Yorkshire Cricket – God’s own white county

Dave Kellaway writes on the problems now facing Yorkshire Country Cricket Club.


Today, Friday 5 November, Roger Hutton, Chairperson of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, has resigned as a result of the failure of the club to deal with the racist harassment of Azeem Rafiq. Other board members are likely to follow his lead although there is still said to be some reluctance from executive members to fall on their swords. Hutton himself has finally denounced the attitude of the other members of the board.

Not only did the club fail in its duty of care when Azeem was suffering from racism back in the two spells there from 2008-2014 and 2016-2018 but it has further shown a clear institutional racism by the extraordinary delay and way it has  responded to the allegations. A full report has only now been available because it has been leaked. Azeem has not been given a full report of the clubs internal inquiry. The club has – finally – apologised on a number of allegations but also decided some of the comments were just banter and rejects any accusation of institutional racism.

Yorkshire’s first official response to the racist treatment of one of its players was to accept that there had been some bullying and inappropriate behaviour but that the name calling (he was daily called ‘Paki’ by his team mates) was just dressing room ‘banter’. This defence crumbled in the face of Tory ministers of South Asian heritage like Sajid Javid denouncing the club’s response. Local Labour MPs and all the opposition parties also piled in to support Azeem. A cynic might ask, where were all those outraged voices when the reports first emerged?

Indeed the crucial events leading to the disintegration of the Club’s governing body was the scramble of their commercial sponsors like Yorkshire Tea and Buxton Water to tear up their contracts and the decision of the English Cricket Board to take away the lucrative test and other matches from Headingly (the club’s main ground). As usual it was not moral repentance or an acceptance of institutional racism but a looming financial hole that changed positions.

As usual it was not moral repentance or an acceptance of institutional racism but a looming financial hole that changed positions.

Up to this week the club had managed to limit the damage to allegations of racism against one player. It is now emerging that other players of South Asian heritage were affected. All the focus on the bullying was on  Gary Balance who had accepted that he used the ‘P’ term. However he said that it was all just banter because he was ‘mates’ with Azeem and that he had retorted with references to his Zimbabwean background. It now emerges that up to twelve players were involved in the ‘racist banter’. Most explosive is the news that Michael Vaughan, former England captain and one of its best batters of recent times, was also involved. He has gone to the Daily Mail today to deny any racism, but a local reporter on Radio 4 had said he has evidence from other players that Vaughan did indeed use these words. One person who has been diplomatically quiet – apart from some general expressions of anti-racism – during the whole process has been Joe Root, current England captain and number one in the international batting ratings.  Root is a Yorkshire player.

The English Cricket Board’s (ECB)reaction to the whole affair could be said to reflect the general slowness of the game to address institutional racism. As Tom Harrison, the chair, said today they have a duty to protect the good name and integrity of the game. But why did it only perform the role this week by taking the decisions about the removing the Test match status from the Yorkshire club. It could be argued that Yorkshire had been bringing the game into disrepute since at least 2018 when Azeem first spoke up. Harrison went from relative inaction to basically calling for the Yorkshire board to resign en bloc today. There is an argument that heads should roll at the ECB too.

The reality is that Cricket as a sport has fallen way behind football in anti-racism and inclusivity. Football is not perfect  – there are few Black managers – but if you take the participation of black and Asian heritage players at the highest levels of the game there is no comparison with cricket despite the fact that huge numbers of  young and adult people from Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi families play. Yorkshire actually has Asian cricket leagues with thousands of players because of the failure of local ‘white’ clubs to integrate their community. The fact you can easily name the star South Asian heritage test cricket players in the last decade speaks for itself – Monty Panesar, Moeen Ali, Nasser Hussain or Adil Rashid. Even the earlier breakthrough of players with a Caribbean heritage like Devon Malcolm has faded. You can also argue that the game has become less open to players from the working class if you examine the proportion of privately educated players in the test team – not to speak of the ‘importing’ of good players from South African, Zimbabwe or Australasia.

Historically cricket was notoriously backward on questions of race. The game was, and still is, run by privately educated white men. It disabuses the myth that somehow upper class people are more refined and less racist that some working class people.  The first official teams from the Indian subcontinent could not include any fully Indian players. For many years the captaincy of the West Indian team was white.  We had the Basil D’Oliveria scandal when the English test board of the time caved in to the Apartheid regime’s refusal to accept a black player on a English touring party. England was very slow in stopping South African tours here and refusing to play in the racist state. Then to cap it all, Mike Gatting, the English captain, actually led a rebel tour to the country for a huge pay off.

Yorkshire likes to consider itself as ‘God’s own county’. It has a proud sporting heritage in a number of sports. It has produced many progressive working class leaders. However its cricket club has held on to a little England, inward looking mentality for a lot longer than most other clubs. It has won the county championship many times. For a long time it only allowed Yorkshire born people to play for it. All the other county clubs had overseas players. When it finally took on an overseas player it opted for an Australian but had to take Tendulkar, the great Indian player, as a late substitute due to injury. Fred Trueman – a top English test fast bowler and later Test Match Special pundit – was less than welcoming to non-white players. Boycott too exemplified a pro-Thatcher reactionary politics. According to reports even when they hired Tendulkar a lot of South Asian heritage cricket fans in Yorkshire even preferred watching their great Lancashire rivals who had been taking on players like Wasim Akram from the subcontinent for years. The reluctance of the county board to respond appropriately to Azeem’s complaints also reflects this cussed, small minded attitude to the ‘foreigner’ and the non-white.

Rather than tail ending the worst attitudes of working people in the red wall seats  – which exist in Yorkshire – Labour should be championing initiatives around making cricket a real sport for all.

The left and the labour movement need to develop proposals alongside the different communities to make fundamental changes to the way cricket is organised. Local councils can make a difference through targeted support. We should demand adequate resources to support greater inclusivity at every level of the game. Rather than tail ending the worst attitudes of working people in the red wall seats  – which exist in Yorkshire – Labour should be championing initiatives around making cricket a real sport for all.

What is easily forgotten in all the national debate provoked by the affair is the personal cost to Azeem Rafiq. He has bravely stated how the abuse made him suicidal. Maybe the sacrifices he has made in taking on the racists in Yorkshire will make it more difficult for people in the future making out that racist language is just ‘banter’ to be kept inside the dressing room. He was the England Under 19 captain and it is clear that his career was affected by how he was treated by his fellow players. Today he is reluctant to consider going back into the game as a coach, even if he has received offers.  Let’s hope his legal team takes the club to the cleaners , he deserves our respect and a decent pay out.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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