The prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the sports minister, Oliver Dowden, have both criticised the England and Wales Cricket Board’s decision to suspend the bowler Ollie Robinson from international cricket while it conducts an investigation into historic offensive tweets published in 2012 and 2013, with Dowden insisting the move was “over the top”.
Robinson excelled on debut in England’s first Test against New Zealand, which ended in a draw on Sunday, taking seven wickets and scoring 42 in the first innings, a total bettered only by the centurion Rory Burns. His performance was all the more impressive for having been played out amid the controversy caused by the tweets, which were rediscovered and widely distributed as play progressed on the opening day. His suspension was announced on Sunday night, ruling him out of the second match which starts in Birmingham on Thursday, and potentially beyond.
“Ollie Robinson’s tweets were offensive and wrong,” Dowden tweeted. “They are also a decade old and written by a teenager. The teenager is now a man and has rightly apologised. The ECB has gone over the top by suspending him and should think again.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister made clear that “the PM is supportive” of Dowden’s stance. “As he set out, these were comments made more than a decade ago written by someone as a teenager and for which they’ve rightly apologised,” they said. The spokesperson also refused to criticise those fans of England’s football team who have booed the players for taking the knee before recent friendlies, insisting that “he respects the rights of those who want to peacefully protest in this way”.
Dowden, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, has been a critic of many of the repercussions of the Black Lives Matter protests last year, particularly the removal of statues of slave traders, and wrote to publicly funded museums last year to make clear that he expected their “approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”. He also disagreed with the BBC’s decision to remove from its iPlayer streaming service the comedy show Little Britain, of which the creators David Walliams and Matt Lucas have apologised for their portrayal of black and other ethnic characters.
On Sunday Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, said the controversy had been “a stark reminder of the responsibilities that we hold”, and that it was impossible to dismiss the tweets simply because of the time that has passed since their publication. “We are in that position now [of being in the public eye],” he said. There might be further embarrassment ahead for Silverwood and his charges, with Wisden publishing an anonymised racially offensive tweet sent by a member of the current England team when they were 16.
“We all get things wrong at times,” Silverwood said. “It’s what we do and how we act. The will as professional cricketers and staff is to make it an inclusive environment. We need to learn how to do that, and make this game available to everybody.”
It was Silverwood who had to inform Robinson, as he left the field last Wednesday, of the unintended impact his tweets had made. He said the 27-year-old had been “devastated, embarrassed, and very remorseful”.
“It was very disappointing,” Silverwood said. “What should have been one of the greatest days of Ollie’s career didn’t end up well for him. It was disappointing for the group. He showed a lot of remorse, he apologised publicly, he apologised to the dressing room. I think it’s been a really big learning for him. The big thing for us all is education.”
Test cricketer Michael Carberry, who played six matches for England between 2010 and 2014, criticised the politicians’ intervention. “I think Oliver Dowden needs to come and spend a day with me and live a day in my shoes, and a day in the shoes of most BAME community people, and actually speak from a place of facts and reason,” he told Sky Sports News.
Carberry, speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, said: “I don’t believe this is a problem where you can rehabilitate someone. If it was down to me Ollie Robinson would not be playing Test cricket. Robinson spoke about educating himself, but what is he talking about? I would be very interested to know. I am a black man and I have never needed any education to speak to my white friends.”
Robinson’s suspension will continue until a disciplinary investigation has been concluded, though he remains free to play for Sussex. There is still uncertainty over who should be doing the investigating, which depends on the player’s contractual status when the tweets were published: if he was contracted to Kent, his first county side, the Cricket Discipline Commission will become involved, and if he was out of contract it will remain in the hands of the ECB’s integrity department.