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27 July 2022updated 07 Sep 2022 10:43am

A battle for the soul of English cricket

When the former Yorkshire bowler Azeem Rafiq blew the whistle on racism, resignations and inquiries followed. Has anything changed?

By Emma John

One day in early May, Crouch End Cricket Club were on a roll. The north London team’s all-rounder, Dhaval Narotam, had removed both of the opposition’s opening batsmen, and now – faced with the left-arm orthodox spinner, Aparajit Khurana – the middle order was collapsing too. As the last wicket fell, Martians CC, a visiting side from Essex, had scored only 88 off 24 overs. Crouch End raced past their total to win the game.

If it was a mismatch, it was because the home team are the current Middlesex Premier League champions – the best amateur side in the county. This in itself is an astonishing feat: four years ago, Crouch End weren’t even the best team within a five-minute walk.

The club’s home ground nestles in an urban oasis known as Shepherds Cot – a collection of playing fields overlooked by Alexandra Palace, whose glass cupolas glimmer above the tree line. The Cot is home to five cricket clubs, most of them wealthier and more established. Here, North Middlesex Cricket Club has a two-storey clubhouse and a second pitch, as well as a long history of feeding players into the county side. Highgate has floodlit tennis courts and a kitchen that serves Thai food, the scent wafting across the fields on match days.

For decades, Crouch End were the Cot’s poor, scrappy underdogs. The first team struggled at the bottom of the Middlesex Championship, the lowest level of regional competition, and regularly faced demotion. Then, in 2014, a player with a radical idea joined the club. Hiren Desai, 29 at the time, had inherited a passion for cricket from his father, a Ugandan-Indian among those expelled by Idi Amin. Together they spent their Sundays playing in London’s Asian leagues, and Desai knew they contained huge amounts of untapped talent: first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from every part of the Indian subcontinent. Largely overlooked by the traditional set-ups, these players seldom had the opportunity or resources to progress beyond the parks and council pitches where they competed. Desai told Crouch End they could transform the club.

In 2015 he took over the captaincy from James Jenkins, who works in a family timber company with his father and brothers, all of them Crouch End members for decades. Jenkins, who is 40 and now captains the seconds, remembers being sceptical. “Hiren said, ‘I think we can get promoted from this league’ when we’d been struggling to stay up. So I said, ‘I’m not sure about that, but OK, let’s give it a go.’ And a fun conversation turned into reality.”

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In his first year, Desai recruited two players: Pratik Patel, born in the UK to Indian parents, and Nilesh Patel, who was Indian-born but holds a UK passport. Under his captaincy, the first XI was promoted four divisions in four years until, in 2021, they became league champions. That success has brought secondary rewards: the demand for membership has meant increased funding, and a club that struggled to raise two teams now puts out eight adult sides a week, including a women’s XI. The club’s new nets are busy almost every night, and the pavilion has had an overhaul.

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[See also: Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams is the most moving thing I’ve seen on TV in years]

But what they haven’t seen is any interest from county cricket administrators – the people who decide who plays at the next level. Desai had been inviting Middlesex scouts to watch Crouch End in action for more than a year. “Not one has come,” he told me in May, “and I find that really strange. Do you need to fit a certain bill: go to private school, be well-spoken? I think absolutely that comes into it.”

On 16 November last year, Azeem Rafiq testified to parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee about his experiences of racism while playing for Yorkshire. The off-spinner and former England youth captain said that between 2008 and 2018 he had been subject to racial slurs, called an “elephant washer”, and portrayed as a troublemaker; that his employers’ lack of empathy after his son was stillborn in 2018 had led him to consider suicide.

He had raised these complaints a year earlier at an employment tribunal, after which Yorkshire conducted its own investigation. It found that the racist language had been “friendly banter”. No further action was taken.

