Ollie Robinson will not forget his first day as a test cricketer.
In the morning, he stood in silence for a ‘moment of unity’, while England’s players wore T-shirts with anti-discrimination messages. Towards evening, he apologized for tweets written nine years ago. They contain references to ‘Asian smileys’, Muslims and bombs, and ‘n*****’. Some were sexist in nature.
Between these shocking contradictions came proof why England had capped him in the first place: a nagging line and length, plus the wickets of New Zealand opener Tom Latham and veteran batsman Ross Taylor.
Ollie Robinson’s Test debut was marred after historic racist and sexist tweets emerged
He lived up to the billing: accurate, aggressive, two-sided squeeze. The new Angus Fraser, experts agreed. Everything seemed fine.
But when it turned out, between lunch and tea on an otherwise optimistic first day of the test summer, that Robinson had been spending time on Twitter at the age of 18, the past immediately changed the present.
Not that he knew. Aware of the situation, the English management chose not to tell Robinson during the tea break, meaning he spent the last session in blissful ignorance. Playwrights call this dramatic irony, when the audience knows more than the main character. Others will have a more focused description.
Racist tweets are never welcome. When they come to light just hours after the institution you represent publicly began a new era of zero tolerance against “racism, religious bigotry, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ability and ageism,” you can imagine the scenes at the headquarters of merely suggest the ECB.
Robinson impressed with the ball and took two wickets but is now in hot water
No matter how long ago Robinson was mistaken, this is a head-in-hand moment. A strongly worded statement by ECB chief Tom Harrison confirmed this.
Diversity is a sensitive topic in cricket right now, to say the least. England were criticized last summer for their decision to stop kneeling for the series against Pakistan and Australia after they did so against the West Indies and Ireland. Michael Holding, in particular, was devastating.
Privately, ECB officials admit the decision sends the wrong signals at a time when many others stepped up their response to the Black Lives Matter message. It was a clumsy move, fueled in part by concerns that BLM had become too politicized.
A period of introspection followed, both at board level and in the dressing room. Last week, Test Captain Joe Root told Sportsmail that the topic was “something we’ve talked about a lot and are really looking forward to.” He meant it too.
Robinson wore an anti-discrimination T-shirt with his England teammates before the test test
Then, before this match, he revealed plans to bring cricket to the more deprived areas of the country, trying to convince skeptics that the sport can spread beyond public school.
England wants to do the right thing, even if you don’t agree with the extent to which the message has deviated from racial equality. The will is to make cricket more accessible, which is why the rise of the tweets could not have been better timed – for both the ECB and Robinson himself.
Some will dismiss them as a juvenile transgression; one or two may even plead “bater.” But nine years ago is hardly a different era, and Robinson was on the first rung of the cricket ladder, making his Yorkshire debut less than a year after the tweets.
In any case, this is a reminder that the ECB is right to train its cricketers, even if it is alarming that they need education at all. And there is still plenty of work left.
Earlier this week, Craig Overton – who was in contention for Robinson’s place in this Test – was forced in an interview to revisit the 2015 comments to Sussex’s Pakistan-born all-rounder Ashar Zaidi, to whom he reportedly said ‘back to go to your own f****** country’.
The bowler said he was embarrassed in an apology but could now face a major fine and suspension
Pressured by Wisden.com as to whether he had made the comment, Overton replied, “I don’t believe I said it.” He went on to say that he often spoke to his Somerset teammate Azhar Ali, the Pakistani Testbatsman, as proof that he was “not that kind of person”.
Like everyone else, cricketers are the product of their society. The sport recognizes its responsibility too late.
But this was a day when cricket would usher in a merry new summer, when – it is hoped – the worst of Covid restrictions are behind us. It was a day when we could have talked about how the novice Robinson took more wickets than the veterans Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad between them.
Instead, Robinson looked shattered as he read out a statement describing himself as “embarrassed,” “embarrassed,” “thoughtless” and “irresponsible.” He added that he was “not racist” and “not sexist”.
But perhaps worse is to come, with Harrison announcing a “full investigation.” What he expects to find is unclear. The tweets speak for themselves, just as Robinson hoped his bowling would happen one day he’ll always remember for all the wrong reasons.