Bradford is a hotbed of cricketing talent counting a World Cup winner among its number. But is Adil Rashid destined to remain the exception to the rule? Taha Hashim investigates in the second part of our series on cricket’s diversity problem, first published in the September issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly.
First published in issue 35 of Wisden Cricket Monthly
It was some welcome. Two days earlier, Adil Rashid had won the World Cup; now he was back home, in Bradford, at his uncle’s shop. Hundreds mobbed the boy who had grown up on these streets, spun his way into Yorkshire’s first team at the age of 18 and delivered his country that elusive trophy. Family, friends and the local community were celebrating the man of Pakistani origin who had helped win the World Cup for England.
This isn’t the tale of Rashid, however, but that of the wider South Asian communities of Bradford and beyond, passionate about the game but for so long lugging around stories of exclusion and untapped potential. South Asians make up 5.7 per cent of the population in England and Wales, and a third of recreational cricketers.* But that number falls away dramatically at the highest level: research from Dr Thomas Fletcher at Leeds Beckett University shows that in 2019, excluding overseas pros, just 5.8 per cent of male players from the 18 first-class counties were British Asian. For female cricketers, the percentage was 6.6. For now, though, a step back from the bigger picture. A step into West Yorkshire.
In the 1950s and 60s, migrants from the subcontinent – most of whom were from Pakistan – settled in Bradford, with the influx populating the city’s textile mills. Kamlesh Patel, now Lord Patel of Bradford, was born in Kenya in 1960 to an Indian family and arrived in the city as a baby. Qualifying as a social worker, he rose to become chair of the Mental Health Act Commission, and was then appointed to the ECB’s board in 2015, where he became one of the key figures behind the development of the 2018 South Asian Action Plan (SAAP). “Only a handful of Asian families were here,” he tells WCM of his early experiences of Bradford. “There was very overt racism, to the point that you were avoiding the skinheads who were ‘P***-bashing’ every weekend. It was the era of ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. Unless you were from the posh part, where they let the dogs in.”
Cricket was a release for Patel, who began playing in the streets before he made his way into the formal recreational structures of the region. There, differences persisted. “I think another three Asian lads played in the Bradford League in the late Seventies. Most didn’t survive, not because they weren’t good enough – they were exceptionally talented – but there was a feeling of not belonging there. It just felt uncomfortable. If you didn’t eat meat, if you didn’t drink, if you didn’t socialise, if you didn’t come from the right background, it just felt odd in those days.”
Above everything, there was Yorkshire County Cricket Club. The White Rose, and unlike any other first-class club. Its birthright tradition – players had to be born within the county’s boundaries – persisted until the early Nineties, and the exclusionary practice bred alienation. “Yorkshire had the policy that if you weren’t born here, you couldn’t play,” says Patel. “That’s what sort of encouraged a number of people to set up the Quaid-e-Azam League, one of the first all-Asian leagues, mainly with Pakistanis. There were some seriously talented individuals in those leagues and that continues to this day and has grown.”
In the 1999 Wisden Almanack, editor Matthew Engel referenced “cricketing apartheid” at the local levels of the English game, explicitly mentioning the “segregation” in Yorkshire. Five years later, in the House of Commons, the Labour MP for Bradford North, Terry Rooney, complained of the “deep-rooted, embedded racism in Yorkshire County Cricket Club”, claiming the club had ignored South Asian talents plying their trade in the Bradford League.
Rooney’s comments came just months after Ajmal Shahzad – playing for Windhill in the Bradford League – had become the first British-born Asian to play for Yorkshire, with wicketkeeper Ismail Dawood joining the ranks that same summer. Then came Rashid and, 16 years on, Yorkshire CCC seems to be giving its all to reach out to a community ignored for too long. There are a multitude of issues to address, with some of the groundwork already laid down.
In 2015, Fletcher and three other academics from Leeds Beckett University released a paper, commissioned by Yorkshire Cricket, summarising their research in Bradford and Leeds to better understand South Asian communities’ relationship with cricket. “What we found is that there is a lot of informal cricket taking place,” Fletcher says. “It might be an informal Sunday League or it might be a midweek team or midweek league. These are teams, not clubs. They rent facilities from other established clubs. They don’t have the ability to bring through young people and coach them and socialise them into that club structure. It’s very ad hoc and it’s very transient, moving from one venue to the next to wherever you can rent for your next fixture. That in itself doesn’t create an environment where opportunities thrive. It’s not an environment where you get introduced to formal structures and pathways to make the step up to representative cricket, academy cricket and second-team cricket, and get recognised.
