England and The West Indies: Cricket, COVID-19, Race

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The 8th July 2020 sees a remarkable new innovation for Cricket. The Test Series originally planned for June this year was postponed because of obvious issues surrounding COVID-19. The series seemed unlikely to take place until late May when the West Indian Cricket Board agreed ‘in principle’ to a series subject to the changing nature of the pandemic. The details were agreed in early June. The arrangements in place for this series are unprecedented. The games will be played at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton and Old Trafford and will be played in a bio-safe environment without the presence of spectators. Captain Jason Holder, of the West Indians, seemed to recognise the significance of this extraordinary departure saying,

“This is a huge step forward in cricket and in sports in general […] A lot has gone into the preparations for what will be a new phase in the game.”

What this means for the wider cricketing world, The County Championship, The Hundred, and T20 remains to be seen, but will no doubt focus the minds of Cricket Boards to step up their efforts to engage more people in the sport if they are going to survive the dearth of the recession and already dwindling interest in the sport. Nevertheless, the return of cricket highlights to the BBC and broadcast revenues not being lost means that the £380m projected loss will, thankfully, be averted.

Another, less pleasant, aspect of this Test Series will be the context of racial tension following the murder of George Floyd in May this year. It has never been forgotten that slavery in the West Indian Colonies was, in part, a British invention and the legacy of that racism remained until 1976 when Captain Tony Greig made the unsavoury comment,

“I intend to make them grovel”.

This comment aimed at the West Indian Cricket team had the effect of unleashing a torrent of passionate intensity and anger. The West Indians subsequently aimed their fast pace attack not only towards England’s batting order, but also to, “defeating racism on the playing field”. In the end, it was captain Greig himself who was made to grovel after a humiliating “blackwash” 3-0 defeat in the series. The West Indies went on to dominate International Test Cricket until 1991. They epitomised an Afro-Carribean spirit that rejoiced in their black identities. Vivian Richards, a leading West Indian Batsman, embodied this spirit alongside Bob Marley and became the darling of the Caribbean. Even in Britain, West Indians who arrived as part of the Windrush Generation to help rebuild the country after the Second World War finally found proud identities to celebrate embodied by the West Indian Cricket Team.

The ideal of cricket is rightly held up as an aspiration to decency, fairplay, and sportsmanship. Like most ideals that is all it remains. Cricket’s struggle with racism over the decades demonstrates that even on the playing field it is difficult to remove the barriers so many people face. In recent years significant progress has been made. Comments like Greig’s have been replaced by the emminently decent Joe Root who said of Holder’s West Indian Team,

“One thing that stood out was how formidable their bowling attack can be.”

The presence of Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, and Jofra Archer as minority ethnic players in a multiethnic English Cricket team also demonstrates that English Cricket has reconciled its previous prejudice and now embraces multiracialism.

It would not, however, go unnoticed, if like Andy Murray the entire English Cricket team followed his example and took a knee in solidarity with their black counterparts, opponents, and compatriots. This, I think, would be a deeply impressive and salutary way of approaching cricket’s less than pleasant legacy with race. It would also be entirely in keeping with the ideal of cricket as a gentlemanly sport. Murray said, “I’m trying my best to learn and understand a little bit more about the Black Lives Matter movement and systemic racism and sport is not free from that either”. I have no doubt that Joe Root, the decent captain and person that he is, will not recoil from this and I hope will follow Murray’s example.

July; 8-12 1st Test, Southampton 16-20 2nd Test, Old Trafford 24-28,  3rd Test, Old Trafford.

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