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Battle-lines drawn in the culture war as Ollie Robinson episode becomes political cricket ball

English cricket has no time to lose as divisive issue exposes society's faultlines

David Hopps
David Hopps
The cricket writer and broadcaster, Adam Collins, observed in The Final Word podcast this week that he could pretty much guess 80 percent of the stance that the usual suspects would take on the Ollie Robinson affair.
Sportswriters, shock jocks, politicians, the bloke down the pub and, most unnervingly, ourselves, we all now routinely rehash positions established long ago in the full-scale culture war that has become a permanent feature of British life. So here we go then, that leaves 20 percent of unexpected insights at best - and, if they emerge at all, they will probably emerge from an empty, hollow despair about how society should be better than this.
Robinson, or at least an 18-year-old Robinson, has blundered oafishly into the latest episode of the never-ending culture war that has become our daily soundtrack. Twitter has condemned him, or condemned those who do; the usual riot of digital indignation. And, in a polarised world, all of us have rushed to the side we were told we must choose long ago. Woke liberals against prejudice and injustice to the left, conservative self-appointed defenders of free speech to the right. Hurry along now, and assume your positions. Most of you were in position already, debating the booing of England's football team. The ignorant and bigoted booing, that is. Just in case you want an early clue where these observations might be heading.
To its dismay, the ECB finds itself caught up in an issue which is being wilfully misrepresented by many outside the game. The prime offender is the prime minister, Boris Johnson, assisted by his underling at the ministry for digital, culture, media and sport, Oliver Dowden, who have both termed Robinson's "punishment" (actually a suspension pending an investigation) as excessive as they calculatingly seek political capital from the latest populist issue to protect their lead in the polls. The prime minister does not much care for accountability or moralising - and the opinion polls suggest that neither does the majority of the public.
But this is not about victimisation of the perpetrator. It is about protecting the real victims - the minorities who became the quarry during Robinson's sexist and racist tweets, however immature and unthinking that they may have been, and who repeatedly find such episodes socially debilitating as they seek a just and fair society.
In suspending Robinson, English cricket acted as it must - although, if the investigation drags on, it has the capacity to mess up from here. Robinson's historic tweets were not only distasteful, the timing of their discovery could not have been more unfortunate as they ran directly contrary to the ECB's central tenet - emblazoned on pre-Test t-shirts - that the game must become more inclusive, diverse and welcoming to everyone. Test debut or not, irrespective of whether the greatest day in his life was about to be tarnished for ever, the ECB had no choice but to explore the matter further. It is what any well-run business would feel obliged to do.
That commitment to diversity is not just decent and principled, and how it should be, it is the only way cricket in England can prosper. It speaks to many ethnic groups in our society. It can - and does - strengthen bonds. The game must clearly and happily embrace all races, all genders, all sexualities, (not to mention all classes) if it is to achieve its potential. And the irony is that when it is seeking funds from public bodies, that is exactly what it is expected to do.
For sure, Robinson's apology was well-judged. But one presumes it was written for him, as these things normally are, and he grabbed the lifebuoy with relief. We just have to hope it conveys his true feelings.
That ECB investigation must be rapid; this issue has already festered long enough. Under no circumstances must Robinson's doltish, highly dubious behaviour make him some kind of anti-hero for every small-town bigot, or every far-right commentator, and it is to be hoped that he fears exactly the same. But neither should Robinson become a convenient scapegoat by which the ECB can protect its own reputation. At such moments, a governing body's capacity for self-protection should never be under-estimated.
As Michael Holding, the West Indian great, shrewdly pointed out, a humane and proportionate response is necessary here, with demands for high standards and personal growth going alongside a recognition that people can change as they mature. Such a conclusion, from a man whose contribution to the Black Lives Matter debate was moving enough for Sky TV to win a BAFTA, carries considerable weight. It is what most people in the game are calling for and it is probably what he will get. Discussions in specialist cricket circles have been largely in agreement, although there is the juicy possibility that Wisden and the Cricketer magazines will take different political slants.