“There are barriers to how recruitment takes place and how cricket is played. The work we’ve done suggests that the traditional cricket model doesn’t necessarily work. The 12 o’clock [match] on a Saturday all day, the six o’clock training session – some ethnic minority groups and South Asians, in particular, might struggle to access this. Let’s say, stereotypically, their parents run a corner shop or work in restaurants or drive taxis – the reality is that is still the case in many places like Bradford and Leeds – the support afforded by family members for young people to get to training, to get to matches, to facilitate, that just isn’t there.
“One of the challenges that Asian communities face is they don’t have a pipeline into the pathway. Whatever the reason, whether it be language related, whether it is down to money – there are a series of systematic and institutional barriers which restrict their access to the cricket system.”
Combined with issues surrounding a lack of facilities in urban areas – a nationwide problem – findings from the project were taken on board by both Yorkshire and the ECB. For the club, all roads led to the regeneration of Bradford Park Avenue, lying in the shadow of the picturesque Bradford Grand Mosque. Once a first-class venue, the ground was in tatters before a multi-million pound redevelopment – with Yorkshire CEO Mark Arthur playing a central role – resulted in the opening of new artificial net lanes in 2017. A project “at the heart of the South Asian community in Bradford”, as Patel describes it, received almost 10,000 participants to the nets and ground in 2019, a 42 per cent increase on 2018. Initial murmurings about the ground returning to first-class status have not turned into anything more – with a financial injection required – but there is hope that this project will bring local talent into the mainstream.
“To be blunt, we need a commercial partner to join hands with the local council, the ECB and Yorkshire CCC to help us go to the next stage,” says Patel. “This year has not helped. The plans are all drawn up. It would reintroduce a fantastic first-class county ground where maybe Yorkshire Women could play, and it would hold four, four-and-a-half thousand people. It would be great for Bradford, it would be great to regenerate the place. It would be a great home for talent pathways for young children coming through there. The potential with Park Avenue is endless.
“Last year I saw a tournament with four teams playing each other – all women. If you’d have told me 10 years ago that we were going to have four teams of Asian women playing cricket, from all backgrounds, I’d have said that’s going to be tough. Plus five to six hundred people there, with husbands, fathers and brothers watching – that was a real positive.”
The complications of the Covid-19 pandemic have slowed the progress of other offshoot projects from the ECB’s SAAP. One was the development of a new urban cricket centre in Bradford, although planning continues. Another initiative, covering a number of ‘core cities’ in the SAAP – Bradford is one of 10 – was a fuller-scale introduction of Community Talent Champions, with these designated ‘scouts’ assigned to identify talent and place them into the “pipeline” that Fletcher speaks of.
“It needs to be individuals that can access the community, know the community and get in there and talent-spot youngsters,” says Patel. “It’s absolutely crucial. We got some funding late last year, and this year we would have been out recruiting and securing it. I believe it’s just been delayed.”
Tangible efforts are being made to address the issues at grassroots level, but the 2015 Leeds Beckett University study did offer another troubling conclusion, that “members of South Asian communities in Bradford and Leeds still believe that Yorkshire Cricket neither wants nor values minority ethnic involvement in cricket”. The historical legacy of the birthright tradition still simmered.
Perhaps the narrative will now shift with the Bradford Park Avenue project, alongside the symbolism of a multi-faith room opening at Headingley in 2016 and the elevation of Hanif Malik, Leeds-born and of Pakistani origin, onto Yorkshire’s board.
He takes umbrage at any suggestion that the club isn’t doing enough to engage with the local South Asian community. “I’ve been a critic of Yorkshire in the past,” says Malik, the founder of a healthy living centre. “And when I was offered the opportunity to come onto the board I made it very clear to Mark Arthur and Steve Denison [then chairman] that I was only willing to if the desire was really there. That’s absolutely what I saw from both those individuals in particular, and other colleagues. While you will always have critics who say that there’s not enough being done, I have to say, very sincerely, I’ve had a long career in tackling racism and inequality, and I’m astute enough to recognise it when it’s there. Yorkshire have made considerable progress on the journey of trying to attract people of minority backgrounds and South Asian communities.”
So the picture appears rosier, at a national level, and in Bradford. But there is one thing Fletcher tells me that particularly stands out. “The noises are there to say they’re [Yorkshire] committed to diversity, but the number of Asian people in Yorkshire who play cricket proportionately says that there should be more Asian cricketers that come through the system. My worry is that while they might get through to the system at a certain level, that the system then doesn’t know how to handle them. That’s not to say that they’re more difficult than other groups. But they are probably different to what the people who are coaching them are used to. And that’s not these young South Asian players’ faults at all. This is about the club and cricket having to adapt to be more inclusive than perhaps it has been.”
