Life at Yorkshire and what we should be saying about it

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It’s time to write an article about Yorkshire because eventually the absence of something can start to look deeply suspicious.

In 2006, before this site even had its own domain name, we made a snarky comment about how Adil Rashid had made a splash by being a Yorkshire-born player of Asian origin who played a match for Yorkshire. “That really shouldn’t be news,” we pointed out.

And in a perfect world, it shouldn’t have been. It should have been just a thing that regularly happened. But of course it was news.

Our feeling at the time was that 2006 was plenty late enough that Yorkshire should already have been fully exploiting the playing resources available to them in lower levels of cricket.

So we made a comment. And when we didn’t say anything else for 15 years.

Perhaps we mentioned it again in passing at some point or other. Yorkshire’s record in this area is certainly a thing we’ve thought about from time to time. But the point is it didn’t become a thing we went on about. It wasn’t a thing we repeated again and again and again – and Lord knows, this is a website that is unafraid to repeat itself.

And that’s not good enough really, is it?

Now we’re not kidding ourself that we’d have made any difference to Yorkshire County Cricket Club or wider society. We are however saying that in neglecting to repeatedly highlight something that we thought was very shit, we failed in a social duty. And probably we’re not alone in that.

Our non-campaign seems symptomatic of the way many of us thoughtlessly acquiesce if a problem is sufficiently deep-rooted and long-standing. We honestly felt like there would be a whole series of Asian heritage cricketers at Yorkshire after Rashid, but it took a while to discover that wouldn’t be the case and there was no real extra newsworthy moment to provide a lightning rod for that failure. News is things happening and Yorkshire’s pathetic record was very much characterised by things not happening.

The upshot is that we basically criticised Yorkshire the one time they showed signs of making progress.

There was obviously a reason why Yorkshire always had such an unrepresentatively white playing staff; it obviously wasn’t a good reason; and now we’re starting to learn why – or at least some of the reasons why, because of course that team environment didn’t materialise in a vacuum.

And what a team environment it was/is.

Playing for Yorkshire

When Andrew Gale, as captain, (allegedly) said he wanted to get back to, ’11 players, Yorkshire born and bred,’ that wasn’t insanely welcoming to a young player born in Pakistan.

Calling all players with non-English names “Kevin” isn’t friendly either. Neither is calling someone a “Paki” or an “elephant washer”. If you argue that telling all the non-white players they have to sit together is a joke, is it a joke that’s going to make them feel part of the wider team or somehow distinct from everyone else?

When Michael Vaughan (again allegedly – although given that three of the four players he was addressing agree that he said it…) told some of his team-mates, “there’s too many of you lot – we need to have a word about that,” perhaps that was a joke, yeah?

Perhaps – let’s be generous here – perhaps in Vaughan’s head, the joke was how ludicrously far removed from his true feelings such a sentiment was. But even if that were the case, how can anyone else know that for certain? Simply by saying such a thing, you force people to try and interpret it. It cannot be shrugged off.

Because perhaps it wasn’t a joke. Perhaps it was serious. Perhaps it was serious and merely the tip of a whole iceberg of antipathy towards you. Perhaps it also isn’t a joke when people tell ‘your lot’ you all have to sit together. Perhaps even the silent bystanders think these exact same things and the joke is on you for believing all of these comments might be just ‘banter’.

Imagine going through those same thought processes every single time there’s some comment at your expense. Imagine how wearing it must be. Imagine how alienating it would feel to be forever trying to gauge the exact degree to which you might be unwelcome with each and every one of your team-mates.

“There’s too many of you lot – we need to have a word about that.” Maybe it’s just a joke – but then the four of you never play another game together…

Imagine training and playing with these people. Imagine travelling with them and staying in hotels with them. Imagine that life.

Now imagine being at training and you get a phone call in which you learn there’s no heartbeat from your unborn son. Imagine looking to the people around you and, in Azeem Rafiq’s words: “They weren’t really bothered.”

Maybe that wasn’t racism. Maybe it was just a bunch of blokes who’d spent their whole lives playing a game for a living not knowing how to deal with real life. But maybe this constant othering – this so-called banter built on victimisation – built an emotional distance that resulted in a basic failure of humanity.

Imagine playing for Yorkshire.

Not playing for Yorkshire

“He probably doesn’t remember it because it doesn’t mean anything to him,” said Rafiq about the Vaughan comment.

