On Ben Stokes, Kusal Perara and Unconscious Bias

This is not an easy topic.

Wikipedia defines “unconscious bias” as: “Unconscious (or implicit) biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply engrained, universal, and able to influence behavior.”

It exists. It’s a thing. It might very well always be here. And yes it’s in cricket too.

Thanks to Twitter friend Granger Gab, it hit my radar yesterday. And then I saw more of it on Twitter too.

It went something like this: People — myself included — fawned over Ben Stokes innings at Headingley. The press — most of them English but not all — called it the greatest Test innings of all time. And everyone just believed them. Again, including myself. Almost immediately, however, smart people started pointing out that it maybe wasn’t the best Test innings ever, or even this calendar year, as that honor belongs to Kusal Perara of Sri Lanka, who scored 153 not out against South Africa just this past February.

Perara’s side chased down 303 and won with a wicket to spare after a 73 minute, 78 run last wicket stand that saw the man at the opposite end of the crease, Vishwa Fernando, score only six runs but defend 27 balls to help bring his side home.

Sound familiar?

Only Sri Lanka did it not in the cozy confines of one their friendliest home grounds, but thousands of miles from home, under alien conditions.

The people pointing out Perara’s innings yesterday weren’t upset at pundits calling Stokes’ innings the greatest Test innings of all time — their point was more that the press seemed to be ignoring Perara’s all together. And this is not a new problem for cricket media and for fans of the big three countries. They all have this very narrow view that if it didn’t happen in Australia, India or England, then it never happened. All that matters is the men’s high level cricket happening in those countries. Everything else is background noise.

At first, this to me felt like sour grapes. But that instantly didn’t feel right to me. I have learned over the years that if someone’s complaint sounds to you like it is sour grapes, then you are in a position of privilege, and that privilege is clouding your judgement. So I took a second swing at Twitter and really listened. And not only did I start to agree with the people pointing out the narrow minded coverage of the — still, really great — Test match, but I realized that I had argued on their side before. All cricket matters. All of it. Whether it’s a Test match in Headingley or a Test match in Durban. And there is so much cricket happening outside the system that is just flat out ignored by the mainstream cricket press — and by the ICC for that matter. Cricket played and organized by people who love the game, who are doing their best to grow it at the grassroots level, and get very little if any money for it.

But then I started to think about it more. And the problem exists outside of just what the press is doing, as for the most part they are just giving the people what they want. And I started to think about race, and unconscious bias. And I remembered how during the World Cup final I saw loads and loads of Southeast Asians on Twitter living and dying with every ball, who all went ballistic during the super over. Would I have seen English fans doing the same if the final had been between, say, India and Sri Lanka? Probably not. Does that mean those English cricket fans are racists? Of course not. Does it mean they are guilty of unconscious bias? Probably.

Prejudices against people of color in the UK — be they from Southeast Asia or the Caribbean or wherever — are so deeply ingrained into the British psyche (see also: Brexit, pro) that it’s simply not possible for it to not come into play. The unspoken narrative was that Ben Stokes’ innings was the greatest Test innings of all time, because that honor could never belong to a person of color.

I am a white straight man in the western hemisphere. I am in a position of supreme privilege. So this means I am 100% guilty of unconscious bias too. Every single day. See the sour grapes comment above, just for one example. So I am in by no means pointing the finger at anyone else without first pointing it at myself. Man in the mirror, and all that.

For cricket, this is nothing new. That fact cannot be argued either. In the UK, the IPL is roundly sneered at and has been since its inception. That sneer comes from a lot of places, but one of those places is that it’s seen as cricket by and for brown people, and therefore not really cricket.

I am from America. The most racist country probably in the history of the world. And so like I said above I am guilty of this too. Terribly guilty. All I — and anyone — can do is recognize when it’s happening to us, when we notice automatic bias, and take steps to correct it.

Again, I am not calling anyone a racist. And I am not saying Stokes’ innings were not something very, very special. Far from either. What I am saying is that the English press and England’s mostly white fan base flat out ignored Perara’s innings out of unconscious bias, and that they need to recognize this.

The best thing we all can do after recognizing the behavior — myself included — is to listen. And so that is what I am going to do here:

Are you a person of a color? I want to hear from you. The comments are open. Have you experienced racism in cricket? Do you see unconscious bias when you follow the game? Or if you don’t want to wade into all that, then talk to me about Perara’s innings. Did you watch it live? What innings have you seen that were better — no matter the format — outside of England or Australia? Or, just talk about whatever you want. If you would rather post anonymously, you can email me and I’ll post it in the comments for you.

Like Frasier Crane — another white man of privilege — said: I’m listening.