So imagine the fastest response the ECB has ever made to any disciplinary matter and divide it by ten: that is how quickly they should act. But they must also be thorough because if there are any other skeletons in Robinson's closet - verbal or otherwise - they must be unearthed now. That would at least disappoint the Australian media, which likes to reserve such revelations for the day before a first Ashes Test.
If cricket really does want to achieve its worthy ideals of promoting a self-evidently inclusive game, then the evidence is that society is not about to deliver perfect citizens. Britain's culture war has emboldened the prejudiced and deepened divisions within our society.
It might well be true that the ECB is being driven as much by economic necessity as much as idealism, but some of the charges against it have been absurd. Prominent among them is the idea that Robinson is undergoing "retroactive adjudication" - that he is being punished for behaviour that was acceptable in the past.
Well, "wokeness" might not have been a word in 2012, but I don't recall 2012 behaving like 1972 - his racism and misogyny was just as unacceptable then. Neither is the ECB investigation remotely an issue of suppression of free speech, of so-called Cancel Culture, in which public figures are ostracised for not conforming to acceptable liberal beliefs.
Some on the other side of the argument have charged that Robinson's behaviour is indicative of a deep-seated problem within the game. That cricket is somehow rotten. Cricket certainly needs to examine whether it has underlying problems. But blaming the game is reminiscent of the day the Conservative PM, Margaret Thatcher, marched into the Football Association with hooliganism rampant in the early 80s to ask when the game would stop its hooligans damaging society, to which she was asked, au contraire, when would society stop its hooligans damaging football.
Evidence that cricket has a problem is most persuasive in its terrible developmental record for cricketers of black and Asian background or from the testimonies of men such as Michael Carberry, who has long been adamant that racist attitudes lurk within the game. Less persuasive are the discoveries made this week while grubbing around in the detritus of English cricketer's Twitter feeds, which doesn't immediately appeal as a positive way to spend the day and appears to be the modern sports journalist's version of going through the dustbins.
To offer up one example: if Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler were occasionally tempted on social media to send up the distinctive English speech patterns of some Indian cricket fans then, sure, it was a bit tawdry, and was not about to win them a stint on Live at the Apollo, but a life lived in fear of light-hearted expression is no life at all. Self-censorship can go too far and when that happens the ECB should have the courage to tell the most extreme social media Thought Police to commit their energy to the real, pressing problems of the world.
If the ECB is to prove that its response is not sanctimonious, if it really does want to achieve worthy ideals of promoting a self-evidently inclusive game, then it must recognise that the evidence is that society is not about to deliver perfect citizens. Britain's culture war has emboldened the prejudiced and has deepened divisions within our society.
Schools are just about holding the line. One head of sixth form messaged me last week desperate for Robinson to be punished because, if he wasn't, then the teacher faced a near-impossible task to impress on sport-mad pupils that unacceptable behaviour on social media at 17 and 18 - not stray verbal errors (most of us must plead guilty to that), but a digital footprint, errors for posterity - could harm them later in life.
"He can't get away with it," he said, but he seemed to overlook the fact that Robinson's antics had already ruined what should have been the greatest day of his life. He would be better off lobbying the culture secretary.
If society patently cannot deliver, then the only choice for cricket - if it is to achieve the standards it proclaims to want - is to ring-fence the game. Rid yourself of cynicism about glib marketing phrases and "improving society through sport" is a noble aspiration. As Jimmy Anderson suggested after attending a PCA/ECB racism workshop this summer, "you're never too old to learn", but more importantly you're never too young either. From the time any player reaches a county 2nd XI, the process of education must be strengthened and embraced by everyone. That education must make demands on all classes, all races, all religions, without fear or favour, laying down basic cultural expectations.
By the time a player represents England, these expectations should be second nature, and not temporarily adopted whenever a crisis strikes in an atmosphere of paranoia. An alternative Spirit of Cricket is required - one that enables England to confidently lead the way, and which can have a more meaningful effect than some desperate rinsing of social media accounts to keep the hounds at bay.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps