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Amnesty may offer solution as English cricket catches up with society's shifting values

Ollie Robinson controversy shows past prevalence of racism, but the game can prove it has changed

George Dobell
George Dobell
Ollie Robinson has been suspended pending an inquiry into his historic tweets and will miss the second Test  •  Getty Images

Ollie Robinson has been suspended pending an inquiry into his historic tweets and will miss the second Test  •  Getty Images

It's not a case that would especially tax Sherlock Holmes, is it? Despite the ECB's suggestion that Ollie Robinson has been suspended "pending the outcome of a disciplinary investigation" the verdict really isn't an issue. We know he's guilty of sending the tweets, irrespective of the circumstances. It's the sentencing that is the tricky bit.
The ECB were thrown into an almost impossible position when these tweets emerged on the first day of the Test at Lord's. Fail to act and they faced accusations about being soft on discrimination - a claim that has been made often in recent times around the issue of race, in particular - but punish Robinson too hard and they face accusations of scapegoating a young man who, at the time of the offences, was a poorly educated teenager. The tectonic plates of a changing society are grinding against one another and the ECB are trying to retain their balance as the ground moves beneath their feet. They face criticism whatever they do.
Their current method - a suspension while deciding on next steps - appears pretty reasonable. It's standard procedure in such cases, too. It gives them the time to talk to Robinson and look into the context of the tweets without the distraction of a Test in which he is involved. It also allows some time for reflection and planning both Robinson's punishment - for want of a better word - and road to rehabilitation.  It's the opposite of a kneejerk reaction.
So it seems slightly odd that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and the Secretary of State for Sport (among other things), Oliver Dowden have already criticised them for going "over the top" in their reaction. Really, given Johnson's own record of comments about ethnic minorities, it is somewhat surprising he feels in a position to offer advice. It was a point that Mark Ramprakash, England's former batting coach, made neatly on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday.
But it is worth reflecting on whether 'punishment' is necessarily the most constructive solution here. As Nasser Hussain put it eloquently on Sky on Sunday afternoon, if we accept society can (and needs to) change, don't we need to accept that the individuals who make up that society can also change?  You suspect real change comes from engagement and enlightenment. Punishment may just create more animosity.
The emergence of further tweets from further players - some of them made while they were still minors - has only complicated matters further. Should the media even be reporting this stuff? Or would it make them complicit if they looked the other way? Does it really benefit anyone to punish someone for something they did as a child? Eventually, won't something of regret be found in every person's background? Just as we are learning to make allowances for mental health and anxiety, don't we have to make allowances for youth and foolishness?
That's a lot of questions. So, here's a potential solution: an amnesty. This would see the game accept that it has failed to be as inclusive as it should have been and resolve to be better. It would end the current obsession with historic tweets (for example) and instigate a moratorium on further disciplinary action. But it would also clearly outline the modern-day expectations and penalties. It would, in short, provide a fresh start.
This is not a perfect solution. It was suggested as regards the Azeem Rafiq case recently - by me, as it happens - and met with some support. But then it was pointed out that, as a white, middle-class male, I had hardly suffered from the racism (or sexism, or homophobia) that has been experienced by others within the game. As such, I wasn't best placed to comment on when the time to forgive and forget might be.
This is a key point. Whatever the ECB decided to do here, they have to have the buy-in of related parties (such as the African-Caribbean Cricket Association and the National Asian Cricket Council, among others) to ensure they feel justice is done. It is vital the ECB demonstrate that this behaviour is not acceptable. It is vital both as a deterrent and to show those from communities who have felt excluded from cricket in recent years that the sport welcomes them and will not tolerate those who exclude them.  For that reason, giving Robinson a hug and telling him not to be such a buffoon in future will not quite do.
But it may be part of the answer. The fact is, Robinson was 18 or 19 and these tweets were sent a long time ago. We know he left school without meaningful qualifications and had a period where he struggled for maturity and equilibrium. We know that cost him his contract at Yorkshire. He has, to some extent, already turned his life around. There aren't perfect solutions here, but there has to be a path to redemption through the disciplinary process.
There will be those who also suggest there is a bit of irony in the identity of Robinson's possible replacement at Edgbaston. Craig Overton, you may recall, was suspended from a couple of games after an incident towards the end of the 2015 season in which he was alleged to have told Ashar Zaidi (a Pakistan-born all-rounder) to "f*** off back to your own country".
And it's true, the evidence of that incident is troubling. In particular, the testimony of Michael Yardy, who was playing for the opposition, and Alex Wharf, who was one of the umpires, is damning.
But it is worth revisiting the ruling of the disciplinary panel at the time. For while it's often repeated that Overton was suspended for making racially abusive comments towards Zaidi, it's not strictly true. Or at least it certainly isn't the entire story.
Overton was actually found guilty of using abusive language; a Level One charge in the ECB's regulations. He was not found guilty of using abusive, racist language; which is a Level Three offence. But, having incurred two previous penalties in the season, he was suspended on the basis of the totting-up procedure. There was no hearing and he had no right of reply. Zaidi confirmed that he did not hear the alleged comments.
It's more than a semantic difference.
Might the ECB have erred? Could they have taken an overly lenient approach as Overton was young (he was a teenager at the time) and talented? It's possible. Though they did have a top QC, Gerard Elias, leading the disciplinary process. There were several who said Overton was misheard.
But without having been there it's impossible to know for sure. Overton, while admitting his temper used to get the better of him, continues to deny that he made the comments. And if we abandon the principle of 'innocent until guilty' and presume he was racist rather than abusive, well, aren't we almost as illiberal and unfair as the racists? Surely nobody wants to descend to a Crucible-style witch hunt where every alleged slight or moment of clumsiness is stored away for decades with the aim of ensuring there can never be a chance of progress or a moment of peace?
All of which brings us back to Robinson.
There might be an opportunity in all this. Rather than simply punishing him, the ECB could use him as an example of the change that is possible in all of us - our sport and our society - with experience and education. He can become the former smoker warning of the dangers of lung disease.
So he could volunteer with the ACE programme; he could volunteer with Child Bereavement UK; he could volunteer for Women's Aid; he could volunteer for Islamic Relief and the  National  Suicide Prevention  Alliance. And this does mean volunteer. It means tens of hours with each of them. Not a photo shoot. If he has to pay a fine it should go to those charities.
You suspect, at the end of that period, when he's looked in the eyes of victims and heard the stories of the bereaved, that he won't find jokes about Gary Speed, Madeleine McCann, racism or sexism very funny.  And if he does? Well, then you throw away the key.  At least the key to the England team.
But with a bit of luck, he will be able to use  his new-found profile - and wisdom - to advise young players and act as a role model for the change our game needs to make. Robinson can still be a cricketer and a man of whom the whole of England and Wales can be proud. There's just some work ahead to achieve that goal.
In the grandest scheme of things, we might even see this incident as an inevitable stumble on the road of progress. It reminds us both that what was once accepted within the game is now anything but, and of the need for further education and change. It may not feel like it right now, but maybe the fact we're having these conversations is encouraging.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo