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Wisden Almanack 2022

Arms folded, eyes shut: The Yorkshire racism scandal

by David Hopps 6 minute read

In the 2022 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, David Hopps reflected on the racism scandal that engulfed Yorkshire County Cricket Club in 2021.

It had to be Yorkshire. When the dam finally broke, and the history of racism in English professional cricket began to flood into the nation’s consciousness, it was always likely to be Yorkshire who bore the brunt; Yorkshire who would symbolise the prejudice and inequality, both within our game and the nation at large; and Yorkshire who would surrender to rancour and division as demands grew that change – long-overdue change – had to occur.

The story of racism in English cricket is not solely about Yorkshire. How could it be? But some of the county’s least endearing traits meant that, when the dam did break, holed by the initially accidental, then increasingly obsessive, campaign of a cricketer who said “enough is enough”, it was White Rose intransigence, insensitivity and inability to see the bigger picture that led to the torrent of condemnation. Other counties kept their heads down; racism elsewhere is often more insidious. In Yorkshire, very little is hidden for long.

It took some doing for a player once seen as proof that the club were changing, that they were capable of developing young Asian talent, to become evidence of precisely the opposite – that their culture had become so toxic, so awash with institutional racism, that it had driven their former all-rounder Azeem Rafiq to a state of near mental collapse, during which he says he contemplated suicide. But Yorkshire – as much as they had sought to address his mental-health issues – somehow pulled it off.

During a year-long independent inquiry into his allegations against them, their PR was non-existent. Behind the scenes, arguments raged. And when the report finally emerged, accepting seven of Rafiq’s 43 charges, including one that he was bullied for being overweight, the fact that it could not be published in full for legal reasons was condemned as evasion. An apology from the Yorkshire chairman, Roger Hutton, had come far too late. He had become an isolated figure, and he resigned, castigating senior management for “lacking contrition”.

The management saw in Rafiq only a disruptive, high-maintenance cricketer; they folded their arms, and refused to consider whether they might share the blame. Yorkshire’s previous coach, the Australian Jason Gillespie, had departed in 2016 with his reputation high, having narrowly missed a hat-trick of Championship titles, and softened the club’s harder edges. His replacement, Andrew Gale, was more abrasive, as stereotypically Yorkshire as they come, and Gale’s relationship with Rafiq soon deteriorated; at Rafiq’s employment tribunal in Leeds for racial discrimination and harassment, he alleged Gale was hostile to Asian players. And there was the sorry business of the soured friendship with Zimbabwe-raised Gary Ballance, who for so long could not see what he described as “banter” – calling Rafiq a “Paki” – might have been a throwback to white colonial supremacy.

Foreign players were given English names, their status as outsiders dunder-headedly underlined. Overseeing all this, Martyn Moxon – a popular and comparatively gentle director of cricket – appeared too unaware of his wider responsibilities, a man who just wanted to coach cricketers. Eventually, he was too worn down by the whole thing to intervene, and took sick leave. If he had sinned, it was sins of omission. Coaches, captains, senior professionals and a head of HR who knew whose side she was on – every person of influence contributed to the mess. We haven’t yet mentioned the chief executive, which is apt: one wonders exactly what Mark Arthur was doing.

Arguably, Yorkshire’s fault arose in the main from unconscious bias, a propensity for social stereotypes, and unquestioning faith in the status quo. Even when they finally abandoned their policy, in 1992, of fielding only Yorkshire-born cricketers – a policy that mass mobility had made preposterous – they did so not out of enlightened recognition of the plight of immigrant Asians, but because of defeats on the field and a worsening balance sheet.

“Yorkshireness”, that heavily loaded word, was culpable, because Yorkshire traditionally prefers forthrightness to evasion, certainty to nuance, conservatism to progressive ideals. “Yorkshire plain speaking can be merely a cover for racism,” came the cry from south of the Trent. Well, yes, but there is ample evidence that metropolitan disingenuousness is not the answer, either. When the comedian Harry Enfield’s “Yorkshireman” sketch began to do the rounds again, however, no one could really complain.

On social media, identity politics held sway. Many adopted views based on how they felt, not what they knew. Sides were taken as an article of faith. Individuals on both sides were traduced. It became part of the narrative, for instance, that Yorkshire had defended racist terms as banter. They had done nothing of the sort. In fact, it was the independent inquiry, which was summed up by Hutton in the county’s statement as follows: “The Panel concluded that Azeem Rafiq and his team-mate’s language towards each other was unacceptable and was racist and derogatory, and the Panel did not condone the language… The Panel found that this highlighted the importance of YCCC monitoring the use of such language and taking appropriate action against those individuals who engage in such comments, even if it is in the context of ‘banter’, or ‘friendly’.” But social media preferred emotion to facts.

It all came to a head on November 16. Rafiq’s moving televised testimony to a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee shone a light on Yorkshire cricket’s failure to embrace a multicultural society fully 60 years after mass immigration and post-industrial decline had begun to change many of the county’s towns and cities. Yorkshire’s response, such as it was, was left to Hutton, yet his internal investigation only heightened tensions: it dragged on for over a year, and was conducted by the Leeds branch of Squire Patton Boggs, a law firm he had once worked for.

By the time Hutton faced the select committee, he was prepared to concede Yorkshire were institutionally racist, and ran for the hills, pausing only to pen a pertinent follow-up letter in which he castigated the ECB for refusing to get involved in the investigation. The ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, instead contributed some corporate squirming which could not hide the board’s own historic failures. A week later, they released a 12-point plan to “tackle racism and promote inclusion and diversity at all levels going forward”. But most people were tired of high-sounding policy statements. They wanted action. There was a sense that, this time, the ECB would also be held to account.

Rafiq, predictably, suffered a media examination of his own character defects. He never said he was a saint, and perhaps it was just as well. An anti-Semitic post was unearthed, suggesting that he, too, was not free of racism; full of remorse, he met a Holocaust survivor. There were other allegations. But not every campaigner for social justice can be a Nelson Mandela. To a large extent, it didn’t matter: Rafiq, however flawed, was a catalyst for change.

Once Yorkshire’s new chairman, Lord Patel, was appointed in November, that change came quickly. Born Kamlesh Patel in Kenya to a family of Gujarati descent, and raised in Bradford, he was a big hitter: a member of the House of Lords and the first British Asian to become a senior independent director of the ECB. He had also chaired the Mental Health Commission, before assuming a similar role with Social Care England. “What’s with the woke diversity appointment?” asked someone below the line on the Huddersfield Daily Examiner’s website, as if to encapsulate the size of his task.

Lord Patel promised “seismic and urgent changes”. He settled out of court Rafiq’s compensation claim at the Leeds tribunal. He introduced a whistle-blowing hotline, commissioned an independent review into the county’s diversity and inclusion policies, and praised Rafiq for his “phenomenal cricketing intelligence”, hinting there might one day be a job for him. “If anyone here thinks that Paki, or any other such word, is banter, then the door is there,” he added. Lord Patel didn’t release the report either, but escaped censure.

The biggest jolt, though, was still to come, when Patel’s Yorkshire sacked 16 members of staff – not just Gale and Moxon (Arthur had already gone), but signatories of a letter to the old board in October, in which they had doubled
down on criticism of Rafiq, accusing him of being “a complete liability off the field”, and “on a one-man mission to bring down the club”. The allegations, the letter said, were having “a profound effect on us all, physically, emotionally and psychologically”.

That hurt was deepened: the letter was seen as uncompliant, and they were summarily sacked in December. Legal advice was taken, and many felt hard done by. In Lord Patel’s Yorkshire, there were to be no concessions; indeed, when it came to uncompromising traits, he seemed to have as many as anyone. He wooed Yorkshire traditionalists by persuading Darren Gough, who had a good relationship with Rafiq, to suspend a lucrative career on TalkSport radio, and accept a temporary role as director-of-cricket-cum-cheerer-upper.

That serious issues existed beyond individual antagonism was clear, since Yorkshire’s development pathways were no longer producing players from minority-ethnic communities. Talk of bias and unofficial quota systems was disturbing, although proof was not in the public domain. In that failure, Yorkshire are not unique. When an estimated 35% of recreational cricketers in England are of Asian heritage, yet barely 20% fill county Academies, and that figure drops to 6% among county professionals, there is a deep-seated national malaise. Many non-white players who do make it come oven-ready from private schools, already culturally integrated and well-coached, full of aspiration and confident of their place in the system. In the backstreets of Bradford, Dewsbury or Rotherham, there are few off-the-shelf products. Poverty grinds down expectation and ambition.

Too many make light of this challenge. Official studies tell how, in inner-city Bradford – the home of Adil Rashid, who did beat the system – different communities remain largely apart. Ted Cantle, an advocate of interculturalism, was invited in 2001 to compile a Home Office report into race riots in the city. He wrote: “Separate educational arrangements, community and voluntary bodies, employment, places of worship, language, social and cultural networks, mean that many communities operate on the basis of a series of parallel lives. They do not touch at any point, let alone overlap and promote any meaningful interchange.”

Bradford’s suburbs have since become even more monoethnic, and mistrust, especially in working-class areas, is entrenched. Bradford is not alone. Recreational cricket in Yorkshire has been one of the most successful touching points and, despite uneven progress and a level of white flight, as clubs on the fringes of the cities have retreated to more rural leagues, cultural understanding has improved – in defiance of those on the far right who deemed it impossible.

For many amateur clubs, change has not come easily. These clubs have no diversity training, no professional ethos, no authority figures; they have managed to find a way. No wonder so many recreational cricketers of all races in Yorkshire look at the failures of their county, and wonder why they have not had the aptitude or determination to take on the challenge.

And it is in amateur clubs, especially in the North, that integration has been more complex. To grasp the most obvious nettle, post-match socialising in the club bar has been seen not just as a key component after a day’s cricket, but a financial necessity. Muslim players, entirely blamelessly, find that culture problematic. David Lloyd, a former England coach steeped in northern club cricket himself, had to apologise on Twitter for his trenchant observations about such tensions; far from coincidentally, a 22-year commentary stint on Sky TV soon ended with his abrupt “retirement”, any consideration of an individual’s soul having long given way to demands for linguistic purity. Another high-profile media figure, the former England captain Michael Vaughan, was dragged into the mire, for allegedly remarking to four non-white players (Rafiq among them) when taking the field before a county game in 2009: “There’s too many of you lot. We need to do something about that.” At worst, it would be hostile and racist; at best, an appallingly misjudged attempt at humour belonging to another age. Vaughan denied it, and the BBC agonised about his future.

How different it all was from the optimism 15 years earlier, when Rashid, a Bradford-born leg-spinner of Pakistani heritage, bowled out Warwickshire on Championship debut. That day, some of Yorkshire’s stoutest supporters really did march up and down the concourse at Scarborough as if years had fallen off them. Afterwards, David Byas, the county’s coach and one of the hardest men to don a Yorkshire sweater, saw no romanticism in a historic moment, and shunned interviews. The same Byas was to be condemned many years later for racist language in Rafiq’s testimony to the employment tribunal.

Where does this leave Yorkshire? There remains a pressing need for cultural education for people of all races the moment they enter the club’s system, no matter how young; for a new code of “White Rose values” that goes beyond hard work and straight talking; and for the introduction of systems and processes to ensure Yorkshire – forever cast as prejudiced and outdated – can be reinvented as a force for good.

As the year turned, though, the talk was more about recrimination than education. Rafiq’s testimony had left the need to build something better. But if Yorkshire don’t find what Martin Luther King called “a common humanity”, then the wreckage could be irreparable for another generation.

David Hopps is a Yorkshire-based freelance cricket writer.

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