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Tom Harrison: Yorkshire's handling of racism crisis was leading the sport into serious disrepute

ECB chief executive hopes that Azeem Rafiq "is okay" after revelations of recent days

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, England v Pakistan, 1st Test, Lord's 4th day, May 27, 2018

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison  •  Getty Images

In the wake of ESPNcricinfo's publication of details of the report into racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the club has been plunged into crisis, with major sponsors pulling out, senior players implicated in racist behaviour, and the prospect of the club hierarchy appearing before a Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee on November 16, including chairman Roger Hutton, who has since resigned. On Thursday, the ECB announced measures against the club, including its suspension from major-match status, in the wake of which, Tom Harrison the chief executive addressed the media. Here is an edited transcript of his comments.
Hello Tom, how are you?
I've had better days to be honest. It's not a fun time, as I'm sure you are aware.
How did you arrive at the decision to suspend Yorkshire?
In this situation we have a dual role. We are the regulator. We've launched an investigation following the report from Yorkshire. We've also launched our own regulatory investigation, which is going to take time. But we also act as the national governing body and it is in response to Yorkshire's handling of this affair, the board felt that it was time to intervene to address the serious concerns we had on governance and leadership processes at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, which was leading the game into serious disrepute. And that's what led to us as the ECB board taking the range of measures we took yesterday evening.
Roger Hutton's resignation statement said that the ECB had declined to help
Well, I refute it. We were asked to join the Yorkshire panel to be part of the investigation, which clearly we cannot do. We are the regulator, we either run the investigation in its entirety ourselves, or we let our stakeholder run an investigation in its entirety itself. But a quasi-kind of involvement, of being regulated and being part of the membership of an investigation, is completely against the role that we play. So I'm afraid that I disagree entirely with that characterisation of that statement.
Have you read the report yet?
I have not read the report and it's important that I haven't, because that regulatory process is underway now. My views on the report, or my opinions on the report, are not important at this point. I will read the report once the investigation has been carried out and it's appropriate for me to do so.
So that's really important. It's good governance at work here. There are processes laid down, and when governing bodies run roughshod over agreed processes, they get in trouble.
We have taken action this week on the handling of the issue, and that is where the sanctions have come from. As I said from the outset, we've responded to the handling of the affair and the impact on the cricket environment, as a result of Yorkshire County Cricket Club's handling of this investigation.
Will people not think it's odd you haven't read the report?
People might find it odd, but we have a very broad role here. We are the regulator. We are the national governing body, we are overseeing professional cricket, we're overseeing international cricket, we're overseeing the recreational game as well. So we have multiple different roles. The processes that we've laid down, which have been agreed by the game in respect of regulation, are super clear, and that means that it's not appropriate for me to read the report at this point.
In practical terms, how long have Yorkshire actually got to get their house in order before you have to make a decision about moving matches elsewhere?
You're right, this match [Test versus New Zealand] is effectively on sale. We'll be working through the detail of this over the next few days. Clearly there is a deadline at which it becomes commercially impossible to deliver the match, but we'll be working now very hard to make sure that the leadership and governance gets to a place where we can start to review the process.
Right now, we need to be super-clear about the ECB board's stance against racism in our sport, and that's where the sanction is. The measures are very, very tough - they're unprecedented - but we also need to ensure that what will be an immediate financial crisis at Yorkshire does not turn into something much more serious and an existential threat to the club. Clearly, we have to move quite quickly into rehabilitation, to get that balance right. A healthy and thriving Yorkshire County Cricket Club is so important to cricket in this country.
Do you have alternative venues in mind?
No we haven't spoken [about it]. Clearly there is a process sitting behind that.
Are you concerned this issue is actually far deeper and wider than you thought?
We've commissioned the independent commission for equity in cricket to focus in on three issues in particular - cricket's relationship with gender, race and social class. This issue will embolden people's views and I hope they do, because we want to come out the other side.
Cricket is probably the most powerful sport there is, in terms of breaking down barriers, uniting communities and building strong understanding between cultures, religions, backgrounds etc. We are the very best sport at that and we need to shine a light on that once we've come through these very difficult moments. The game is being dragged through the mud and it is massively uncomfortable and it hurts, but we need to face this crisis and come out stronger for it.
