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The month cricket went off the rails

Phil Walker by Phil Walker 10 minute read

Wisden Cricket Monthly editor-in-chief Phil Walker relives a rocky and at times disturbing month for the game.

Friday, August 20 – The Oval, Trent Rockets v Southern Brave
Rashid Khan paints the Afghanistan flag on each of his cheekbones and steps out to play. The detail that the yellow team loses is nothing next to the fact that he’s there at all, losing himself to the moment in the guts of unfathomable pain. It’s not, as Kevin Pietersen claims on the Hundred channel, a “heart-warming story from the Hundred”, but rather more existential than that. Rashid’s family – he is one of 10 siblings – are still stuck at home. He doesn’t know for how long, or in what condition. The country’s biggest modern export, a kind of poster boy for the once-new Afghanistan. The fear of not knowing, of feeling locked out in the dark. And yet still he plays. He pulls on his shirt and puts on his face and with profound dignity steps out to tell the world who he is and what he stands for.

Saturday, August 21 – Lord’s, Southern Brave v Birmingham Phoenix (men); Oval Invincibles v Southern Brave (women)
James Vince, listless genius, hoists a gigantic H above his fathomless mind. Mady Villiers slaps a 7-ball 13, fields like a fiend and nails the post-match knockabout. I can’t separate them. It topped out at 1.4m for the women’s final, and 2.4m for the men’s apparently. No one remembers. But I guess that’s OK.

Monday, August 23
Ali Martin reports in the Guardian that the executives at the top of the ECB will share £2.1m in bonuses. That’s a cool two mill, in a pandemic, smuggled out of a game facing unprecedented financial hardship. Last year 60-odd ECB employees were cut. Everyone took pay cuts. Tom Harrison’s take-home plunged to £500k per year. All in it together. Yet they knew this payout was due. It was already in the post.

We know the arguments. They’re spat out every week. If you want the best, comrade, you’re just gonna have to pay for it – as if, in this instance, the ECB is some kind of apprentice-Deloitte, a matryoshka Google. Are we really meant to believe that the game’s future hinges on the brilliance of these men? That it’s hopelessly naive to think that the removal of one marketing executive doesn’t simply free up space for another?

So: what fundamentally is the ECB’s purpose? Is it really there to inspire – to grow the women’s game, to get more black and Asian players into cricket, to return some form of the game into state schools? Because if this is what’s really driving it, if this is the pure unsullied vision they want us to swallow, then you don’t just pilfer bonuses like that. It debases any calls to a higher purpose.

Wednesday, August 25 – Headingley, England v India, Third Test
To Leeds, then; and the house of silence. It’s over a year since Azeem Rafiq first spoke to Taha. A year of torment and fight, of waking up to more abuse, of not being called to give evidence, of still not having seen anything resembling a report, a summary of a report, or a summary of the summary, and he was the reason it was commissioned in the first place. Nor has the ECB. We now know that the enquiry has upheld several of his allegations, though we don’t as yet know what they are. The club’s latest official response claims that Rafiq was on the end of ‘inappropriate behaviour’. Inappropriate behaviour is balancing a cup of piss on the top of the coach’s door. Rafiq says the club is institutionally racist.

In the morning, England’s players, dressed in black slogan-heavy t-shirts ill-fitted over their whites, line up for a ‘moment of unity’. Later, Jimmy Anderson delivers a spell for the ages, and Haseeb Hameed makes an unbeaten fifty. On the pitch at least, it’s a dream day.

Thursday, August 26
Fuck, Ted Dexter’s dead. The MCC announced it today. Even in his final months he was getting things done. Had an hour with him last October, talking about 85 Not Out. “I got nudged into writing it. A little family pressure goes a long way!” he told me. Stressed that all proceeds went to the MCC Foundation’s development scheme, the one for young state-school kids. Very keen to make this point.

Also told me how he’d not been playing much golf due to this bloody sciatica, but was hoping to get that sorted soon enough. He spoke of Zak Crawley’s talent and Joe Root’s footwork, and of how proud he was to be the architect of the player rankings system. Only modern politics pissed him off: “There isn’t a decent orator in the place.”

He talked about how much he loved the modern game, and of the marvellous things these players do. Right until the last, he was indomitable.

Saturday, August 28
England win by an innings, Joe Root has more Test wins as captain than any other Englishman, and my club’s second XI claim the points to keep us in the big division. With the first team getting promoted and more members across the generations than we’ve had for years, it’s been a good season. Sure it’s testament to the fanatics who keep the thing alive, giving so much to the cause for no higher motive beyond the doing of it, but above that, it’s another reminder that a cricket club done well is not some wistful echo of a vanishing time, but a place of roughhouse refuge, inside which contains much of the stuff we so desperately need.

Thursday, September 2 – The Oval, England v India, Fourth Test
Day one from the people’s ground and it’s standing room only. The punters are on it, but not like that: watchful, rapt, attuned to every shift and passage. Commentating for SEN radio outside the main press boxes in what the hacks call the ‘overspill’ area, you get the full surround-sound experience. Root is castled at the death. Big moment.

