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Analysis

Yorkshire come to grief over Azeem Rafiq affair, but acceptance is a way off yet

Proud club's agonies may only be beginning as change comes too late to save reputation

David Hopps
David Hopps
15-Nov-2021
An aerial view of Headingley, with Yorkshire's former sponsors removed from the ground, November 10, 2021

An aerial view of Headingley, with Yorkshire's former sponsors removed from the ground  •  Getty Images

Psychologists have never quite agreed how many stages of grief exist, or indeed quite what they are, but many Yorkshire cricket lovers will imagine they have lived through many of them as the Azeem Rafiq racism allegations have reverberated around the globe. The time for disbelief and anger is long gone. Depression and desperation have now taken hold, as many in the county are demoralized by the sort of fiasco that they had fondly imagined was consigned to the past. Only when there is a proper plan for the future, a new way of living, an approach that is progressive, resilient and unnegotiable, and one where anyone with Yorkshire cricket in their heart can believe that this mess will never happen again, will it be time to move on.
To still be writing such words again is beyond belief. On a sunny July day in 2006, Yorkshire devotees dashed across the Yorkshire Wolds to Scarborough to watch Adil Rashid bowl out Warwickshire on a historic first-class debut. There was a palpable sense of excitement that Rashid would finally symbolize Yorkshire's growing success in fostering links within its minority-ethnic communities. On that heady afternoon, the mood among many spectators was celebratory, the county's reputation unsullied, even if Yorkshire's captain and coaching staff folded arms and said very little, indicating in gruff, unimaginative, ungenerous manner that the publicity might be damaging.
Fifteen years later, they are discovering the real nature of bad publicity. Rashid, shamefully, is now the only Yorkshire-born player of subcontinent heritage on the staff, despite the county having the largest percentage of non-white inhabitants outside London and the West Midlands. Despite the presence of many worthy people, some - whether you believe it or not - employed by the county, in the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation, and in clubs throughout the region, who are forever striving to create equal opportunities, and whose task is now made so much harder, the pathways for minority-ethnic cricketers have persistently failed as they approach county level. Rafiq's single-minded offensive has made it clear that an entrenched, uncompromising culture remains unwelcoming, either by accident or design.
As for Rashid, who has largely preferred to keep his own counsel on this tawdry tale, and who one day can rightly expect to be honoured by Yorkshire with his own cricket school in his native Bradford, he has now confirmed Rafiq's story that yes, Michael Vaughan, a former England captain, had indeed observed to a group of Asian players something along the lines that there were too many of you lot and we need to do something about it.
It is such destructive sporting "banter" - racist banter, let it be said - that seems to be at the crux of the matter. Many might conclude that Vaughan intended his comments, as alleged but not admitted, to be taken in jest. But even the most generous misinterpretation does not protect him from the charge that any such remarks, if so made, would be unacceptable - comments with race at their heart, uttered by a powerful member of the dominant ethnic group, a statement of difference that risks exclusion and undermines integration.
The same might be observed of Gary Ballance's candid admission of his long-running "banter" with Rafiq, an old drinking buddy, before Rafiq returned to his Muslim roots and abandoned the alcohol that he says he had turned to in order to fit in. Ballance accepted to Yorkshire's internal enquiry that he had used racial slurs and apologised for it, but his friendship with Rafiq had still been deep enough to invite him to his home in Zimbabwe. Rafiq responded in kind. But it was still breathtakingly misjudged, it was still essentially a relationship which had race at its heart and did the member of the minority group a great disservice. Amid it all, Yorkshire contrived to give Ballance a new three-year contract,
As a result of this and many other allegations, Yorkshire cricket is now cleaved in a manner that will not be easily repaired. Both the chairman, Roger Hutton, who led the inquiry, and chief executive Mark Arthur have resigned; the director of cricket, Martyn Moxon, is on sick leave with a stress-related condition; and Rafiq himself, who has talked of past suicidal thoughts, has since been through a draining, obsessional experience that invites concern that his mental health is being looked after.
Those of us who know the executives who have now departed have defended them as decent human beings. That assertion has been countered by the view that they have supervised a failed system without intervening and so must pay the penalty. They are guilty of sins of omission and what is disturbing is that millions would have been just as inactive. Both men are understandably hurt by the character assassination they have suffered, just as Rafiq was distraught at the racist overtones that regularly occurred on their watch. Arthur (like all those before him) failed to introduce systems and educate all those under in a way that makes the charge of Systematic Racism a persuasive one - even if the enquiry rejected this. Moxon was too timid in addressing an aggressive dressing room culture, perhaps because cutting humour was regarded as the very stuff of professional sport. Especially in Yorkshire.