This brings in Azeem Rafiq, who in 2012 not only became Yorkshire’s youngest-ever captain, but their first of Asian origin. Having made his debut as a teenager in 2008, Rafiq had two spells at the club before being released at the end of the 2018 season. I ask him about his experience coming up through the ranks at the club as a British Asian. “Tough,” he says. “When I was younger… now you look back and there were a hell of a lot of things that happened that you think: ‘You should have stopped it’. But then you look back and think: ‘Why didn’t you stop it?’
“I’ve been in dressing rooms where things have been said, and, really, I should have stopped it. I had a captain who was openly racist. Why didn’t I stop it? It was the environment. I raised my voice about it once and I was made out to be the person… I might have read Carbs [Michael Carberry] talk about a similar thing. You look back and you think the one time I did raise it, I was made out to be the person who was in the wrong. Through the years you feel like you have to do things to fit in, and I did. The minute I didn’t, I felt isolated.
“There’s one comment that stands out for me. And I remember it to this day. It was around the time of my debut. There was me, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. We’re walking onto the field and one player said: ‘There’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that.’
“You can imagine the sort of thing that leaves on you, and you hear these things all day, every day.” I ask Rafiq if he believes the environment is now better for a British Asian going through the system. “No, I think it’s worse,” he replies. “That’s just my personal opinion.”
Yorkshire’s commitment is genuine. The ECB’s is too, not least because beyond the altruism, they recognise the financial benefits of tapping into the community. But Rafiq’s comments underline the point that producing more South Asian professionals means fostering an environment that is conducive from the bottom, right to the very top.
A lack of South Asian coaches is significant – “we need people to understand people’s different backgrounds and different pressures,” explains Patel – while there are also other factors at play. Malik mentions South Asian communities historically directing the focus of youngsters to “stereotypical jobs and professions that we often quote: being a doctor, engineer, lawyer or self-employed”.
Perhaps all we can do is place some trust in Patel, the man who has seen this whole story through and has faith in the work being done. “It’s a long journey,” he says. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but you would hope that if we keep concentrating and focusing on that, we’ll see plenty of Asians playing at all levels of the game.”
*Statistics from the ECB’s South Asian Action Plan
October 6, 2020 – an update
Since the original publication of this article, much more has come to light in relation to Azeem Rafiq and Yorkshire CCC.
Alongside the publication of this article, Rafiq’s same comments were published in a wide-ranging interview on Wisden.com on August 17. Yorkshire were given the chance to respond to Rafiq’s remarks but offered no comment.
Days later Rafiq reiterated his comments on the Cricket Badger podcast. Still, Yorkshire’s silence persisted.
An ESPNcricinfo interview with Rafiq, published on September 2, then detailed the full extent of his experiences at the club, with the 29-year-old explaining that racism at the club had left him on the brink of suicide. He made clear that he believed the club was “institutionally racist”.
The following day a response came from Yorkshire chairman, Roger Hutton, stating that on Monday that week [August 31], the club had made “the decision to launch a formal investigation into the specific allegations made by Azeem Rafiq, and a wider review of YCCC’s policies and culture”.
“We fully acknowledge that just as in many walks of life, sport, including cricket and Yorkshire as a club, must do better to fully promote a culture of zero tolerance to racism or any form of prejudice,” Hutton added. “We accepted a long time ago that change was needed at Headingley to improve diversity, especially in terms of racial inclusivity. Since 2014 we’ve prioritised community engagement with numerous groups right across the county, and across many cultures and ethnicities. While as an organisation we’ve made real efforts to that end, we are not perfect and it’s a work in progress.” Still, the feeling remained that this statement should have come much earlier, not after the public outrage that followed Rafiq’s comments to ESPNcricinfo as the national media took notice.
Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, the former Pakistan seamer who played for Yorkshire in 2008 and 2009 and was mentioned in Rafiq’s remarks to WCM, has since opened up on his experiences of racism at the club. “What Azeem has stated is absolutely true and I echo what he has said,” Rana told i. “He has only stated facts as far as I am concerned.”
Rafiq has furthermore claimed that he previously reported his concerns to those in the Yorkshire hierarchy, including Hanif Malik. “I reported these things through every channel that was available to me,” Rafiq told ESPNcricinfo. “Not much progress was made until I spoke to the media.”
For all the work the club has done to engage with local South Asian communities, more honesty and transparency is needed, to move beyond the PR exercises and vague statements on playing shirts. The isolation Rafiq experienced cannot be repeated.
As Thomas Fletcher said: “The noises are there to say they’re committed to diversity.” Tangible actions have been taken, but more is needed. The investigation into the allegations has begun, and the Yorkshire board has committed to sharing the findings and recommendations. Now it’s time to move beyond the noise. It’s time to actually listen.
Read more from WCM’s cricket’s diversity crisis series here