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Racist stain on Yorkshire cricket

by
26 November 2021

Dennis Richards feels ashamed at racism in the top-flight of the game

Alamy

Two members of a protest in support of Azeem Rafiq outside the Yorkshire CCC ground at Headingley, Leeds, earlier this month

Two members of a protest in support of Azeem Rafiq outside the Yorkshire CCC ground at Headingley, Leeds, earlier this month

WATCHING Azeem Rafiq’s harrowing testimony to a Parliamentary select committee earlier this month was a sobering experience. I felt sadness, shame even, that a cricketer’s dignity could have been shredded by Yorkshire CCC in this way, anger that it had been tolerated for a decade, and bewilderment that such obviously unacceptable behaviour could still happen in 2021.

I suspect that teachers will have been particularly appalled. Over the past two decades, schools have tackled racism and homophobia head on. You could argue that, in education at least, a kind of consensus has at last been reached. If students in a school were to make similar uncontested claims to an Ofsted inspection team, the school would immediately be placed in special measures. The governors and the senior management team would be summarily replaced, and oversight from outside would be brought in.

Within a few years of my appointment as head of St Aidan’s School in Harrogate, I had also become chair of the Yorkshire Senior Schools Cricket Association. There were tensions, but invariably in relation to the state/private-school divide. Even today, 63 per cent of English professional cricketers were educated in independent schools. That, as they say, is another story.

I do not recall any examples of racism, either from players or officials.

Nor was it the case in my playing days in the fiercely competitive, multi-racial, semi-professional Huddersfield League. It would have been unthinkable. It was striking in Rafiq’s testimony that he was unaware of overt cricket racism during his earlier years.

 

ALMOST 30 years ago, Yorkshire was forced to abandon an important part of its “exceptionalist” creed. Until then, to play for Yorkshire you had to have been born in the county. Yorkshire was known then as the biggest county, with the best scenery, and a cricket team composed entirely of Yorkshire-born players.

Grandads loved to recount anecdotes of how expectant mothers were spirited in across the border at midnight, to ensure that their offspring could claim their cricketing birthright. We had won the County Championship far more than any other county with our own players.

Yorkshire finally conceded in 1992 that they would need overseas players if they wished to remain competitive. By a stroke of luck and some astute business, they signed an unknown Indian teenager: Sachin Tendulkar. He was to become the future captain of India, with career statistics that prove beyond doubt that he was the greatest player ever to wear the famous white rose.

My positive view of this development was not a popular one. I did not renew my membership after a fractious dispute at a county-championship match at Headingley some years ago.

Truth be told, though, Yorkshire already had form on this issue, most notably in relation to the issue of overseas players.

One of Yorkshire’s nastiest “secrets” was an incident that occurred at the Scarborough Cricket Festival more than 20 years ago. The Somerset side of that era included Ian Botham, Joel Garner, and the incomparable Vivian Richards.

Along with a huge crowd, I had gone to the picturesque seaside ground to see the world’s number-one batsman. The atmosphere was soured beyond repair when both Richards and Garner were hideously and publicly racially abused. I went to the Somerset dressing room and attempted a clumsy apology for the crowd. I have hated the “Yorksheer, Yorksheer” chant ever since.

 

NOW, thanks to Rafiq’s testimony, we have been reminded of the pernicious effects of long-term, systematic bullying. Rafiq arrived at Yorkshire as captain of England Under-19s. The day-in, day-out gratuitous name-calling over a decade, insulting references based on racial stereotyping, all conspired to destroy his self-esteem.

None the less, in his calm assessment of what had happened to him in the dressing room, he drew clear distinctions between perpetrators and what we might call “bystanders”. Although this was not a term he used, it seems the appropriate description for Joe Root, the most influential cricketer in the country at present, shortly to captain England in Australia on the next Ashes tour. He was described by Rafiq as “a good man, who never used racist language”, and he was ready to accept that Joe Root may well have been unaware of much of what was happening.

This, though, leads directly to the concept of institutional racism. Yorkshire CCC can produce no one from the past decade, from any level of the organisation, who was in any way forthright about the abuse being suffered by one of its employees. It is a harsh judgement, but over the decade that Rafiq describes, the club was institutionally racist. In careless hands, Yorkshire “exceptionalism” in cricket had mutated into something else.

Thanks to Azeem Rafiq’s courage, things at Yorkshire will never be the same again. We can be bystanders no more.

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