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I sat bolt upright. An unusual occurrence in that soporific hour before bedtime, watching the news on the television. Usually, my eyelids droop in the face of more bad news about Covid and impenetrable graphs from the good professor charged with overseeing the nation’s health. I never taught modelling to him when he was a pupil at Malvern College; the only modelling he would have been exposed to would have been in the Art Department. But it was not Chris Whitty’s face that had startled me. It was that of my old mucker, former team-mate and subject of one of my books, John Holder. He was discussing a hot potato that has been as much at the forefront of national discussion in recent month as Covid – racial discrimination.

I use the term ‘racial discrimination’ rather than ‘racism’ advisedly, for ‘discrimination’ hints at behaviour that is thoughtless and unmindful (though of course it can be conscious – very much so), whereas ‘racism’ is nothing but naked bigotry. So what was John Holder’s point in question? If John Holder, the mildest, friendliest, most cheerful and even-tempered man I know, has a beef about colour, then I had better find out. So I rang for a chat.

“Look, Murt,” he said, “I am a man who is black, not a black man.”

“Are you, John? I never noticed.”

Our relationship, as it was with all of us in the dressing room at Hampshire during the 1970s, was based on fun, laughter and good-natured banter. Hod – for that was his nickname, God knows why - was usually at the forefront of the buffoonery and revelry and that is why, I would argue, that he was one of the most popular and best loved of all the players on the staff. On retirement from playing, he had a long and distinguished career as a first-class and Test match umpire. If he had something to say, it was worth listening.

He ignored my wisecrack.

“By that, I mean, I am a man. The colour of my skin is neither here nor there. In other words, it does not define me.”

He went on to explain – he had no need really, because I have written a book about him and I reckon I know how his mind works – but he likes to set out, rationally and lucidly, his thought processes.

“I can honestly say that in all the years I have been in this country since I came over from Barbados as a young man, I have never myself suffered racism. I have never felt an outsider.” I am not sure that can be strictly true but John is such an affable fellow, he would tend to brush off unkind or prejudiced comments as unintended. But he sees himself as no victim. He has never played the race card. In fact, he has contempt for those who do. So let there be no doubt, given his broad shoulders and sunny disposition, his words carry weight. He has no axe to grind.

“Who was the last black umpire to be appointed?” he challenged me.

“Er….Steve Bucknor?”

“No, in the English game?”

My mind was a blank.

“Vanburn Holder.”

I gasped in surprise. Vanburn was a contemporary of mine. He got me out when Hampshire were playing against the West Indies in 1973. The last time I saw him was at Tom Graveney’s funeral five years ago. Though he was still the massive, bow-legged, genial man of all those years ago, he must now be in his mid-seventies.

“Look,” Hod continued, “there are no black umpires, no black umpire mentors, no black match referees, no black pitch liaison officers, no black administrators who are currently in the England first-class game.”

As he intoned the list of shame, it felt as if it was a tolling bell for my naïve belief that the world of cricket is not like its football cousin, where the dearth of black managers and coaches is becoming a matter of national shame.

“And while we’re on the subject,” said I, thinking aloud, “Where are the black successors in the game of the likes of Roland Butcher, Monte Lynch, Lonsdale Skinner, Wilf Slack, Norman Cowans, Neil Williams, Phil de Freitas, Gladstone Small, Devon Malcolm….all contemporaries, or near-contemporaries, of ours in English cricket now? Chris Jordan and Joffra Archer spring to mind but they are only two and were not born here.”

“That is another matter,” he said, not wishing to be deflected from his argument, “Let me take Devon Malcolm as a good case in point. A great bowler and a really, really nice guy. He played Test cricket and won games for England so don’t tell me doesn’t know the game inside out.”

I waited. Now was not the time for a merry quip.

“In 2005, Devon applied to join the first-class list of umpires. There is no doubt, given his personality and experience, that he was more than qualified for the job. He was informed that currently there was no vacancy. That was nonsense because in the meantime, both before and afterwards, other umpires were appointed.”

John drew breath. He was in the middle of a good spell and there was no prising the ball from his hand.

“Take Ismail Dawood. He had a bit of a wandering career for Northants, Worcestershire, Glamorgan and Yorkshire. He is of Asian origin but English born. In 2009, he applied to join the first-class list and was put on the reserve list to serve his probation. After five years on the reserve list, he was sacked without explanation, even though he had a stack of good reports from assessors at the matches in which he stood. And still there is not a single black or Asian umpire on the first-class list.”

No matter what lies beneath, that is not a good look. Cricket prides itself on its inclusivity and low incidence of racism but here I am being handed a grenade that blows that simplistic notion out of the water.

“So, who, or what, is to blame?”

Never one to dob anybody in it, he gave another illustration of the glass ceiling. He retired from umpiring in 2009, after 27 years in the job, “mainly because I saw which way the wind was blowing” and didn’t much like it. “I wanted to give something back to my trade and the people who worked in it. So I asked if there was any chance I could become a mentor for umpires, you know, watching them in action and debriefing them at the end of the day, with suggestions and help how to improve. I never even got a reply. In the meantime, ex-players such as Tony Pigott, David Byas, Richard Ellison and the late Graham Cowdrey – all fine men and perfectly well qualified - were appointed.”

“But all white.”

“Well, you said it, Murt.”

“Who is in charge of appointing umpires?”

“Chris Kelly.”

“Chris Kelly!!”

My astonishment knew no bounds. Still there? I know him distantly. He was a teacher at nearby Royal Grammar School in Worcester and then secured the post of Umpires and Referees Manager at the International Cricket Council, an important and influential post for which his lack of any serious cricket experience you would have thought counted against him. After four years in post, he joined the ECB as Umpires Manager, a position he has held for the past 15 years. I cannot pass comment on Kelly’s record but John is not a fan.

“Since I have retired,” John continued, “I have been waiting in vain for the next black or Asian umpire to be appointed to the first-class list.”

He sounded more sad than angry.

“What would you like to happen, now that the scandal has hit the national news?”

“There must be a clarity in the process of how umpires are chosen and trained. There should be an open pathway for new umpires to be appointed. It should not happen behind closed doors, on the whim, the preference, the prejudice of faceless people.”

With that, he raised the dreaded finger; the ECB was out!

For interest’s sake I looked up the mission statement of the ECB on their website. In amongst plenty of pious platitudes was this declaration:

The E£CB is committed to promoting diversity and inclusion across the sport of cricket, from those playing the game, watching, volunteering, officiating, coaching and working so that everyone can say, ‘Cricket is a game for me.’

Depends who ‘me’ is, I suppose.

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