Just not cricket

This has not been humanity’s greatest week for social cohesion or tolerance. Monday morning found the world reeling from the announcement of the Orlando shootings in a LGBT community nightclub, supposedly inspired by religious extremists in the middle east, the whole week has seen violent clashes between sporting fans attending France’s Euro 2016 football tournament, and on Thursday a British MP was shot and stabbed to death in the street by a fanatic motivated by racist and exclusionary politics.

It is certainly true that several global factors have played into and caused this sense of alienation between peoples, violence being a symptom of social injustice and inequality. Financial turmoil, unnecessary warfare and reactionary political movements have ravaged any common decency across wide swathes of the world. Yet it doesn’t have to be like that – and for me the sport of cricket is good evidence of this.

Of course no sport is completely free of aggression or prejudice; sport is played by people, and people inherently possess these traits, the former especially in a competitive context. However, by contrast with many other social activities and sporting circles, cricket stands out as a genuinely impressive model of inclusivity and tolerance.

People who regularly attend football matches are very accustomed to hearing all manner of abuse from the stands, directed at players, officials or other teams’ fans. Racism, sexism and homophobia are commonplace in chants, and players exchange these insults with one another on a fairly regular basis. It is no longer even surprising when we see this happen in football, despite lots of campaigns to prevent it, such as Kick It Out, which has admittedly helped make racist insults far less common.

Within cricket, by contrast, I have seen a far more diverse mix of players, in part due to the Asian subcontinental and West Indian fondness for the sport, but also down to the stricter and more swift-acting governing body. Scuffles and disagreements do happen on the pitch, but they tend to be about the gameplay. At their worst, insults rarely play on anything particularly sensitive, and when they do those players are rightly sanctioned and ostracised.

Cricket captains at the 2011 World Cup

Only last week, as an umpire, I had to separate two players who were arguing over a decision and a comment made between them. Yet despite the aggressive tone on the pitch, and the racial differences between them, no personal insults were made and both players were very civil to one another immediately on leaving the field, as well as to me as official in charge. I have myself been involved in some disagreements on the field of play, but these have also been resolved immediately after the game.

Many of my team-mates in a former cricket team were of Pakistani origin, and devoted Muslims. Their brave decision to fast during some of the hottest days of the year (including water!), even on matchdays, was a testament to the dept

Muslim LGBT
LGBT Muslim support

h of their faith.  Yet despite me being out and proud in the team, even with many of their teachings telling them I was haram in my sexual preferences, they only ever showed me respect as a fellow team-mate, and never criticised my lifestyle or orientation.

By contrast, many Christian families and acquaintances have treated people close to me with prejudice and hatred, sometimes leading to unimaginable pain and suffering. Many of these people accuse immigrants, particularly from the Middle East, of causing problems in their countries. I’m not hating the sinners, just the sin…

In the aftermath of the shootings on Sunday, it has been extremely encouraging to see people of many creeds, backgrounds and sexualities united in mourning the dead and condemning the attacks. I have been proudly wearing my #rainbowlaces from the Stonewall campain of the same name. It is my hope that even if the political situation remains challenging, sports like cricket can continue to bring people together and create empathy and unity.


Birdies and bejesus

One topic I have particularly enjoyed arguing for is the support for and extension of sex education in schools. Whether as a skillset for life, a social equaliser or a simple common sense population control measure, I believe strongly that it can only cause good. Some of the religious/conservative population disagrees with me, particularly in the USA, where the wonderful John Oliver presented this wonderfully entertaining broadcast on the subject, sent in by a fan last week. Enjoy!

On a knife’s edge

Eager cricket fans will have noticed last month the surprise withdrawal from the England team of one of the sport’s greatest female players, wicketkeeper/batter Sarah Taylor, someone I have often cited as an example of an elite female sportsperson occasionally competing in male sporting competitions. This week she opened up about her reasons: it seems that mental health issues have played havoc with her enjoyment of the sport and her recent performances on the field of play.

Jonathan Trott
A few bad matches can really knock the stuffing out of a batter, especially if they have pre-existing conditions

It is often said that cricket is one of the crueller sports for people with mental health difficulties. With batters in particular playing permanently on a knife’s-edge between hard-fought success and instant failure, and with bowlers sometimes more at the mercy of an individual batter’s talent rather than their own accuracy, there is little margin for error. There have been many high-profile cases of top England players withdrawing from the sport or suffering psychological aftereffects, including Marcus Trescothick, Graeme Fowler, Michael Yardy, and Jonathan Trott.

The tangible effects of this pressure can manifest in a variety of different ways. Sarah Taylor talked in her interview about finding herself feeling like throwing up before a game, brought about by her self-imposed pressure to perform and achieve, which ironically had the opposite effect. Monty Panesar, until recently part of the England team, has also recently talked about the disruptive behaviour and irritability in his temperament that accompanied his mental health problems. His transformation from affable and friendly to negative and aggressive confused some of his teammates and made it hard for them to understand the situation, or know how to be supportive.

As someone who has experienced both the queasy sensation before playing, and the irritability of anxiety, I am very familiar with these challenges. Sometimes playing a match can refocus you on the moment and shift the anxiety, as happened to me in a ultimately very successful match earlier this week, when I started out needing to do breathing exercises in pauses in play to stay calm, but ultimately pulled my team back from certain defeat to a close finish. Other times you have to accept you simply cannot perform, and have to withdraw, although there is a lot of stigma attached to leaving a team short of players.

Ultimately every individual must do what is right for them, whether taking a break like Taylor, changing clubs like Panesar, or seeking greater support like Fowler. It is not always easy for teammates, but it is important that they remember that ultimately they only experience the peripheral effects and do not have to live every day with the gut-wrenching sensations and mental fogginess.

Time for drinks

It is often mentioned to me that it is bizarre, given the weather in the UK, that we invented and play a sport which is much trickier or even unplayable in rain and damp conditions. The cricketing gods were unkind this week, and on Tuesday rather than spending the day umpiring County U15s, and the evening playing cricket at my former college, I instead had some drinks with three of my teammates.

One of these teammates is a very patient, solid and obdurate opening batter, as well as a doctor in training. The biggest challenge she faces is that opposition bowlers see her slight figure and decide to adjust their bowling pace in a bid to ‘not hurt her’. Ironically, this actually makes them far more erratic and prone to bowling balls which fly straight at her body or which bounce all over the place, making them harder for her to hit.

Off the back of a discussion of this, our conversation moved to the unfair and prejudiced practices in many restaurants in terms of requesting payment for a meal. It is still common practice for waiting staff to hand the bill or the card machine to the male presenting individual from a couple dining together. Although one of my teammates argued that he felt that practice was fair given the expectation that a man will invite a woman to dinner, I believe that this  is just another symptom of the same unfair set of expectations.

At least, as my teammate pointed out, the situation is better in the UK than in Greece. When he went to a high end restaurant there with his then girlfriend, they received seemingly identical menus. After discussing the options on offer, his girlfriend commented that this must truly be an expensive restaurant as there were no prices listed. Confused, my friend observed that he had prices in his menu. Then they realised that their menus were His and Hers…