Why we’re confidently labelling Alex Lees “not evil”

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In any other England Test squad, a brand new opener would be the big story. From what little we know about alphabet-straddling AZ Lees, we hope he does well.

Alex Lees was one of the last batch of players we named as ‘county cricketers to watch’ before we finally sacked off that feature on the basis that we weren’t properly following the players we were naming. He’s been down and up since then, but we’ve retained affection for him.

The Yorkshire years

According to David Lloyd, one coach said, “Thank goodness I won’t have to deal with Alex Lees again,” when the opener left Yorkshire in 2018.

Given the culture at the club around that time, let’s put that down in the credit column.

Not too many people have emerged from the Yorkshire thing with their reputation intact. Azeem Rafiq did however make a point of saying that he had felt supported and encouraged when he re-joined the club in 2016 when Jason Gillespie was in charge and Lees was limited overs captain.

Those two men had persuaded him to return, only for things to change pretty abruptly when the Australian departed.

“Jason left at the end of 2016 and it felt like the temperature in the room had just been turned up,” Rafiq told the DCMS Committee last year.

Lees didn’t seem to benefit from the change either.

“There was a change in management at Yorkshire at the time,” he told Wisden last month when it first became apparent he was likely to be called into England’s Test squad.

“I’d obviously flourished under Jason Gillespie. Unfortunately sometimes in any sort of industry you cannot quite get on with people or have challenging circumstances around that.

“That underlying area was ultimately one of the biggest reasons why I probably didn’t play as well as I did in the previous five years. The details are probably not that appropriate, but it was a really challenging time for me.”

We know it’s not as simple as Good Guys v Bad Guys, but from what we’ve read, we definitely get a sense that Lees would not be in the latter category, even if it were. A significant and unpleasant subculture seems to have developed at Yorkshire and he seems to have been outside that.

An incredibly vague non-example: We’re sure we saw that he’d said something specific to Rafiq about how the spinner was being treated at Yorkshire and how it wasn’t acceptable. Having trawled through DCMS evidence and newspaper reports, we can’t for the life of us find this though. If you’ve any idea what we’re on about, please pop it in the comments and we’ll update the article.

A much clearer example: Only one person from Yorkshire County Cricket Club came when Rafiq and his wife buried their stillborn son. That person was Alex Lees.

Basic decency, humanity and empathy aren’t ordinarily qualities that would warrant highlighting, but maybe this hints at something else too. Team sports can at times give rise to a bit of a herd mentality. The story at Yorkshire is not just about racism. It is also about bystanders and passivity. Lees appears to have a greater capacity than some to chart his own course.

That’s a decent quality for a person and a decent quality for an international cricketer too. It’s perhaps also how he found himself entrusted with captaining seasoned internationals at Yorkshire when he was only 22.

History suggests it’s not always wise to assume that England cricketers are decent people. Nor, for very different reasons, is it wise to invest too much in an England opener. We’re pretty confident Alex Lees isn’t evil though. And that’s something. We wish him the best.

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5 comments

  1. I witnessed the lad’s maiden championship ton at Lord’s in 2013.

    https://www.espncricinfo.com/series/county-championship-division-one-2013-592759/middlesex-vs-yorkshire-593495/full-scorecard

    It looked like one of those rather grubby Lord’s pitches with the decision to bat first a bold one on a murky morning (if I remember correctly). Lees certainly looked, to me, like a potentially special player in the making at that time. I recall being surprised when Lyth got his England chance ahead of Lees.

    I wish him well in that poisoned chalice England role.

  2. On the matter of Rafiq, I think you are referring to his witness statement to YCCC, not the one to the select committee:

    https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/7832/documents/81586/default/

    At paragraph 60 of the YCCC statement (link above) Rafiq says:

    ” I note here that I was being treated as a problem and considered to be “difficult” for having an
    opinion and raising concerns and complaints, whereas white British players were able to raise
    concerns without facing the same consequences. For example, Alex Lees had raised issues with Tim
    Bresnan and suffered no consequences as a result of his complaint. I highlight this obvious
    difference in treatment in the text messages between Alex and I (PHB 378-382).”

    Unfortunately the evidence bundles do not form part of the materials placed in the public domain by the select committee, so i don’t think we can see the exact subject matter of those texts.

    But Rafiq makes it crystal clear in his direct evidence to the select committee who he thought were the good guys and who he thought were the bad guys. here’s paragraph three of his evidence (reproduceable in full as it is public domain)…

    …trigger warning, Rafiq uses the “P” word in full:

    ‘The first few months I came back, I thought, “You know what, things
    have changed here, it is a little bit different.” Alex Lees was the captain.
    He was a friend and a good person, and I know he had personal tragedies
    himself at a young age so he understood me. There was Jason Gillespie,
    who was an Australian cricketer and coach, who I felt supported by.
    Jason left at the end of 2016 and it felt like the temperature in the room
    had just been turned up. You had Andrew Gale coming in as coach and
    Gary Ballance as captain. For me, these guys were Yorkshire through and
    through, and, as they call it, the white rose values were embedded in
    them. For the first time I started to see it for what it was. I felt isolated,
    humiliated at times, there was the constant use of the word “Paki”. ‘

    I don’t suppose Alex Lees is a saint; nor is Jason Gillespie. But in this matter, they shine out as basically the good guys. I still smart and tremble when I read Rafiq’s testimony, about events of just a few years ago.

    1. The quote is from his oral evidence, which you’ve also reproduced.

      We’ve a feeling he referred to a conversation with Lees in one of his interviews with a newspaper or website. It’s the kind of thing we often make a note of but obviously didn’t on this occasion.

  3. I did see a slightly alarming comment in his interview with Wisden that his main motivation in moving to Durham was his hope that he could replicate the international ‘success’ of the likes of, erm, Mark Stoneman and Keaton Jennings.

    Usually people about to make their Test debuts at least pretend that they’re feeling optimistic. He should probably stick to “it’s a childhood dream come true” next time.

  4. Great article.

    As one of the comments says, I was also surprised that Lyth was picked over Lees way back when. I wish him luck and plenty of runs. Go well.

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