When lockdown started and sport stopped, cricket journalists were provided with a unique opportunity to look in on themselves. Nostalgia replaced live action and sport’s writers, and talkers, turned to what they knew and where they came from. It confirmed, in stark terms, an industry that does not reflect the UK population, whether it be in terms of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background, education, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness or geography.
For cricket, a straightforward explanation for this disconnect is that the sport’s media reflects a game which itself lacks diversity. Make cricket more representative of our population at large and the media will follow.
“There’s a real lack of black cricket,” acknowledges Dean Wilson, the Daily Mirror’s cricket correspondent, whose father emigrated from the Caribbean aged 10. “And there is an absolute lack of black cricket media in England. But then, you look at football, where something like 30 to 40% of footballers are black but in its media there are still barely any black people. Which is shockingly bad. They’re not even reflecting those who are playing the game.”
Cricket’s media, it seems, has dual barriers to better representation: an unrepresentative sport and an unrepresentative media industry. To improve ethnic diversity, asserts Wilson, is to improve the representation of those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds. “When we talk about white privilege,” says Wilson, “the privilege is the privilege to fail.”
“Fundamentally, the core reason we have such a lack of diversity in cricket’s media is because it’s reliant on people who can take a risk to join the profession,” explains Vithushan Ehantharajah of the Independent. “And if you’re from a better income background, there’s no risk, because you’ve got something to fall back on.”
Look around the press box at a men’s Test match and only a small number will have attended state school. Nick Hoult, chief cricket correspondent for the Telegraph, is one of those few. His pathway into cricket writing was to eschew the game altogether. “I wrote to every single local paper in the country,” says Hoult. “You have to get into the industry any way you can. Once you’re in, then you can try and work out your path. And you might find that you want to do something different. Being a cricket correspondent was completely unattainable when I was starting out, because it takes a long time, and there are so few jobs and so much competition. But a job on a local paper was attainable. Now, though, there are just not any of them around anymore.”
“I would not have got to where I am now without the local network,” says BBC writer and broadcaster Amy Lofthouse. “But now, a lot of those working on the networks are about to lose their jobs because of cuts. That was an established route for so many people.”
Growing up and working in the north-west provided another barrier for Lofthouse; the industry assumes that you are in London. “It was more difficult when I was freelance,” she says. “You would sometimes get an email expecting you to do a London event the following day. And you miss out on the community of people too. People can really underestimate the power of journalists sitting around together and just talking about cricket; you find out a lot, then develop your own ideas. It’s amazing how much that helps.”
A journalist’s gender can erect further hurdles. “I find it a bit annoying that women who are covering cricket are expected to cover women’s cricket,” says Ehantharajah. “Especially if you’re freelance. Because I know that it pays nowhere near as well. I could cover Division Two cricket, where the standard wasn’t great and there was nothing on it, and I’d still walk out earning twice as much as covering any women’s game. It’s a massive bugbear.”
Women’s cricket provides a catch-22. It gives opportunities to women to write and broadcast for national outlets long before they might be able to had they been trying to cover the men’s game. But this also instils a hierarchy, that women’s cricket is not what the senior, largely male journalists cover, and the cycle is reinforced. A second tier of cricket, most accessible to women, becomes a second tier of earning, of reputation and of career progression.
It is changing, especially in broadcasting. Commentators such as Isa Guha and Ebony Rainford-Brent, who were given their break after playing and then covering women’s cricket, are now mainstays on the men’s circuit. It has not been easy though, and the pool remains small. One reason is due to the standards we hold anyone outside the majority to. To even be considered qualified for a media role, any discussion around a woman, or a person of colour, only comes in superlatives – of being the best, the most deserving. But by holding this demographic to these standards we are setting them up to fail. We’re only allowing a minuscule number of the very best to succeed when really, as Guardian sportswriter Barney Ronay articulated on Twitter recently, “women don’t have to be [10 times] better than [the men] in order to replace them”. All they should be required to be is “at least as [good] as all the other bores we’ve had for the last 40 years”.
Nevertheless, the handful of high-profile women serve as important role models. Not least because they cover men’s cricket just as they do women’s cricket: professionally and capably. It seems obvious, but it has undoubtedly encouraged the reversal, with many men now interchangeably covering men’s and women’s cricket. This approach gives clout both to the media and the sport. Unfortunately, this is less evident in the written press, where coverage of women’s cricket by the more senior male writers remains scarce and skin-deep.
