How many of us have not been intrigued by our propensity to hold sportspersons to a higher moral standard than the rest? How many of us are less forgiving of the ‘excesses’ of these athletes, most of them still very young, while readily overlooking the repeated transgressions of our elected representatives tasked with showcasing leadership and leading the world towards progress, if not prosperity?
Is it because we relate more easily to sport, which essentially is a pursuit of excellence to many and a means of livelihood to a larger majority, than we do with other strata? And, is it fair on our part to task individuals engaging in a journey of self-discovery while providing entertainment and joy to millions across the globe to embrace maturity and a voice of reason that clearly is at a premium otherwise, especially in these troubled times?
One is not sure if there is a right answer, really. But sport has a greater power to heal and unify than any other visible entity, so whether they like it or not, sportspersons will always be held to a higher standard. They will be looked at as role models, they will forever have to accept that the responsibilities on their shoulders extend beyond winning matches and being the best in their business. They might neither crave for, nor covet, that status, but that comes with the territory. Simple as that.
"Until we educate the entire human race, this thing will not stop."
Michael Holding delivers a powerful message, explaining why #BlackLivesMatter.
— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) July 8, 2020
From time to time, through means outrageous and subtle, sportspersons have stood up for and espoused causes/raised their voices with passion on various subjects including but not exclusive to racial and financial inequality. Like Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. Like the black-gloved raised fist salute by 200-metre medallists Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the medal ceremony in the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Like Arthur Ashe. Like Billie Jean King. Like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s ‘taking a knee’ after the national anthem during his team’s pre-NFL season games in 2016.
Cricket, however, has been a largely silent sport over the years. Even issues with far-reaching implications within the sport’s parameters have been dealt with supremely privately. For the large part, cricketers have chosen to maintain their own counsel, the voices of protest at social/societal injustice severely muted if not totally non-existent.
Against this backdrop, to hear Michael Holding’s measured words of wisdom, uttered with feeling but without histrionics, just before the resumption of international cricket after a 117-day hiatus, scythed through our collective slumber like a massive jolt of electricity.
"We've all been looking away for too long." @nassercricket opens up on his experiences of racism, the impact of the killing of George Floyd and why people should be proud to wear #BlackLivesMatter badges.https://t.co/Vhezqy5hHS pic.twitter.com/8bKFTxhIkW
— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) July 8, 2020
So much has happened between the Australia-New Zealand One-Day International in Sydney on 13 March and now. The Covid-19 pandemic has gripped humanity in a vicious hold of fear and uncertainty. The economy has come to a grinding halt, millions have lost jobs, there is a stifling air of anxiety, anguish, and desperation. As if all this isn’t debilitating enough, the cold-blooded murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, whose life was snuffed out by a despicable police officer’s knee to his throat, has triggered justifiable outrage and anger worldwide and refocussed on racial divide that, unbelievably, exists even in 2020.
The month-and-a-half since Floyd’s tragic demise on 25 May has witnessed a spontaneous outpouring of rage, grief, and, occasionally, helplessness. Peaceful demonstrations in the United States have been met with uncalled for violent reactions from the police, but that hasn’t deterred the Black Lives Matter movement from expanding its ambit.
Cricket hasn’t been impervious to racial overtones. South Africa’s objection to Basil D’Oliveira’s inclusion in the England side as an injury replacement led to the MCC cancelling the proposed tour in September 1968, and catalysed the apartheid-driven nation’s isolation from international cricket for more than two decades.
Celebrated superstars haven’t been insulated from racist barbs from spectators and, more than once, from opponents. Daren Sammy revealed not long back of his exposure to racist remarks – something he says he wasn’t aware of at the time – during his days with Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2013 and 2014, while former India internationals Abhinav Mukund and Doddanarasiah Ganesh have also spoken of being at the receiving end of taunts directed at the colour of their skin.
The resumption of sporting activities in June provided the perfect platform for sport to showcase its solidarity with BLM. And, when cricket restarted on Wednesday (8 July), Sky Sports, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s broadcast rights holders, wasted no time in affirming their, and the sport’s, commitment to working towards an equal and equitable society which, let’s be clear, is not a luxury or a concession by any stretch of the imagination.
Holding was one of the leaders of the feared West Indian pace attacks of the 1970s and 1980s, but with his clarion call for justice and the eradication of racial bias that continues to haunt us even in this day and age, he has established himself as a clear and undisputed leader of his sport. While he didn’t hold back, the Jamaican pace legend spewed neither venom nor vitriol. Oftentimes, the most effective voices are those that are firm, strong but controlled. This isn’t the time to scream vociferously from the rooftops, to whip up frenzy and hysteria. This isn’t a political maelstrom, not a development to be cashed in on for personal gains. A respected figure in cricket who hasn’t shied away from taking principled stances at a personal cost, Holding’s perfect pitch was at once a soothing balm and a wave of optimism.
In having gone back in time to invoke the history of racism and stressing the need for education to redress a wrong that has been an unwelcome companion since the dawn of mankind, Holding made more than just a token statement. Some of his views have already been expressed previously by other powerful advocates of equality, but for cricket and its stakeholders to be reminded of them by the statesmanlike approach of a legend was imperative, as sad as it sounds. Holding’s has to be The Loudest Voice in cricket. Period.
Nasser Hussain, the former England captain, was equally forthright in his short narrative, showing customary courage in admitting that the time had come for him to tell himself to not ‘stop seeing’ because it was uncomfortable. Born in Chennai (then Madras) and moving to England when he was seven, Hussain must have numerous tales of his own to tell. Like Holding, he is also a respected figure unafraid to speak his mind. Between him and Holding, they have rung a bell whose chimes are certain to reverberate across the cricketing stratosphere, at the very least.
By having taken the lead, the reiteration of the strength of Holding’s character has to shake up the consciousness of the greater silent majority happy to chug along in the slipstream of a few. It’s now mandatory for equally influential individuals to open their mouths. After all, sometimes just opening one’s eyes and heart won’t suffice.
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