sufficient level, the commission will move on to the next stage with focus groups and person-to-person interviews centred around these complaints, what they relate to and the lived experiences of those willing to come forward. Indeed there is a sense the situation cricket finds itself in will get a whole lot worse as more stories filter through, whether publicly or in private.

Harrison knows this too, and it was clear he harbours some disappointment that the measures he himself outlined could and should be firmer. “I know there are people who feel we should have gone further – and indeed, I’m probably in that camp myself. The fact of the matter is we have to get everyone to agree to all of these commitments in full.”

There is no doubt Harrison feels this more than most. He is under increasing pressure to step aside, a movement fuelled by Duke who used her departing statement to call for fresh leadership at the top of the game. And it was clear a personal attachment to delivering what has been laid out is driving his belligerence to stay put and oversee these shifts.

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“I know that we are in the dock for words, words, words, blah, blah, blah, no acton – that kind of thing. What we are trying to say here is that this action-orientated.”

No doubt these actions will come to pass. Time will tell if they are worthwhile. For now at least, English cricket, as a whole, is facing in the right direction.

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