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Yorkshire seek solace in cricket but Rafiq racism scandal casts long shadow

Club hierarchy turn focus to matters on the field as threat of further sanctions looms

David Hopps
David Hopps
Darren Gough and Ottis Gibson will look to mastermind Yorkshire's immediate return to Division One  •  Getty Images

Darren Gough and Ottis Gibson will look to mastermind Yorkshire's immediate return to Division One  •  Getty Images

It felt like Groundhog Day at Yorkshire. The morning sun flooding through the windows. Darren Gough and Ottis Gibson, director of cricket and head coach respectively, standing side by side, stoutly regarding the county season with optimism even as potential bankruptcy and ECB sanctions hang over Headingley.
Is this the loop that Yorkshire will be cursed to follow forever because of the imbroglio involving Azeem Rafiq and the racism allegations that - for all the enquiries and statements, all the hurt and half-truths, all the raised voices, broken friendships and folded arms, all the worms under the stones, all the media polemics, all the lawyers' honeyed words and all the administrators' and politicians' capacity for self-preservation - still haunt the club? Will it never end?
Gough sticks his chest out and insists that Yorkshire's players are in a much better place this time around. Gibson sticks to cricket. If he is a political man, he hides it well. He builds a positive dressing room atmosphere without fanfare. His priority is a cricketing one - his number one wish, a bank of 10 pace bowlers so everybody is not exhausted by midsummer.
Last year, as Gough and Gibson began their salvage operation, was all about crisis management. Condemnation thundered down. An exodus of players was averted, no mean feat as many were confused and hurt by the mass sackings deemed necessary by the former chair, Lord Kamlesh Patel, but Yorkshire were relegated in the Championship thanks to a stunning win by Warwickshire on the final day. The aim is to bounce back at the first attempt, but swingeing ECB points deductions could hamper those ambitions.
Is it fair for a new regime committed to positive change to be punished for the perceived failings off the old? It is a good question.
"It's hard to speculate what the ECB are going to say," Gough said. "I think the frustration is clear to see as we are going into another season. I just hope we're not here next year and saying that we are still waiting.
"Last year we were in this same situation when we thought something was going to happen and it didn't, it dragged on and now here again this year, it's an ongoing process. Nobody has any idea when it's going to be announced but the players understand it and are in a better position to take whatever comes out."
As Phil Connors, trapped in a sequence of repetitive days, despaired in the movie Groundhog Day: "There is no way that this winter is ever going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow."
The beast's shadow in this case is Yorkshireness, in its least attractive forms, both as it is perceived and as it exists. To remove that shadow needs not just total commitment to a more enlightened and diverse future - because much of that is already happening - but the proclaiming of a new vision whenever the chance presents itself. In the words of Tanni Grey-Thompson, Yorkshire's acting chair, at least week's annual meeting, retaining the conviction that "Yorkshire can lead the way" when it comes to opportunity and diversity and that a new Board assembled to promote change "have to stay true to our values" however grave the financial crisis.
Baroness Grey-Thompson, one of Britain's greatest Paralympic athletes, a cross bench peer in the House of Lord's and patron, trustee and chair of infinite charities and commissions, would make a good Yorkshire chair, not that she wants the job. For one thing, she does not have millions in the bank (or if she does, she is not telling). She estimated in her preamble to the accounts that Yorkshire need £3.5m in extra funding by October to remain a going concern. "This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do," she told the AGM.
"We've put things in place. The club is in a better position. We were all disappointed last year that we were relegated, nobody more than me"
Darren Gough, Yorkshire's director of cricket
All this means there is little time for The Vision Thing with Yorkshire around £20m in debt, awaiting the ECB disciplinary ruling, and with an embattled chief executive, Stephen Vaughan, having to dismiss suggestions that Yorkshire are so close to administration that they are wrongfully trading. It's even harder to think about the cricket, but that day needs to come and quickly.
Which brings us to Colin Graves, a saviour in some eyes after his millions staved off Yorkshire bankruptcy 20 years ago, a man with more than a hint of groundhog about him to others. Now Graves is no longer chair of the ECB, he is less chary about referring to the Graves Trust's long-term loan as his money. After all, allegations of conflict of interest no longer apply. Yorkshire need to find £500,00 to repay the Graves Trust by October with the balance of the £14.9m due in October 2024.
He has reportedly offered Yorkshire preferential terms to repay his loan over the next four years if they reappoint him as chair. For Yorkshire's most trenchant critics, and a few more besides, this would be for the county to take refuge in the past at precisely the time it must look to the future.
Vaughan, in his first year as chief executive, is said to be exploring as many as 30 possible alternatives for funding, but if those alternatives are not available or simply not appealing (and there is a huge danger here of leaping from the frying pan into the fire) then Graves might well return in the autumn. Interviews of the candidates should be finalised in about a week.
Vaughan told those at the AGM that "it will feel worse before it gets better". The membership is in flux, too, the sense of a culture war painfully evident. Membership has fallen from 6,000-plus in 2022 (itself a historic low) to around 4,000, although there are 27% new members and this is the time of year when membership traditionally rises.
A potentially global brand is also a damaged brand and the current uncertainty surrounding county cricket's future does not help.
Vaughan has a good track record in promoting equality and diversity and he understands bankruptcy too - he was CEO of Wasps RFC when they went into administration last September.
"The finances, the ins and outs of it, you'll have to talk to the CEO," Gough said. But at the club's media day, Vaughan was nowhere to be seen. What ire he showed at the annual meeting, he had reserved for the media - probably the only bunch of people who Yorkshire still feel they can regard as "you lot" and get away with it.
The commitment of this new Yorkshire set-up to extending opportunity into minority-ethnic and deprived communities should not be doubted. Jonny Tattersall, who will step in as captain in Shan Masood's absence at the start of the season, is just one person who has been coaching free of charge in his downtime as he studies for a Level 3 certificate. But development pathways are expensive and take time to bring results. An ECB fine could cripple that investment and stymie the progress that they want to see.
The high-spending regime overseen by Lord Patel deserves scrutiny. If Wayne Morton, the county's former head of the medical team, wins his case in the High Court for wrongful dismissal then Yorkshire's legal costs will rise to around £2m. A whistleblowing hotline, plus costs to develop an equality and diversity plan, burned another half a million. With 23 of the 55 cases still active, the spending will not end just yet. Somebody, somewhere has made a killing.
Meanwhile, Gough and Gibson think cricket. "We've got eight new hybrid practice pitches, a new ground manager, we've made players signings, got a nutritionist, sports psychologists, done everything to make this team good," Gough insisted.
"I've employed 22 people - I think I'm pretty good at that now. I don't think it will fall apart because we've put things in place. The club is in a better position. We were all disappointed last year that we were relegated, nobody more than me - I was absolutely distraught.
"We put a lot of love into it last year, a lot of work, but there was a lot of hurt going around, a lot of negative energy from everywhere and it affected everyone at this cricket club. We've created a positive atmosphere. The players understand the job we've got to do and they are in a much better place this year to accept whatever comes."
It is Yorkshire vs Leicestershire next Thursday. Forecast: 14C, light cloud with a gentle breeze.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps