Ollie Robinson, who made his Test debut for England at Lord’s last week against New Zealand, is an outstanding cricketer with both bat and ball. But that ability apparently counts for little. His performance was overshadowed by the discovery of some incendiary, tasteless tweets he had sent almost a decade ago as a teenage professional. An abject apology was not enough to save him. The England Cricket Board promptly banned Robinson from the next Test match, and a full inquiry has been launched into his conduct.
Quite rightly, sports minister Oliver Dowden has called the penalty ‘over the top’. But that intervention has not helped Robinson. This row marks a depressing moment for English cricket. It also raises a key question: is any player safe?
Certainly not some of the players of yesterday. Indeed, the rich irony is that if English cricket is really going to have ideological purity tests, then some of the game’s greatest names would have failed to pass them.
Joe Root, the Test captain, may be fluent in the fashionable jargon of equity and inclusion, but several of his predecessors were very different. Ian Botham, England’s greatest all-rounder and skipper in the early 1980s, described Pakistan during a radio interview in 1984 as ‘the sort of place to send your mother-in-law for a month, all expenses paid,’ a remark which may be condemned as xenophobic and misogynistic by today’s elevated standards.
One of Botham’s predecessors Tony Greig said before the 1976 home series against the West Indies that he intended ‘to make them grovel’, yet he remained in the England team for 16 more Tests.
In the extent of his alleged bigotry, Robinson pales beside legendary off-spinner Fred Titmus who played first-class cricket from 1949 to 1982 and was the subject of a song by the punk band Half Man, Half Biscuit, entitled ‘F..kin hell, it’s Fred Titmus.’ The Guyana-born batsman Lonsdale Skinner recalled that in a county game in the 1970s, Titmus ‘called me a black b*****d and all that stuff’. Yet Titmus not only served as first-class coach but became an England selector.
According to the great West Indian captain Clive Lloyd, he heard the same foul epithet used on his Test debut in 1968 in the Caribbean by an England bowler against one of the home team’s pace attack.
Similarly, Fred Trueman, the tearaway England and Yorkshire quick, was reputed to have said to the Indian High Commissioner at a dinner in 1952, ‘pass the salt, Gunga Din,’ though he always denied making the remark. He also denied having told an Indian batsman, who was returning to the crease after being felled by a bouncer, ‘Aye, Gunga Din, glad to see your colour’s back.’
Today a figure like Arthur Gilligan would almost certainly be barred from the first-class game, given that in the 1920s he was a member of the British Fascists and an admirer of Mussolini. However, at the peak of his career, he captained not only Sussex but also England on a high-profile Ashes tour in 1924-25, despite the fact that British Special Branch identified him as an extremist to the Australian authorities.
On his return to England, after leading his team to a 1-4 thrashing, he wrote an article on the theme ‘the Spirit of Fascism and Cricket,’ in which he stated, ‘On cricket tours it is essential to work solely on the lines of fascism. The team must be good friends and out for one thing and one thing only: the good of the side.’
Gilligan went on to become one of the grandees of English cricket, serving as a skipper on further MCC tours, as president of MCC and as a Test selector. Coincidentally Frederick Toone, the manager of that Ashes trip in 1924-25, was also a fascist. His political opinions did nothing to hinder his career as a successful administrator or prevent him receiving a knighthood for services to the sport.
While Gilligan admired Mussolini, the former England captain Charles Fry was an early admirer of Hitler’s whom he met in 1934 while attempting to forge closer links between the British Boy Scouts movement and the Hitler youth. Having greeted the Fuhrer with a Nazi salute, Fry was captivated during their encounter, later describing Hitler as a ‘great man of innate dignity’ with a ‘quiet, simple and courteous manner.’
Fry, who had been offered – and refused – the throne of Albania during the Versailles peace negotiations in 1919, also had dinner with Ribbentrop as he tried to persuade the Nazis to take up cricket, as it was ‘a pure Nordic game’.
Such naivety about the Reich was not confined to Fry. The great inter-war England opening batsman Herbert Sutcliffe once wrote that ‘it is a pity Hitler was not educated in Yorkshire for I feel sure if he had been he would have learned the principles of sportsmanship and what it is to play a straight bat.’
The ugliness of prejudice can be found right back in cricket’s golden age, as exhibited by Lord Harris, the ex-England captain, long-serving Kent player and leading administrator. In 1896, Harris objected to the selection of the brilliant Indian Prince Ranjitsinhji on the grounds that he was ‘a mere bird of passage.’ Harris was over-ruled by the selectors and Ranji went on to become one of the greatest players of his era, transforming the art of batting with his fluid style. England all-rounder Ted Wainwright, however, once said that Ranji ‘never played a Christian shot in his life.’
Wainwright’s career would have been unlikely to survive such a remark had it been made today. But unlike Ollie Robinson, players of the past were generally judged on their cricketing merits, not their verbal indiscretions. <//>
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