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Ashes to Ashes: why the Jofra Archer ‘Great Black Hope’ project is doomed.
It took, oh, about 20 minutes into this summer’s England- West Indies series to see why various apparent attempts to reignite black-British interest in cricket, including the proffering of the much-hyped ‘Great black Hope’ Jofra Archer, are doomed. It was a rain-affected first morning at Southampton and I was tuning into BBC Radio’s ‘Test Match Special’ intermittently to check if there was any play. First time I checked the players had left the field after a few overs and a pundit – I think it was the BBC’s Michael Vaughan – was talking about what the omission of the veteran England paceman Stuart Broad from the side might signal for his Ashes chances. The second time I checked, half an hour or so later, with play recommenced by that point, the commentator Simon Mann was leading another discussion about the Ashes, that may or may not have been Broad-related, and it was only during this second time that I gathered that these next Ashes they were talking about were actually not until the winter of 2021/22, so there was not even the reason of vague imminence to justify this chat. Both times I switched off after five minutes, irritated by how nothing I was hearing was letting me know the West Indies were even playing.
It was the same at the start of England’s winter tour, in New Zealand. Woke up in the small hours on the first day, lunchtime their side, interested to see how TalkSport, who’d wrested radio rights from the BBC, would cover the game, and to hear more about certain New Zealand players, only to hear Gough and company chatting about some future Ashes and what this might mean for that. Been at it all summer, when the 2019 Ashes were actually being played, and now the first chance they have they’re going at it again…
For the non-England-supporting cricket nut in this country, and there are more than the sport’s powers seem to realise, the cricket experience this century has been cheapened by this relentless on and on and on and on and on and on about the biennial England- Australia contest for the Ashes, no matter the moment in the cricket cycle or the teams actually playing. Over the last few years talk has begun of ‘Ashes centuries’, ‘Ashes cricket’, even last summer the first appearances of ‘Ashes injuries’. In a manner reminiscent of television’s coverage of Wimbledon, when every leading player seems to have to gush about how it’s their favourite Grand Slam – you suspect with a PR’s gun pressed to their back, every player and media person involved now seems to have to pay ceaseless homage to the specialness of the Ashes and how they grew up in their gardens only fantasising about playing in those.
When someone eventually charts the whole sorry mess of how the game went from the mass, mainstream-feeling thing it felt to this Tottenham-raised boy of the 70s to the pastime of the suburbs and the shires it feels now, the invention and inflation of the supercharged Neo-Ashes will have to have its spot. Over a period in the UK where the game has been struggling for significance, the marketeers have engineered a situation where the scope of the game feels diminished. The pinnacle, the highest aspiration in this sport that you British-born can think of, goes the lesson, is a Grudge-off between two white guys (indeed, given the colonial and settler history, between, pretty much, the same white guys). The broadcaster Aly Mitchell, commentating on one of the pioneering day-night Australia- New Zealand tests for an Australian channel a couple of years back, made a comment telling in its tribal undertone: ‘Australia v England, Australia v New Zealand. This is a contest and the crowd are loving it.’
Back in those 70s, when I first began watching/ listening to the game, every country’s visit to England felt a big deal. The ‘73 West Indians and New Zealanders, the ’74 Indians, the ‘75 Australians. It was true that even then there was some idea of a ‘big or ‘bigger’ series sometimes, and England-Australia was always one of those, but any fan from the 70s and 80s will agree I’m sure that there felt much more parity in the respect and sense of occasion accorded to the various international touring sides. It’s left a bad taste in the mouth for some time to sense from most available UK sources that, unless you’re Oz or monied India, your team is second-rate, doesn’t matter, their main use fodder and preparation for something that does. Apart from anything else, it’s made it harder to capitalise on the few moments of Windies success there have been since the bleakness began – the record-breaking run chase at Headingley on their last tour, or the Windies series win against England a year ago; no chance of intriguing the general sports-fan or general West Indies wellwisher when they’ve absorbed the impression this is small fry.
The chat and banter of BBC commentaries more widely has not always helped in this period. If I had a pound for every time Michael Vaughan has moaned about the negativity of the West Indian players’ ‘body-language’ this past decade, when the walks of the players feel, bar minor generational differences and the hard-to-eliminate-postural effects that occur when you’re not winning any more, much the same as they’ve always been. That too easy resort to stereotype: ‘What would Archer be if he was a car?’ ‘Something very cool…I don’t know. A Maserati’ – Graeme Swann, TMS, last year, when Jofra arrived on the scene. Plus that feeling conveyed amongst all UK broadcasters accompanying England on tour in foreign climes (usually countries of colour) of a rather ‘white’ experience of those countries: if it’s South Africa extra-curricular media activities will consist of braai at some ex player’s barbecue followed by a trip to the Western Cape Winelands, that type of thing. I was staggered to hear from TMS’s Swann during, I think, the previous Windies tour of 2017 that, despite visits to the Caribbean with England and a period playing for the ethnically diverse Nottinghamshire, he didn’t seem to know what a plantain was.
