A proud County finds itself under fire in latest cricket controversy

Yorkshire Country Cricket Club's handling of Azeem Rafiq's racism allegations have been criticised. (AFP/Getty)
Yorkshire Country Cricket Club's handling of Azeem Rafiq's racism allegations have been criticised. (AFP/Getty)
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Updated 25 May 2023

A proud County finds itself under fire in latest cricket controversy

Yorkshire Country Cricket Club's handling of Azeem Rafiq's racism allegations have been criticised. (AFP/Getty)
  • The recent outbreak of accusations of institutional racism in Yorkshire’s cricket suggest that long-time issues continue to exist to this day

Yorkshire and its people have always regarded themselves as special. They have stature as Britain’s largest county and a northern heritage which is fiercely protected. This is embodied in its county cricket club, which has won more championships than any other county. It has, however, been notorious for a tendency towards outbreaks of internal controversy that become public property.

A part of its special nature stems from a rule on formation in 1863 that no one born outside of the county should play for it. This did not prevent Lord Hawke, born in the neighboring county of Lincolnshire, from playing 510 matches for Yorkshire and being captain for 28 seasons between 1882 and 1910.

His eligibility to play for Yorkshire rested on conveniently revised qualification rules in 1873, when players had to decide at the start of a season whether they would play for the county of their birth or residence. Hawkes’ occupation of the family’s Yorkshire baronial residence in 1875 met the new requirement. During his tenure, he united the club’s geographical and social factions to mould a winning team out of a group once described as “10 drunks and a parson.”

It was not until 1992 that Yorkshire further relaxed qualification rules, making eligible those educated within the county. This facilitated the selection of another future England captain. All restrictions were jettisoned in 1993, when Sachin Tendulkar, the young Indian, became the county’s first overseas player. Subsequently, the majority of overseas players have been Australian and South African.

Some 6 percent of Yorkshire’s population of 5.5 million is estimated to be south Asian or of south Asian descent, on par with the national percentage. My Yorkshire-born south Asian friends tell me that their socialization began in school with use of Lord Tebbit’s infamous 1990 suggestion that those immigrants who support their native countries rather than England at cricket were not significantly integrated into the UK. Shades of this sentiment have been reported in India recently with stories of punishments for Indians who celebrated Pakistan’s victory over India.

In 1999, none other than Imran Khan accused Yorkshire of failing its Asian community. This generated an open trial for young Asians, but it was not until 2003 that a small trickle of Asian players produced the first British-born Asian to play for Yorkshire. In the following two decades that trickle failed to flow much faster.

This was despite a 1999 report by the England and Wales Cricket Board’s Racism Study Group which found that 58 percent of all those questioned — and at least 70 percent of black and Asian respondents — believed that racism existed in the game.

Alongside the research was a 1998 parliamentary motion that called for action by the ECB on racism in the game. One of the report’s recommendations was that ethnic minority clubs should be encouraged into the mainstream. This was an issue in Yorkshire, where there was a tendency for a ghettoization of clubs according to color and race but, in my experience, it was not the only county to experience this feature.

If no one addresses these issues head-on, divisions become entrenched, yet no one is prepared to admit that they are racist — quite the opposite. There seems to be much of this in the Yorkshire situation. In 2004, the MP for Bradford North, Yorkshire, a constituency in a city with a 25 percent Asian population, accused Yorkshire CCC of being guilty of “deep-rooted, embedded racism.”

 This was met with a response from the then-chairman of “we are not prepared to put up with blatant lies and accusations of racism when they don’t exist.”

The recent outbreak of accusations of institutional racism in Yorkshire’s cricket suggests that not much has changed. In April 2020, a new chair was appointed with a reforming agenda. In an interview published in September 2020, Azeem Rafiq, a former Asian player, claimed racial harassment and bullying. Stung into action, the chairman commissioned an investigation of the allegations. Eventually, the report was submitted in August. Yorkshire chose not to make the report public or share a copy with the ECB, issuing a summary on Sept. 10 and a redacted copy to Rafiq on Oct. 13.

It is only possible to guess at the substance of discussions between Yorkshire’s executive and non-executive directors and the wider constituency which they represent. There were clear attempts to prevent or at least delay the report’s publication, along with a failure to accept any charge of institutional racism or that any player or member of the club’s staff should be disciplined. Indeed, the outgoing chair has stated that, in his view, no one at the club is racist.

This storm has been a long time in the making, brewed to the point which has made it a focus for criticism by race equality activists. These include politicians who have pushed the ECB into the storm, from which it is seeking to run for cover by withdrawing Yorkshire’s 2022 hosting of international matches on the basis that its handling of the Rafiq issue was leading the sport into serious disrepute.

There are many layers to the issue. One relates to Yorkshire’s chairman between 2012 and 2015, who went on to be appointed ECB chairman between 2015 and 2020, thus overlapping with Rafiq’s time at Yorkshire. The former chairman rescued the club financially in 2002 and helped in acquiring its Headingley ground in 2005. The club owes his family trust £15 million ($20.1 million) and the trust’s approval is required before anyone is appointed to the board of directors.

A new chairman, Lord Kamlesh Patel, a former ECB board member, was given unequivocal support by the trust last week. He has urgent business to address if the cracks are to be prevented from widening. Already, he has reached a settlement with Rafiq ahead of a parliamentary select committee on Nov. 16, when Rafiq and key executive members are due to give evidence, although at least one is citing stress-related illness. The outcomes of this tawdry affair have implications for cricket all over the world, not just for Yorkshire, which needs a Lord Hawke figure to rebuild its crumbling house.