The Ashes in 2023: ‘A difficult week for cricket in the summer that has displayed the best and worst of the game’
This men’s Ashes series has already given the riveting spectacle that many thought would help revitalize Test cricket, after concerns over the format’s future as T20 franchise leagues proliferate around the world.
However, with unforgettable drama and increasing excitement, the action has taken place against an unflattering backdrop of mounting controversy and upheaval, forcing the sport to address challenging issues about its image and the ideals it represents.
With its reputation already in jeopardy, English cricket now fears that the hostility seen in the second Test at Lords will erupt at Headingley for the third Test, which begins on Thursday. What does it tell us about today’s sport? What is at stake?
The England and Wales Cricket Board was forced to make an apology to the victims of prejudice on the eve of the second Test at Lord’s, following a stinging assessment by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), which found the sport to be intrinsically racist, sexist, and classist. The focus quickly shifted to how many of the report’s 44 recommendations the game will be willing – and able – to implement.
Only a few days later, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) issued another unqualified apologies to the Australia squad. This was for the “completely unacceptable” behavior of some members toward tourists following the controversial stumping of England’s Jonny Bairstow, according to the statement.
Australia protested about the “disrespect” and “abuse” directed at its players, with several onlookers comparing the normally calm Long Room to a boisterous football terrace. Three members of the MCC have been suspended pending an inquiry.
This was a further humiliation for the MCC, which was already having to examine its security preparations after Just Stop Oil protestors managed to avoid stewards and reach the field on the first day.
After the ICEC report concluded that Lord’s was part of the problems facing English cricket, the MCC promised to make “Lord’s a place where everyone feels welcome,” with a recommendation that the annual fixture between Eton and Harrow no longer be played at the ground because it “sends a message of elitism.” The heinous scenes in the Long Room were the absolute last thing it needed.
There will certainly be questions about whether the MCC members’ unique proximity to the players in the Lord’s pavilion should be reconsidered. There is also discussion about whether former England captain Andrew Strauss was correct when he suggested that some of the booing of the Australians may have been due to the fact that the final day was attended by those spectators who do not normally attend Lord’s.
As if that wasn’t enough, the fallout from the second Test has seen many people seek another apology – this time from Australia. In their handling of the Bairstow affair, they have been accused of poor sportsmanship.
While the visitors have vehemently defended their acts and gained widespread sympathy, even the UK Prime Minister has chimed in. According to a Downing Street official, Rishi Sunak agreed with England captain Ben Stokes that he would not wish to win a game in this fashion, and that it violated “the spirit of cricket.”
With memories of the Australia team’s 2018 ball-tampering controversy still fresh, after which they swore to regain trust and improve their culture, it’s perhaps predictable that the mood at Lord’s was as tense as anyone can remember. Many fans and players will undoubtedly be excited about the potential of even more tension at Headingley.
But there will be concern that, at a time when cricket desperately needs to regain its dignity, all the talk is of deteriorating relations between the teams, how the crowd in Leeds will behave, and even the risk of a diplomatic incident between the two countries, now that politicians are getting involved.
Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the hosts of the third Test, cannot afford for the expected hostility toward the Australians to cross over at Headingley. The racism controversy that enveloped the club two years ago, following charges of racist abuse by former spin bowler Azeem Rafiq, has brought it to its knees. Yorkshire, which is already in financial trouble, could face a record fine and a deduction of 48 to 72 points in this season’s County Championship after admitting to a “failure to address systemic use of racist and/or discriminatory language over a prolonged period,” among other charges.
Yorkshire officials have tightened up security at Headingley in anticipation of a repetition of the on-field protest that halted play at Lord’s, stating in a statement that “some incidents at Lord’s have heightened the exposure of the third Test.”
The feeling of theater created by all of this may make the action even more appealing at a time when Test cricket is in desperate need of a boost. A angry, passionate atmosphere, according to many, is part of what makes Ashes cricket so remarkable.
Can England come back from a 2-0 deficit? Is their much-touted ‘Bazball’ strategy up to the task? Such questions only heighten the suspense in what is a huge sporting event.
However, there is a sense that this summer is displaying both the best and worst of the game.
English cricket was already facing unprecedented criticism for its discriminatory record. Following a turbulent week, there will be increased scrutiny over decorum and respect, as well as whether the values connected with the game for so long are being upheld.