Are any ECB sponsors raising concerns about their association with the sport?
"Raised concerns" would be right, there have been many conversations with different commercial partners in the game, but once you've explained the response and the process you are going through, the people who partner with the ECB and cricket understand why a robust response was so important from the board.
And that goes right the way through. Take our partnership with government, for example. Clearly there has been a lot of attention in parliament in the last few days and once again it reminds us about the cut-through that our game has. We should celebrate that to a certain extent. We have the attention of the nation, albeit for it a very difficult matter, because people care about cricket.
Roger Hutton said there had not been enough contrition at the club. Would you like to see further resignations from Yorkshire's board?
I don't think we know enough about what happened. We know it wasn't handled well, but it's not for us to decide who goes and who stays at Yorkshire. I think it's clear through Roger's statement that he's taken the decision to resign, and my personal perspective - not the view of the ECB board - is that is correct. But it's for other people to make their own decision about their futures in respect of office-bearing roles at Yorkshire County Cricket Club
There's been an incredible amount of brilliant work done in communities across Yorkshire over the last few years. Whether that's work with Afghan refugees, or the regeneration of Bradford Park Avenue as a fantastic facility for, particularly, the South Asian community to enjoy cricket once again. That's all been part-funded by Yorkshire County Cricket Club, as part of the Outreach Programme to unite with South Asian communities in Yorkshire.
So that's another reason why this is so sad, it just highlights things that have gone badly wrong. But we can't forget that good work that's been going on, and that's been led by some of the executives at Yorkshire. So it's not for us to decide. Let's let the process play out.
What would your message be to Azeem Rafiq?
I think of Azeem a lot, and of what he has been going through for a long time. It now feels like this is some vindication for Azeem. We've apologised as a sport to him, that's something that our chairman [Ian Watmore] did before he departed, and I've also said the same thing in terms of apologising to Azeem for what he went through as a player when he was playing for Yorkshire.
I hope that Azeem can see - frustrating as it must have been given the length of time this has taken - how serious the ECB is about matters relating to race in cricket. I think that his patience is probably very short and I would understand that. But I hope in time that Azeem can become a person for whom cricket is part of his life again, without feeling that the game has let him down in a big way.
So my message to him is I hope he's okay. And that he feels that appropriate action is now being taken, albeit probably later than he would have liked.
Have you spoken to him in recent days?
I haven't. No, I have not.
For the ECB's own investigation, will people involved in the original investigation by Yorkshire be interviewed?
I hope so. I'm not a regulatory investigation expert, but I have huge confidence in the process that has been put in place. We have also recruited the assistance of a specialist QC to oversee the work, in respect of these investigations in a sporting context. So I expect it to be a very thorough and full investigation. But I can't give specifics in answer to your question. I hope, yes, and I expect, yes, but I don't know. If they aren't, then there'll be very good reasons for it.
What are your thoughts on Colin Graves' potential return to Yorkshire?
I have spoken to Colin, I saw him last night. Colin is hugely passionate about cricket in Yorkshire and is probably the reason why the club is still in existence, frankly, given the role he played in the early 2000s to rescue that club from financial and commercial oblivion.
He has an incredible level of experience, he understands that club from top to bottom, having run it as chair and CEO over a long period of time. He will be, I am sure, hoping and expecting YCCC to come back stronger, producing fantastic players for England, winning Championships and trophies and providing an incredible place for England to play cricket. That's what he wants to see and I am sure that whoever leads the club will have Colin's assistance in doing so, either officially or unofficially. That's not for us to decide. We will of course assist Yorkshire in trying to identify and help with leadership and governance. It's not for us to decide who leads and who doesn't.
Do you have any concerns about his return, given he was chair for much of the time the allegations relate to?
The investigation has to play out. I don't want to prejudge anything. It's not a matter for me to decide that. I have a very close relationship to Colin, as you all know. I have a huge regard for him. He is a very good friend, and I am sure Colin will want the very best for Yorkshire County Cricket Club going forward.
