Headingley Test distracts from grim reality faced by Yorkshire and ECB

GEORGE DOBELL IN LEEDS: A cloud continues to hang over Yorkshire. And until the racism allegations which have rocked the place are dealt with – until justice is seen to be done and changes are put in place – the environment will be tainted


As the sun poured down like honey on Headingley, it would have been easy to be seduced into thinking everything at Yorkshire was rosy.

And it’s true, a resurgent England team containing perhaps the greatest player Yorkshire have ever produced, in Joe Root, will play before a sold-out crowd in the coming days. With Jonny Bairstow, Adil Rashid and Harry Brook – all products of the club’s systems – also vying for spots across the formats, there remains much to celebrate at this great club. 

But a cloud continues to hang over Yorkshire. And until the racism allegations which have rocked the place are dealt with – until justice is seen to be done and changes are put in place – the environment will be tainted. 

It’s probably worth recapping the reasons Yorkshire have been permitted to host this game. Put simply, without the revenue international cricket generates, the club would have been insolvent. And, had it become insolvent, the previous Yorkshire and ECB chair, Colin Graves, would almost certainly have assumed ownership of the entire club. He remains the club’s biggest creditor, after all, with loans of around £15m outstanding. 

The ECB reasoned that this would not be a step forward. As a result, they decided to allow Yorkshire to host these games.

It does not mean Yorkshire are going to ‘get away with’ what has happened here. They were charged by the ECB’s Cricket Discipline Commission (CDC) a few days ago and seem minded to plead guilty. As a result, they could be punished by means of points deductions, relegations and financial fines. But denying them international cricket is not a sanction available to the CDC. It would require the ECB board to intervene to suspend them from hosting.


Ben Stokes trains at Headingley ahead of England’s game against New Zealand [Gareth Copley/Getty Images]

Some feel, quite reasonably, that this is unsatisfactory. They point to the decision to deny Durham the possibility of hosting Test cricket as a result of financial difficulties and argue Yorkshire’s indiscretions were far more serious. It’s a reasonable point.

But it is generally accepted now, even at the ECB, that the nobbling of Durham was disproportionately harsh. As The Cricketer reported a few days ago, there are thoughts about awarding them a Test next year. It really is time the CDC – and perhaps even the police – investigated what went on when the decision to punish them was made. Repeating the mistake with Yorkshire would not advance the game. 

There are many myths and lies surrounding this debacle. One of them, repeated often by those who try to minimise the atrocity that was allowed to take place here, is that it has been ‘one man’s’ allegations which have created chaos at the club.

“Others have seen how Azeem has been targeted by those who resist change – and, sadly, some areas of the media – and have concluded they will either report their concerns in confidence or not at all”

This is categorically not true. Dozens of people have come forward to tell of their experiences of racism within Yorkshire cricket. They include current and former players, coaches and spectators. The last two chairs of the club (Roger Hutton and Lord Kamlesh Patel), having seen the witness statements and reports, have admitted institutional racism.

One former player, Ismail Dawood, says he was pressured into telling Terry Rooney, the MP who accused the club of racism in 2004, that there were no such problems. As a young player, Dawood felt his future may depend upon it. He actually feels he witnessed many examples of racism but had – he still has, to be fair – no confidence in the system to bother reporting them. 

The difference between Azeem Rafiq and most other witnesses, however, is that he has been prepared to go public with his experiences. He has ignored physical threats, financial inducements and being ostracised by many in the cricket community to ensure his voice was heard. Others have seen how Azeem has been targeted by those who resist change – and, sadly, some areas of the media – and have concluded they will either report their concerns in confidence or not at all. Many have been, basically, intimidated into silence.


Azeem Rafiq’s testimony has sparked a crisis at Yorkshire [screengrab]

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this: Amna Rafiq, Azeem’s sister, was advised not to report to work at the club this year (she also worked for Yorkshire) as her safety could not be guaranteed. Azeem, meanwhile, has been obliged to sell the chip shop he owns with Adil Rashid as the police cannot guarantee the safety of their staff. This is the most toxic of situations.

Meanwhile, the attempts to discredit Azeem continue. Almost every day, a new story – each more shocking that the last – is circulated to the media. The reason they’ve not been published is they’re not true. And, really, it shouldn’t much matter if they were. He could be making gloves out of endangered pandas: it wouldn’t justify racism.

But it’s also remembering the support Azeem and co have received. It’s worth remembering that Lord Patel’s reforms have won the overwhelming support of Yorkshire members, that many Yorkshire supporters were shocked and appalled by the testimony they’ve heard; that the vocal minority of dissenting voices – loud though they are – do not speak for the vast majority who want this club to be welcoming to everyone. 

There’s been positive change, too. Under Patel, the club is ensuring that young players in the pathway are no longer charged for their kit or coaching; a tangible policy that will promote inclusion. Meanwhile, there has been an attempt to recruit coaches who better represent the entire community the club serves. The sponsors, and the ticket buyers, have returned. 

But the wheels of justice have turned frustratingly slowly. It is almost five years since Azeem and Rashid first reported their concerns. In the interim, the club, the union and the governing body failed to act in a timely manner. Very often, it seems they were desperate to look the other way for fear of being ensnared in a dispute that threatens to force them to question colleagues and friends; that forced them to question age-old ways of doing things; that forces them to admit this great game of ours has been becoming more exclusive by the year. This is what institutional racism looks like. 

Only Azeem’s determination has ensured the game has been forced to listen and change. Even now, with charges laid against the club and players, the only information in the public domain has come from the media. Indeed, you wonder if, without that media attention, the game would have continued to look the other way. The club, the union and the ECB remain timid and cautious.

Bogged down by legal threats and a lack of investment in the process, they seem reluctant to acknowledge that, ultimately, you’re either passionately, constructively anti-racism or you’re actively part of the problem. The ECB’s reluctance to invest in the South Asian Cricket Academy raises more questions about their commitment to truly embracing inclusion.


Headingley plays host to the third Test between England and New Zealand [Gareth Copley/Getty Images]

There will, in time, be more charges. Those who have made comments on social media – including Azeem – will be dealt with in separate proceedings. But by letting the episode be even more drawn out than is necessary, the ECB have allowed a sore to fester. And the lack of progress in bringing people to justice has raised more questions about the viability of the ECB as a governing body. As has their acceptance that they have no jurisdiction over former administrators.

Into this cesspit, Patel was parachuted as Yorkshire’s interim chair. He is, at this stage, unpaid and in great demand in other areas of his personal and professional life. He has taken on a vast task and generally made impressive progress, but he needs support. You suspect, after cleaning out the house, he will leave the scene to allow a successor to operate without any such baggage. 

Azeem will, barring a last-minute change of heart, return to Headingley for the first time in several years during this game. If and when he does, it is to be hoped he is greeted for what he is: a courageous whistle-blower who forced us to confront uncomfortable truths. It is to be hoped he is welcomed and made comfortable. He’s not perfect, of course – none of us are – but we may come to reflect that the game owes him a great deal. In his own way, he may well have had just as big an impact on England cricket as the new management team of McStokes.


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