Is the ICEC report a fair reflection of the recreational game?
NEIL DAVIDSON, the chair of The Cricketer, has been involved in club cricket in the county for more than 50 overs. While condemning racism in the strongest terms, he says the ICEC report could undo a lot of good work
In its recent report, 'Holding Up A Mirror To Cricket', the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), set up by the ECB in the wake of the appalling racist murder of George Floyd by police officers in the United States, came to the unqualified conclusion that "racism, class-based discrimination, elitism and sexism are widespread and deep rooted" in our game.
The treatment of Azeem Rafiq by Yorkshire County Cricket Club, exposed by our chief correspondent, George Dobell, who himself has been the subject of threats for effectively doing his job as a journalist, would appear to support that conclusion.
As well as chairing The Cricketer magazine for the past 13 years, apart from a brief seven-year sojourn into the professional game as Leicestershire's chair, I have been involved in the recreational game for more than 50 years as a player and volunteer. For almost 30 years, I have been either president or chair of Loughborough Town (currently both).
I can only speak for my club and my knowledge of Leicestershire recreational cricket, but that sweeping judgment of ICEC does not resonate with me. If it was true, I would have ceased my involvement years ago. The importance of the game to me is that it is almost uniquely cross-cultural and classless.
The only reason I remain involved is because cricket played a crucial part in my personal development as a young person and I want today's young people of whatever class, colour or creed, to have the same opportunity I had decades ago. It is also the reason I have the privilege of chairing the Youth Sport Trust, a national charity doing brilliant work with young people to help them develop their full potential using sport as a vehicle.
Loughborough Town's women are going from strength to strength (James O'Kelly/Loughborough Town CC)
Prejudices, in all its forms, regrettably still exist in society so it is unsurprising that they can be found in cricket. Wherever such prejudices exist in our game, they must be rooted out – there can be no compromises. I am appalled that more than 2,000 cricketers reported to ICEC that they had been the subject of racism… each one is one too many.
However, equally concerning is the potential unintended consequences of the report, if those who have retired from playing but remain involved with their clubs as a way of 'putting something back' walk away it would have serious consequences for grassroots cricket. As one club chair I know put it: "The report trashes everything I've been trying to do for the past 25 years, why should I bother?"
Recreational cricket clubs are practically more challenging to run than most sports, and the game cannot afford to lose its volunteers, where there is already a shortage. Loughborough ran into those difficulties six years ago, which is why I returned as chair alongside a previous treasurer. Numbers on the field were not the problem, volunteers to run the club was.
The second potential unintended consequence is if the report leads to parents not wanting their offspring to take up the game. For me there in no other sport like cricket, essentially an individual sport played in a team context… a metaphor for life, with the personal development opportunities that brings for young people.
The report raises serious issues which need to be addressed but where I feel it falls short is that it takes no account, in the recreational game, how cricket is evolving, nor does it consider alternative explanations for some of its findings, beyond prejudice.
Loughborough Twon's 1st XI pictured in 2022 (James O'Kelly/Loughborough Town CC)
Here in Leicestershire, the evidence is that British South-Asian participation in the game is expanding while traditional white participation is diminishing. In the Premier Division of the Leicestershire and Rutland League last season, 45 per cent of the players were South-Asian compared to 28 per cent a decade ago, which I understand is representative of the league as a whole. There is no reason to believe that this trend will not continue.
The introduction of a league pyramid system two decades ago by the England and Wales Cricket Board has no doubt created aspiration which led to ambitious young Asian cricketers moving up the pyramid to clubs playing a better standard with better facilities and pitches. While it is much smaller in number, the same has not happened within the local African-Caribbean community.
Elite education has not played much of a part in the rise in South-Asian participation. Of the Loughborough team featured in the 2023 photograph, only four players went to independent schools. Chance to Shine and the MCC Foundation do good work locally introducing state school pupils to the game, but there is little competitive inter-school cricket played by state schools in the county.
Clearly, the evidence shows that neither race, class nor education are placing barriers in the way of South Asians playing recreational cricket in Leicestershire. If it was not for their participation, many clubs would no longer exist.
Over the past decade a number a number of grassroots clubs, particularly in villages, have disappeared as interest among white youngsters has waned. Some are hanging on by their fingertips, with men playing into their 60s to attempt to preserve the game in their locality. Alongside this is a shortage of pitches in Leicester, and Asian teams spreading out into the county to play their cricket.
Dips Patel (left) celebrates Leicestershire's One-Day Cup success with Uttam Ramji (Dips Patel)
The evidence is also clear that cricket is far more embedded in the South-Asian culture than either the traditional white and African-Caribbean cultures locally. Research is needed to understand these dynamics. I suspect role models play a significant part.
The big growth area locally is the development of women's and girls' cricket which most of the major clubs have embraced. The exposure of women's cricket in The Hundred is doing the same for that aspect of the game as the Lionesses did for women's and girls' soccer.
The picture I have painted of cricket in this 'neck of the woods' is a far cry from the 'racism, class-based discrimination, elitism and sexism' described in the ICEC report, but it would be wrong of me to extrapolate that to the rest of the country. I am sure 'the top-down' statistics contained in the report are accurate, but what is now needed is a county-by-county, area-by-area 'bottom up' analysis.
Dips Patel: a triumph for resilience
Dips Patel's parents were part of the early 1970s East African exodus. He went to City of Leicester School but learnt his cricket on the 'parks' pitches for Bharat Sports in the largely Asian community Mutual League.
Talented and ambitious, he moved first to Clarendon Park, an established Leicester club (now defunct) and joined Loughborough in 1996. By 2002 he was captain, a position he held for 15 seasons. He performed well in Leicestershire's 2nd Xl in the 1990s. Racism was probably a factor in him not being awarded a professional contract.
During his time at Loughborough, he developed his coaching skills, worked as a freelance coach, achieved the highest-level professional qualification and is now 2nd XI coach at Leicestershire and part of the Trent Rockets backroom team.
This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of The Cricketer magazine. To subscribe and receive a free gift visit https://www.thecricketer.com/christmas.html
Units 7-8, 35-37 High St, Barrow upon Soar, Loughborough, LE128PY
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