If Graves does come back, Yorkshire will have the same chair, CEO and director of cricket as they did for the period of Azeem's claims - what message does that send?
There are lots of changes to take place over the next few weeks. That's what we have called for. The Board have asked the ECB executive to commission a report into leadership and governance, so let's wait for that report. What you say is fair, in terms of the optics and visibility to the very community, frankly, that we are trying to reach out to through the statements we have made in the last few hours. That's pretty much all I'll say on that.
What can we do as a game to make sure the likes of Azeem are listened to?
The independent commission for equity in cricket has a role in this. In the past we haven't been able to get certain South Asian communities in particular to trust the ECB to represent their views and to take action where necessary. I don't think we have ever had it, so I hope to build that trust. We will do that by taking action, by being uncompromising about perspectives on matters such as racism and by sending a clear message that it won't be tolerated and that we will take action against it where there is clear evidence of it having taken place.
I am not suggesting this is the answer you want, but through a range of measures and processes, we will slowly be able to build trust with communities that have frankly felt let down by the response of the sport of cricket to issues that have happened in the past.
Does this feel like a crossroads?
I think it feels like an opportunity to re-assess what matters to us, what do we stand for as a game, what's important. We have a strategy that is about reaching out to families, to diverse communities, to children and young people, and we have seen if we are prepared to put the hard work in and make tough decisions, the result you're looking for can be achieved, which is growth, engagement, people having a sense of belonging, people feeling welcome.
This issue has highlighted that we have a long way to go, but it shouldn't deflect from the good work being done, the growth that is being achieved, or in fact that strong action is being taken in response to this. We are taking action and we will listen. We hope this is the start of things. I don't know if that's a crossroads but it's an opportunity to reaffirm what we stand for as a sport.
In 2017, Durham were stripped of major-match status, relegated and docked 48 points for financial irregularities. Given Yorkshire's situation, does the game need to prove it cares as much about social and moral failings as money?
I know that message has landed in the first-class game. I expect there to be some resistance, but also acceptance of the importance of matters relating to EDI. It's a fundamental part of our ability to remain relevant as a sport, and frankly the financial bit doesn't matter if you get this bit wrong. All you're doing is managing long-term decline. We have to work doubly hard with the communities who feel let down, so it's an incredibly important moment for the game, I expect it to have a positive impact across the sport once people have got over the initial shock that this will undoubtedly create. It's a clear message of what we stand for, and where we're going as a game.
The ECB has been through a financial crisis already, and now one of your major centres will be in its own financial crisis. How do you support them, as well as punishing them?
The reason why this is unprecedented is because it's not in response to financial fair play or a regulation breach. This is broader than that. And the measures are very significant in terms of the steps that the ECB has at its disposal - it's at the more extreme end.
Throughout the financial crisis and throughout the pandemic, we've delivered every penny of distribution money to every first-class county and to the recreational game. That includes £1.3million for the Hundred in 2020, which didn't take place in 2020. It is a very serious financial crisis that will now take place at Yorkshire, and we must now make sure that we find the balance right between helping and rehabilitating this very famous club from financial oblivion.
We will try to get that balance right and work with whatever governance structure, whatever leadership is in place at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. We will work closely with them to try to rebuild that trust and obviously stabilise the club from a financial perspective.
Why have you waited for politicians to become involved and sponsors to walk away before taking this action?
I don't think it was [that reason]. It was about the game being dragged through the mud and the disrepute as a result of the press statement that was made by Yorkshire CCC last week, that no action was going to be taken in response to the upheld allegations of racism that the investigation had yielded.
I think that was the moment where we felt that we were going to be dealing with something very different - not a breach of regulations per se, but a breach of the set of values that we have in cricket, and the strategy that we've adopted and the unwritten contract that you have with people about their involvement in this game, that the game will be there for you.
It became very clear very quickly that we would have to take significant action because actually the message was that cricket is light on racism. And there is no way on earth that that can ever be the message - racism has no place in this sport. Any form of discrimination has no place in this sport. We need to take decisive action because Yorkshire have failed to do that, so we did.