6 Replies to “On Ben Stokes, Kusal Perara and Unconscious Bias”

  1. “I am from America. The most racist country probably in the history of the world.”
    Start of next paragraph.
    “Again, I am not calling anyone a racist.” Make up your mind!

    I try to see the best in people so am not buying the race argument. I think it’s a lot simple and more to the other point in your piece. We are quite lucky in America to have wider/cheaper access to cricket via web portals than pretty much anywhere else in the world so I think we take it for granted that everyone is able to access the maximum cricket content that is available via USA’s channel providers. The culture is different in the UK and Australia where few people will pay extra to watch cricket, especially overseas cricket if it’s not on free to air. Majority of English press are going gaga for Stokes mainly because of your original point. If it didn’t happen in England (or during an Ashes series in Australia), they have no concept of it. Same guys for people in Australia who only watch cricket on Channel 9 (or now Channel 7) and so never see any overseas matches.

    From a personal standpoint, I don’t think anyone who ignores Associate cricket is subconsciously racist against Nepalese, Papua New Guineans, Irish, Scots, Dutch, Namibians, Ugandans, etc. I just think 99% of the cricket community doesn’t give a shit about Associate cricket because they have an outdated stereotype that anything that’s not Test cricket is inferior, or quite literally “not cricket”. So if it’s not happening in a Test country, they won’t bother finding out about what’s happening. That’s nothing to do with racism. It’s just out of outright laziness and lack of interest in an era when the ability to access information about these countries and their teams has never been greater.

  2. Clarifying the middle paragraph in my initial response. I doubt even 10% of the English cricket press saw Perera’s innings v South Africa.

    On the flip side, I still think KC Karan’s 42 not out v Canada at 2018 WCL Division Two in Namibia is the greatest innings I’ve ever seen, due to the context of the situation (51 needed off 47 balls with the last wicket pair at the crease with a spot in the World Cup Qualifier on the line, then down to 8 off 2 balls and securing victory off the final ball). I’m one of about 50 people in the world who got to see that innings live because it wasn’t televised and outside of the 22 players on both teams, squad extras, match officials, there might have been 10 other people in the ground in Windhoek. If I tell anyone that was the greatest innings I’ve ever seen and one of the greatest innings in the history of cricket, they’ll probably think I belong in a padded room. But I can’t blame anyone if they weren’t there and the match wasn’t televised. Most people are only going off of what they’ve seen, which in often cases in England and Australia in particular is very limited to their home country. If Brian Lara didn’t make 277 in his debut tour of Australia, and didn’t continue to kill Australia in chases in the West Indies, most Aussie fans probably would never had heard of him. Even some Aussie fans rate VVS Laxman as a better batsman than Tendulkar simply because Laxman made big Test runs against Australia, more than Tendulkar anyway.

    1. I really appreciate you taking the time to chime in, Peter. You know the associate game better than most people on earth and I knew you would have a unique and informed take.

      Regarding the contradictory statement above. I was desperately worried that people would think I was accusing people of racism, or of being racists. Both those words get thrown around so carelessly. And then I threw them around. Mostly because I wanted it to be clear that I was equally as “guilty” (for lack of a better word…it’s late) of the same unconscious bias mentioned. It was clumsy writing on my part. I am going to leave it in because I would hate for your comment to lose its context, which would be against the spirt of what I was trying to do here.

      Anyway, so much for my listening. 🙂 Now back to it.

  3. While I appreciated Ben Stokes’ innings and wanted him to win it for England. He has been through some tough times on the cricket fields at the highest level. So it’s only fair now that he is getting the recognition for his talent and hardwork. However, as a Pakistani fan, while watching Stokes’ bat I already was aware of the GOAT claims about everything England in the media. All things considered Kusal’s innings to me was the best I have seen as it came against Steyn, Rabada and Olivier in conditions that have always been difficult for the subcontinent batsmen. Brian Lara’s 153* against Oz been my favorite 4th innings batting performance.

  4. As a person of colour I can say that unconscious bias is a fact in most walks of life, from sports, to businesses and top companies. I feel most of the time unconscious bias has nothing to do with racism but more to do with people being ignorant about people from different backgrounds and therefore just trusting or picking people that are similar to themselves. I always hope that conversations about race and unconscious bias can be had in a mature and open way without people saying they are not racist and brushing it under the carpet.

    As for the comparison between Stokes and Perera, I think it is simply down to the England commentators and fans being England-centric and not really paying attention to other teams when they are not touring England.

    1. I agree with FD: I don’t think the unconscious bias is racist but actually tribal. The English press would be just as fawning if it was Archer bowling the Aussies out as they would if it was Stokes (although the Aussie press would try to point out, as they do with Stokes, that he’s not a “proper” member of the English tribe). In fact they are just as happy ignoring English women as much as they are Associate men because “proper” cricket only happens when the English male tribe is involved.

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