Dark clouds: Can England cricket regain damaged reputation?

4 April 2023 | 5 min read | Crisis Comms
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

Former England cricketer and Ashes-winning captain, Michael Vaughan, has been cleared of all charges levied at him by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). They alleged that he used racist and/or discriminatory language before a Twenty20 game in June 2009.

Despite three of the four players of Asian descent that he is accused of telling “There’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that” coming forward, the Cricket Disciplinary Commission (CDC) concluded:

“Having taken into account all the relevant evidence … the panel is not satisfied on the balance of probabilities that these words were spoken by Michael Vaughan at the time and in the specific circumstances alleged.”

For Vaughan, the damage to his personal brand has been significant. But for the ECB, the ruling has the potential to detrimentally impact its reputation and that of cricket itself as an equitable organisation and sport. It all hinders on what the ECB does next.

Michael Vaughan

Reputational suicide?

For the ECB, the dismissal of charges against Vaughan was the worst possible outcome. Over the last two years, the ECB has been pulling out all the stops to prove the lengths they are prepared to go to stamp out racism in the sport. This was perhaps more through necessity than choice.

Indeed, in 2021, at the time when Azeem Rafiq exposed alleged institutional racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) stepped in and declared there to be “deep-seated” racism in English cricket and ordered the ECB to “clean up its act.”

It went further and warned that unless it can demonstrate tangible improvements to tackling the issue then the ECB will face government cuts in public funding. The ECB duly obliged and the combination of a deepening reputation crisis and loss of revenue has since seen them roll out a number of new initiatives, as this article highlights.

But to bring a case against one of the highest profile figures ever to play the game and then to lose it on the back of what the likes of The Times, The Guardian, and The Telegraph agree was one full of holes, is embarrassing. In fact, the latter went as far as to describe it as a “reckless gamble.”

There is no doubt that this ruling will have repercussions for the ECB. They would have wanted – needed – a win to help repair and improve its weakening reputation as an organisation declaring its commitment to positive change on equality, diversity, and inclusion.

Wider repurcussions

It’s not just the ECB whose reputation is now in the dock, the game of cricket itself has also suffered a reputational blow. This ruling is proving to be a backward step in any attempt to ‘de-normalise’ racism in the sport and ensure equal access and opportunity for all.

When the demographic make-up of the sport is taken into account, it is baffling that racism is even a factor. According to figures, British Asians make up around 30 per cent of amateur cricketers in England and Wales. Yet just four per cent are represented in the professional game and eve fewer occupy senior roles on cricket boards themselves.

Becoming a truly diverse and inclusive sport, it would seem, is a long way off. So, is there a way back for the ECB?

Rebuilding a reputation

Reputations can be won and lost, and won again. In my experience, it is rare for an organisation to fall from grace and never recover. It takes time and a rhetoric that is less focused on communicating intention and hyperbole and more on demonstrable and actionable results – impact.

In a statement on the ECB website, Chair Richard Thompson responded to the Vaughan ruling:

“This has been an incredibly challenging period for our sport, but one we must all learn from in order to make cricket better and more inclusive.

“There now needs to be a time of reconciliation where, as a game, we can collectively learn and heal the wounds and ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again.”

The ECB was keen to publicly reaffirm its vision to “make cricket the UK’s most inclusive sport”. It was also rather bland, too. But that is a good thing in this instance. 

Whilst some commentators have called for a more concerted and action-led response, I believe this would be the wrong approach to take.

Offering a ‘We’re going to implement X and Y’ in the immediate aftermath of the ruling would simply have been a knee-jerk reaction aimed solely at placating the media and to be seen as doing ‘something.’

Actually, the worst thing they could do is attempt to make a public declaration of intent on something that could deliver a short-term impact yet is unsustainable over the long term.

By clearly communicating their intention to consider their next steps the ECB is demonstrating their intention to take the learnings of this episode and determine how they can inform future decision making. This is, after all, a cultural shift that they are attempting to achieve and that takes time

The ECB effectively staked its reputation on being on the winning side of the ruling and the judgement has proven to be not just financially damaging but detrimental to the governing body’s reputation, too. That doesn’t mean that it cannot regain its reputation – it can.

Key to doing so will be in clearly communicating the steps and – more important – the impact the ECB’s new initiatives are having, and steering clear of using any hyperbolic language that can and likely will come back to haunt them if such claims cannot be substantiated further down the line.