“It’s really easy, isn’t it?” says Lofthouse. “To only commission women to cover women. They’ve got the expertise, the knowledge. Why wouldn’t you use them? It’s quick. It’s easy. It gives them an opportunity without troubling anyone higher up. But then you create this loop and the senior [male journalists] will never bother to watch, or appreciate, the women’s game.”
The consequences of only commissioning women to write about women’s sport have been highlighted during the pandemic. Disproportionately more women had their sports-writing careers impacted when lockdown was enforced; among a number of contributing factors, women generally occupy more junior writing roles, and more often than not are part-time and engaged as contractors (rather than having the security of being employed). A handful of women covered last year’s men’s Ashes from the written press box. During the Covid-restricted men’s Test summer, not a single woman was in attendance, the precious written press berths reserved for the senior writers: all men.
Earlier, we considered the assumption that the lack of diversity in cricket’s media stems from a diversity issue within the game at large. Consider, however, the reverse; that instead of being a product of a narrow demography, cricket’s media is a core contributor to it. The media, after all, is the game’s mouthpiece to the wider public. What we write and talk about engages a specific target audience, and a cycle emerges.
Just as camera operators subconsciously adopt the “male gaze”, filming the world from a predominantly white, heterosexual male perspective (crowd shots of beautiful young women, anyone?), the same could be argued in the tone and focus of our sportswriters. With a propensity for editors to commission women to cover women, when female writers disappeared this summer, women’s sport, and women’s cricket, disappeared from view too.
“I’m not broadly optimistic,” confesses Wilson on improving race representation in the cricket media. “I guess I’d have to say I’m hopeful instead. Because I think that there’s a conversation going on. The industry is looking at itself a bit more carefully, scrutinising itself a bit more. And there are so many areas of diversity that need attention.”
One area for optimism is the opening up of what is often perceived as a complicated, even deliberately inaccessible sport to the casual cricket fan, and the medium of free platforms to do so. “The great thing about the world we live in now,” says Wilson, “is that, while opportunities in mainstream media remain limited, now you can go and grab your own thing, through podcasts, YouTube and blogs. Even on a small scale, it’s so heartening to see something like the Caribbean Cricket Podcast breaking through; it got some real traction this summer.”
Ehantharajah similarly cites the BBC’s Tailenders podcast – an England cricketer (James Anderson) in conversation with two bona fide fans (Greg James and Felix White) – as another encouraging example of “opening the game up to people who’ve fallen by the wayside, who haven’t played in a while or have just stopped paying attention to it”.
Recently, the rights to England men’s away Tests were wrestled from the grip of the BBC for the first time since 2005. One motivation for TalkSport to take them on, according to their cricket editor, Jon Norman, was to widen cricket’s appeal. “Having watched England as a fan on tour, I was struck by the disparate voices, backgrounds and demographic of the Barmy Army,” explains Norman. “And that shaped TalkSport’s cricket coverage. These people certainly listened to TMS but they didn’t seem to be represented by it. They also listened to TalkSport, had football season tickets, and were a far cry from the stereotypical cricket fan.”
“When we talk about making the game more open,” says Ehantharajah, “that’s to people who have a casual interest in the game too, because I think cricket really seems to have a problem with casual fans.” Social media is another easily accessible, informal forum. It’s what The Hundred is trying to tap into too, with its snappy, colourful marketing across Instagram and Twitter.
“It’s funny, really, that part of the chat around The Hundred, around ‘mums and kids’ which was so widely derided – its intention was to create a space where they feel comfortable,” says Ehantharajah. “That obviously relates to a number of factors, but one is creating a forum where new, casual fans feel comfortable as well.”
“Cricket is such a traditional sport, not many people have tried to go down different avenues in its coverage,” continues Ehantharajah, whose own Twitter feed on a matchday is laced with memes and quips. “When I started, I was trying to write like the senior broadsheet writers, because I thought that was the only way it could be done. But my writing was an impression of a cricket writer. It wasn’t me. There’s such a strong feeling that you’re supposed to write about cricket in a certain way. But social media, podcasting and blogging is really changing that. Now you can write about cricket in all sorts of ways – and in a way that you find entertaining, not just to read, but to write as well.”
There is a long way to go but increasingly there is a space for all sorts of cricket coverage, by all sorts of people. The wider conversation has started, and it’s slowly piercing cricket’s media too.