When they do get to their ‘Cricket and society’ moments and discussions, there’s been a level of misstep. BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew posed the hardy perennial ‘what has happened to interest from the Afro-Caribbean community in cricket?’ question on TMS last year with a British Asian cricket journalist guest from, I think, the Beeb’s Asian Network (no Afro-Caribbean cricket pundit available or known to TMS, it would seem). Not for the first time – you’ve also seen it in some similarly-minded cricket articles post Black Lives Matter this summer – the words ‘Afro-Caribbean’, ‘African-Caribbean’ ,‘African Caribbean’, were tossed around in an inconsistent and rather confusing way so that I was unsure at various points whether the speakers were referring to Britons of Caribbean descent or black Britons more widely and this is important because the British-Caribbean aspect of this is a red herring, a subset. The talk of it obscures the fact that this is a British failure. There is no reason a British-Jamaican should be into the game any more than this British-Nigerian, or anyone else who’s grown up here. The fact that there are only eight (eight!) black and mixed-race people playing first-class cricket, according to that same TMS broadcast, and that I haven’t met a black Briton younger than me in near 30 years (since playing briefly for a Brixton-based team called Sabina in the early 90s, when some of the teenagers there had older relatives at the club) with the slightest interest in cricket is a UK-reared disaster that will take at least a generation of doing all the right things – in urban state schools, the media etc – to undo.
I was interested to see how the Beeb would handle their coverage in these ‘Raise The Bat’ series this BLM summer, especially after I saw Stuart Broad, in the immediate George Floyd aftermath, talk about how the England players had met to discuss race, the BAME communities and the wider cricket ecology, citing cricket journalism as one pathway area of concern. Well, Swann was gone, and for once Vaughan didn’t bang on about body language. On the contrary, he was quite effusive in his praise of Windies captain Jason Holder though whether that was due to Holder taking him on a golfing jaunt in Barbados, as he disclosed, we shall not know. Over and above the gratitude extended the Windies for coming over during Covid (albeit someway weakened. I missed the rollicking Hetmyer 😊), I did detect a slightly greater respect given to their abilities than I’ve heard in some years. An increasingly assertive Ebony Rainford-Brent, the commentary and presenting of Isa Guha, and the retention of a British-Pakistani sounding broadcaster during the Pakistan leg (whose name I’m afraid I didn’t catch and can’t quickly find) who had good knowledge and who, like Guha, pronounced subcontinent names better than we’re used to, all reduced the Anglo-centric clubbiness of the BBC teams a little, while the deployment of former player Michael Carberry to cover some domestic games papered over the black British male cracks for now.
But still, a sense of people not grasping the mettle. Wisden editor Simon Hughes on a recent TMS discussion, pointing to the ethnic make-up of England’s 2019 World Cup-winning side – Eoin Morgan from Ireland, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali of Muslim background and the Caribbean-raised Archer – as evidence of the multicultural health of the English game and the wealth of future opportunities was pretty absurd (and went unchallenged). Most egregious were the final moments of a ‘Race Special’ on the BBC World Service cricket show ‘Stumped’ that aired just a few days after the Floyd killing. On the back of a plausible-sounding piece about the racial grievance a once promising indigenous Australian player felt as he tried to progress up the State system in the early nineties, and a terse media statement from the State in question, read by presenter Aly Mitchell, she then asked the veteran Australian cricket broadcaster Jim Maxwell (used by TMS when the Aussies are in town) if he could shed any light on the lack of indigenous players reaching the heights of Australian cricket (famously the first team to tour England from that country was an Aboriginal team in the 1860s). He replied, every bit as curtly as the State, that ‘they don’t like cricket. They like fast things, like Australian Rules football. That’s it.’ (I paraphrase slightly). Wow! That this kind of old-school, retarded framing – that biology, or some biological-cultural force determines your interests (even if were the proven case that most black peoples preferred sprinting and most white peoples preferred chess and reading there would be enough within those groups who liked the other thing for this to be an inadequate and cursory response) – was allowed to play out the programme, unchallenged, not returned to – the presenter and co-guest seemed to subside into an embarrassed silence – on that week of all weeks, when you’ve held a special programme for that reason, betray these periodic media moments for the sentimental (I mean ‘unearned emotion’) parades they so often appear to be.
Way to go. Way to go.
Quite a chunky, new piece of mine in ‘Spiked Review’. It’s an adapted extract (new first paragraph) from a longer book essay called ‘The Footman’s New Clothes’ that coming out in this ‘AfroEuropeans’ volume, of which more anon, but this part is, essentially, on Racism and how we (UK black artists, activists and other interested parties) might move beyond the dominance of that issue/ frame to help prod Europe to more progressive pastures… Worth checking out
And a golden oldie: a talk/ reading from a residency at Georgetown University…
This was a fun photoshoot, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Spitalfields Crypt Trust. The photographer, Lawrence Watson, is a music industry legend, and it was great to do something with him and for a fine cause…
You wait half a lifetime to cross paths with the great director Ken Loach and then twice in a hurry…We both featured in this ‘Diversifying Portraiture’ campaign of Oxford University…
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