That’s been the environment: casually hostile without ever really giving it a second thought. What does that result in? It means that even if all else is equal – which of course it isn’t – it’s that much more of an uphill struggle for an Asian heritage cricketer to establish themselves and then excel in first-class cricket.

In 2021, in a county where 60-70 per cent of recreational cricket is played by people of South Asian origin, Adil Rashid is the only British Pakistani cricketer in Yorkshire’s first team squad.

People can talk about pathways and listening and learning and how they’re working to do more, but those facts say this is easier to resolve than that. We’re not talking needles in haystacks here. We’re talking needles in big piles of needles with the odd bit of straw poking out.

This is worth highlighting. This is worth mentioning a lot more than we do. It is a thing we should all be talking about reflexively so that we don’t ebb back into, “They’re working at it – hopefully we’ll see some results in the coming years.”

Yorkshire’s record is terrible. Other counties aren’t much better. The number of black British professional cricketers has also bombed – down by 75 per cent in the last 25 years.

We, as fans, can’t resolve these things. But we can sure as shit moan about them. It takes great bravery for a victim to call out institutional racism. It also takes a certain amount for colleagues of those victims to raise concerns when they’re most likely complaining about team-mates and bosses. It takes no bravery whatsoever to shout from the sidelines though. There’s no excuse for not doing so.

It may seem futile and it probably won’t achieve a lot, but if enough people make noise about these things, it keeps those topics alive. If nothing else, it may be enough to prick the odd bubble and allow awareness of the wider world to rinse a festering subculture or two.

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10 comments

  1. A thoughtful piece. I lived in Yorkshire (sorry) for 10 years some years ago and played league cricket for a time.

    The problem isn’t just confined to the county cricket club but continues down the levels. In the league I played in there were white teams and teams of Asian origin. There were no mixed teams. Unless teams in the leagues do something I don’t see anything changing any time soon.

    1. That’s true also of the parks leagues I used to play in in Leicester and Birmingham. Very few mixed teams (although both the ones I played for were). I doubt much has changed.

      And I don’t think Leics have done a great job of bringing through local Asian players, given the demographics of the city. Jigar Naik was the first Leicester born Asian to play for them and that was only back in 2006.

  2. This is thoughtful and excellently written. Stephen Fry gave the Cowdrey Lecture last night. He addresses the issues and it’s well worth watching. Guess it’s on YouTube by now.

  3. Well, this has been a depressing few days for cricket.

    And now I hear Tim Paine has quit as Australia captain due to some old text messages?

  4. Having spent a great deal of my time for many years advocating and taking action to improve diversity in cricket, the current news coverage (which is not really news of course) makes depressing reading.

    The overt racism (and underlying covert racism) exposed at Yorkshire is, of course, disgusting. While I am not naïve or blinkered enough to believe that Yorkshire is the only county where such disgusting stuff has happened, I do believe it to be by far the the worst offender. Probably the only first class county where racism remained embedded and systemic until recently/now.

    The issues around why the first class county squads do not reflect the demographics of the nation’s enthusiasm for cricket are themselves diverse and complex. Racism forms its part, but I think (in most counties) only a limited part. The lack of facilities in state schools (only 7% of our youngsters are privately educated) is high on the list. The dearth of cricket on free-to-air TV is also part of it. I probably wouldn’t have found cricket myself had it not been for a scholarship to a posh school and cricket on the BBC.

    A “bright young thing” named Harjot Sidhu has dedicated an entire blog/site to the topic of diversity, mostly in cricket – I was honoured to be one of his first few interviewees earlier this year: https://www.londonwritingguy.com/

    I shall watch the Stephen Fry’s Cowdery Lecture this weekend – perhaps later today once I have finished my work. The Ridiculous Ashes is also on my list for much-needed light relief this weekend.

    1. Thanks for that link, Ged.

      The degree to which racism has been overt or covert seems to have waxed and waned at Yorkshire depending on who was in charge. Rafeeq seems to say that the explicit comments receded while Jason Gillespie was in charge.

      You might say that doesn’t make much difference; that obviously people were still thinking the same things, as evidenced by the way things immediately changed once Gillespie left. But Rafeeq also made the point that most of those he says were responsible for what basically amounted to racial bullying – Andrew Gale, Gary Ballance and Tim Bresnan – had learned their dressing room behaviours from the Yorkshire players who preceded them.

      Rafeeq too is a product of that culture, which is at least partly how he’s found himself making his own apology this week.

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