Saturday, September 4 – The Oval
The great Rohit Sharma makes his first overseas Test hundred. The crowd rise en masse. Open the gates to Twitter and step into a jingoistic hellscape; out here, in this crowd, it’s a celebration of the game, and the game alone.

Sunday, September 5 – The Oval
Story in the Mail that India coach Ravi Shastri has tested positive and will be isolating. It was his London book launch on August 31…

Monday, September 6 – The Oval
The final day falls to India and the slingshot brilliance of Bumrah. With tickets for the match rolled over from last year’s cancelled Windies Test, the opening days have been relatively muted, but today it’s a riotous carnival sparked by Bumrah’s old-ball spell in the afternoon – 6-3-6-2 – that cleans up Pope and Bairstow. It’s as good as Waqar in ’92 or Wasim in ’96 at this ground. Some 27,000 people see it live. On a Monday.

Thursday, September 9 – Wisden XI v MCCF U15 Select XI, Hampton Wick Royal CC
Confirmed that Ben Stokes won’t be at the Twenty20 World Cup in October. He’s taking an extended break to prioritise his mental health. There is no word from inside the game about when he’ll be back and mercifully no one seems minded to push too hard to find out. They have good lives, these cricketers. The best of them get to live in nice big houses and drive nice big cars. Though my word we ask a lot of them in return.

The game today, a 40-over affair in a beautiful setting, falls into the ‘good for the soul’ bracket. It’s against an MCC Foundation select team, made up of talented teenagers from the ‘London and South Region’. They’re all state-school kids, affiliated to one of the foundation’s ‘coaching hubs’ – there are now more than 60 centres spread across the country – and they’re all bloody good. One of the country’s best feature writers bowls a series of beamers. A Wisden writer is run out off a free hit. A podcast host falls over reverse ramping, and I’m run out for 49. We get stuffed by seven wickets with a few overs to spare. It’s perfect.

Having a drink afterwards and the news starts to seep through. Doubts about the Old Trafford Test. A few WhatsApp murmurs that it might be called off, India training having been cancelled earlier. Four backroom staff, including the second physio, now positive. No official word. The news suggests that it’ll still go ahead.

Oh, and Rashid Khan steps down as Afghanistan’s T20 captain a few minutes after their World Cup squad is announced.

Head to bed with the news that Australia’s November Test match against Afghanistan will be cancelled if the Taliban bar women from playing the sport, with Tim Paine adding that it’s “hard to see” how Afghanistan can compete at the T20 World Cup after Taliban representative Ahmadullah Wasiq said women’s cricket was “not necessary”. Ethically it’s hard to dispute, there can be no special dispensation in the forever war against gender abuse. And yet it’s not much easier to shake the awful feeling that ostracising Afghanistan cricket via sanctions will lead to its oblivion.

Friday, September 10
At 7:43am the message comes through from a colleague that it’s off. Some of India’s players have voiced their concerns about playing and the BCCI, unable to dissuade them, have told the ECB: no game. An hour later the first ECB statement rolls out – the match will be forfeited, series ends 2-2. A few minutes after that, the statement is scrapped, and re-sent minus the offending word. And so it begins.

Dinesh Karthik says on Sky that the boys had “got tired” after a tough few months and, after the physio’s diagnosis, got the jitters. They didn’t want to get it themselves, he says, and have to isolate for another 10 days in the UK. Lancashire release a statement saying they’re devastated, and promising full refunds. The BCCI say that it was actually a joint decision, reached by both boards, while Tom Harrison, rather heroically, insists that this is not a Covid cancellation at all! But rather a cancellation due to mental health concerns in the Indian camp brought about by the threat of Covid. There is some talk from Harrison about playing a standalone Test in 2022 at the same ground. He also refutes the idea that the IPL’s imminent restart – it resumes the following Sunday – had anything to do with the pullout. Bloke looks exhausted.

Finally, after seeing off the various claims, counter-claims and hot takes, the media crews head to Manchester’s fleshpots to capture the excess: muscling in among the various assorted penguins, nuns and firemen, quietly drinking the day away. It’s always the punters who are hardest hit. As if they’ll just keep coming back for more.

Something else happened today. At 9am on the dot, Yorkshire CCC released a summary of the Azeem Rafiq inquiry, confirming that seven of Rafiq’s allegations have been upheld. The club is forced to admit that Rafiq has been a victim of racial harassment and bullying. That when Rafiq voiced his concerns to the club in 2018, they did nothing. That prior to 2010 there were three separate incidents of racist language being used by former players. That before 2012 a former coach regularly used racist language. Purportedly for legal reasons, none of the names of those implicated are cited in the summary.

Monday, September 13
Azeem Rafiq logs on to Twitter, and attaches a note, part of which says this: “For all you people who are victims of racist abuse or any type of discrimination I have tried my upmost level best to give you all a voice”.

Moments later, he attaches another: “I am now looking for the right platform to end my pain by speaking out in full with names, dates & every inch of detail. I need and deserve CLOSURE”.

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