How has it come to this? Cricket in Yorkshire is central to many people's lives. They believe in it like little else on earth. And while racist attitudes linger in a small but by no means inconsequential minority (in what area of life do they not?), the majority of fans feel badly let down. They had believed these dog days belonged in the past. Many are beside themselves with frustration at the incompetent handling of this affair: firstly, dismissive and inactive as senior figures failed to see the big picture. They were blinded by the simple fact that they regarded Rafiq as a bit of a liability - and there is much they could say to prove as much. Then they were secretive, disunited and unpersuasive as they were forced into an investigation against their will. That investigation was utterly mishandled because Hutton, the new-departed chairman, had good intentions but no power to force them through.
Many who live in the county will recognize an uneasy truth, as much as we insist that the county where we have made our lives is a wonderful place to live, awash with great scenery, food, theatre, community. In Yorkshire, things are done differently. There is no more stubborn, forthright and bloody-minded county in England. Views are candid, and at their best are refreshingly honest. There is very little dissembling, although there is often a stony silence. The difference in behaviour is so pronounced that a person living in Yorkshire, and liable to be viewed as a bit of a wuss, only has to catch a train two hours south to London to be suspected instead as an abrupt, opinionated bully. "Banter" in these parts can be savage and becomes part of the daily routine from childhood, but racism, not to say sexism and homophobia, must be regarded with zero tolerance, and Rafiq's whistleblowing has made it clear that Yorkshire have failed to address it.
Stereotypes, by their very definition, are over-simplifications. But an interesting aspect of such character generalisations is that these plain-speaking attributes can often be seen these days in the minority ethnic groups that have made Yorkshire their home. Such a connection can strengthen bonds. It is quite an irony, though, considering Yorkshire's reputation for heavy-handedness, that the word was gradually slipped out by the old regime that Rafiq had been guilty of bullying academy players.
Is that true? In this soap opera of claims and counter claims, is it really worth the effort to find out? Rafiq is a flawed individual. But that he was ill-served - and Yorkshire finally admit as much - is ultimately all that matters. But we are all much too interested in who might have said what to whom, and whether a sentence (rather than a life) can be construed as racist. When attention turns to Ballance or Vaughan, interest is sharpened all the more. Racism is abhorrent and there should be no concessions about that. But analysing the grades of racism inherent in a single action or moment (and the charges vary from the non-existent to the totally unacceptable) is no way to move Yorkshire onto a firmer footing.
Systems and processes do not capture much attention. But it is systems and processes that Yorkshire now need. Joe Root, England's captain, a champion of diversity and arguably the proudest of all Yorkshire cricketers, was criticized by Rafiq last week because he said he had never seen racism in action at Yorkshire. Regrettably this took attention away from a well-judged statement in which he put the need for education from an early age at the core of Yorkshire's recovery. This is a social problem, said Root, which was not an attempt to pass the buck, but a recognition that social failures demanded of Yorkshire a policy of active education of every single person - of all races - who entered their system, the creation not just of a safe space, but the imposition of a more enlightened, club-orientated, multi-racial culture for all who pass through Headingley's gates.
"We need to educate, unify and reset," said Root. "We need to educate more and earlier; we must call [racism] out straight away and have our eyes and ears open more."
Other county clubs, who have largely escaped criticism, should also look at themselves. When it comes to self-destruction nobody does it quite like Yorkshire, but too many minority ethnic players who come into county cricket have, to put it crudely, been "whitewashed" by a public school education. Cricket's over-reliance on the private school system is well chronicled. Selection of junior sides is complacent. The two London counties, Surrey especially but also Middlesex, are beginning to make progress. Many are not. More stories could emerge. The dam has been breached.
Yorkshire will give oral evidence to the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Tuesday, and they have already released to them the full internal report. Expect a few grandstanding MPs and not a little pomposity. But it is fit and proper that Yorkshire have been called to account and it will be an uncomfortable watch. Comments ahead of the meeting by Lord Patel, Yorkshire's incoming chairman, that Azeem is an important whistleblower who should be "praised for speaking up", that the investigation was "flawed" and that "urgent change" is further proof if it were needed that, under Lord Patel's guidance, change is already underway.
Yorkshire can emerge more strongly from this than many imagine. Rafiq can one day be judged by historians as a catalyst for change. That would be some consolation for what has often felt like a lonely struggle. Many cricket people in Yorkshire are already doing good things, many lessons have already been learned. At club level, for a generation or so, players of different ethnic groups - and often, this being cricket in the north, from working-class backgrounds - have slowly learned to rub along. Integration has been slow, imperfect and often painful, and there remains much to be done, but the direction of travel has been a positive one. While Yorkshire's reputation was in tatters, the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation welcomed 140 Afghan refugees to Leeds in early November with the support of Leeds City Council. The final stage of grief is the imagining of a new beginning. Not everybody is fortunate to get that far. Yorkshire owe it to all their supporters - not just to Rafiq - to make it.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps