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Cricket’s worst-kept racist secrets

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on July 17, 2020 Published on July 17, 2020

Cricket - First Test - England v West Indies - Rose Bowl Cricket Stadium, Southampton, Britain - July 8, 2020 West Indies players kneel in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign before the match , as play resumes behind closed doors following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Mike Hewitt/Pool via REUTERS   -  REUTERS

Black cricketing legends are shattering the uncomfortable silence around racism in the so-called gentleman’s game

* Both Holding and Rainford-Brent broke down at various points in their respective interviews

* Darren Sammy, has brought some much-needed attention to racism in Indian cricket

Just before the start of a three-match series played behind closed doors between England and the West Indies in the UK last week, the players ‘took a knee’ — as the symbolic act of getting down on one knee has come to be known — in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The West Indian team, captained by Jason Holder, raised gloved right fists in the air. Their salute to the global wave against racism recreated an iconic moment from sports history — the ‘Black Power’ salutes by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

For a game with a colonial past and a lingering history of racism (in 2008, Australian Andrew Symonds had alleged that off-spinner Harbhajan Singh called him a “monkey” several times during a match), what Holder and his team did was huge. Just days later, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton raised a fist at the Austrian Grand Prix.

Sky Sports, the official broadcaster of the cricket series in the UK, also did its bit with a couple of superb interviews with former West Indian fast bowler (and now commentator) Michael Holding, and former British cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent, part of the World Cup-winning women’s team of 2009 and the first black woman to represent her country.

“I know what my parents went through,” Holding said. “My mother’s family stopped talking to her because her husband was too dark. We laugh about it when not living in that society, and sometimes I grimace in my head and I move on. But I cannot keep on laughing, grimacing and moving on. What people need to understand is that this thing stems from (...). The dehumanisation of the black race is where it started.”

Rainford-Brent recounted her struggles as a junior cricketer in the UK, coming through a system which didn’t explicitly discriminate against black people, but did everything it could to encourage her to give up — wherever she went to play, there were comments about “her people”, her body, eating habits and so on. Both Holding and Rainford-Brent broke down at various points in their respective interviews. It was not the kind of stuff that you see in your average sports broadcast.

The issue of racism in English cricket is a complex one. On the face of it, the presence of Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Jofra Archer and Chris Jordan makes the men’s teama diverse one. However, scratch the surface and you’ll see many stories such as those recounted by Rainford-Brent.

Earlier this month, the former English cricketer Roland Butcher, the first black man to represent the country, criticised cricketing authorities in the UK for not doing enough to curb racism. Butcher pointed out how football had, thanks to its zero-tolerance policy in stadiums, greatly reduced instances of racial abuse directed at players.

Meanwhile, another former West Indian cricketer, Darren Sammy, has brought some much-needed attention to racism in Indian cricket. In a viral Instagram post last month, Sammy revealed that during his time with the Deccan Chargers (the 2014 edition of the Indian Premier League), Indian teammates would call him and the Sri Lankan all-rounder Thisara Perera “kalu” (a pejorative meaning ‘dark-skinned’).

Apparently, Sammy had been led to believe the word meant ‘strong stallion’. Sammy was clearly surprised and hurt when he came to know what it actually meant. And his pain showed in one impassioned Instagram video after another, as he exhorted his former teammates (“you know who you are”) to step forward and apologise for what they did.

Prejudice against dark skin is widespread across India. And cricketers, clearly, are not above such biases. In January 2004, after Australian Brett Lee smashed a six off Lakshmipathy Balaji to seal a last-over victory against India, teammate Hemang Badani told Balaji, “Lee must have seen the white ball much more easily as it came out of your dark hand”.

Where do we go from here, then? For starters, there are a few Indian cricketers who’d do well to apologise to Sammy. Next, bigwigs such as Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni could, perhaps, act on the fact that cricketers can amplify political messaging. But, ultimately, given the power equations in Indian cricket, even senior players cannot hope to start this conversation without the support/approval of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Sports administrators in India, including and especially the BCCI, have historically been quick to penalise players who highlight inconvenient, systemic truths — the banning and eventual rehabilitation of Mohammad Azharuddin is a great example of that. In 2000, he was banned for life from playing cricket over allegations of match-fixing. The ban was lifted by a court in 2012.

Political expediency has always defeated structural reform. Irfan Pathan, who retired from cricket in January, has since written articles in Indian newspapers about anti-Muslim violence in the country. It is difficult to imagine Pathan openly airing his views during his playing days — especially given the social media vitriol he’s had to face even now, for daring to speak up about something that really matters.

One thing is for certain — Jason Holder, Darren Sammy and the others have ensured that there will no longer be an uncomfortable silence around racism in cricket.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

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Published on July 17, 2020
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