But the fallout from the select committee hearing was catastrophic. Yorkshire’s chairman, Roger Hutton, and chief executive, Mark Arthur, resigned, and major sponsors including Nike and the brewer Tetley’s withdrew their support. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) suspended Yorkshire’s right to host Test matches, reinstating it in February after senior staff, including the director of cricket and head coach, had been sacked. The repercussions continue: the club has been ordered to appear before the Cricket Discipline Commission this autumn; and Michael Vaughan, the former England captain and a Yorkshire teammate named in Rafiq’s testimony, has stepped aside from his BBC commentator role after the ECB charged him and others with “bringing the game into disrepute”. Vaughan denies having used racist language.

The NS Summer Special, out 29 July. Illustration by Cold War Steve

It was clear that the issue went far wider than Yorkshire. The ECB made a weak showing in front of the same parliamentary committee; its chief executive, Tom Harrison – who stepped down in May this year – failed to explain why the board had not intervened. The Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket, set up by the ECB in March 2021, had only just begun to gather evidence. It also sounded similar to an inquiry conducted in 1999, whose dozens of recommendations the ECB had promised to implement. In the two decades since, the number of professional black British cricketers has fallen dramatically.

On 24 July, the entire Cricket Scotland board resigned before publication of a report on institutional racism in the Scottish game. When I spoke to Azeem Rafiq earlier the same day, he said nothing had changed in the two years since he made his complaint. “The system always looks for excuses not to take action. I used to think that people just didn’t get it, but I’ve come to a different conclusion now – I think the leadership don’t want to get it.”

[See also: English cricket is in a deep crisis that the ritual sacking of a few coaches won’t fix]

The research bears him out. Last year Birmingham City University PhD student, Tom Brown, found that while one-third of all recreational cricketers in the UK have Asian heritage, only 4 per cent make it to the professional level. Research published by Leeds Beckett University in 2019 highlighted the lack of black British players in the county game and in coaching roles. The number of black British cricketers in the professional game fell by 75 per cent from 1994 to 2019, and in the recreational game, black players account for less than 1 per cent. Asked about this startling disparity when the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s hearings resumed in January 2022, the chairman of Middlesex, Mike O’Farrell, suggested that Asian families prioritise schoolwork, while Afro-Caribbean children prefer football – reductive cultural stereotypes for which he later apologised.

Middlesex – and the UK as a whole – is home to thriving leagues and park teams that exist with little support from official bodies. This has led to a farcical situation in which some traditional, predominantly white clubs complain about a lack of new players, while oversubscribed Asian teams struggle to find grounds. It might seem obvious for the former to hire out their pitches, or follow the example of Crouch End (and other clubs such as East Lancashire) by involving Asian players in their organisation and outreach. However, Ankit Shah, co-chair of Middlesex’s equality, diversity and inclusion committee, told me he does not see this happening. “This conservatism, protectionism, whatever you want to call it, is out there,” he said. “It’s not just the clubs – it’s the private schools, too. They often have three or four pitches that aren’t used from July to September. And you’re talking about some of the best facilities in the country.”

English cricket has long been a refuge for a certain kind of conservative, a panic room padded with a fantasy of a vanished country. In his 1994 history of cricket, Anyone But England, the American writer and Marxist activist Mike Marqusee wrote that the sport had introduced him to “a world where the norms of an imagined 19th century still obtained… a world of deference and hierarchy, ruled by benevolent white men, proud of its traditions and resentful of any challenge to them”. Cricket, to him, portrayed “an England that did not exist, except, powerfully, in people’s heads”.

Marqusee noted the “parallel malaise” between the English game and the socio-economic doldrums of John Major’s Britain. Comparisons of Graham Gooch, who resigned the England captaincy in 1993 after Australia retained the Ashes, with the prime minister, then facing a confidence vote, were frequent at the time, not least because of Major’s enthusiasm for the game. During Boris Johnson’s premiership, the England Test team suffered a similar run of humiliations – winning only one-third of their matches and losing four series in a row, including a 4-0 drubbing in the 2021-22 Ashes. But no one has thought to draw parallels between the Prime Minister and the then captain Joe Root, whose integrity and talent remain widely admired.

Now, nearly 30 years since Marqusee’s book, the country finds itself in another period of intense political and social churn. Right-wing newspapers are full of the cries of a white establishment that feels culturally threatened, its fears cloaked in a righteous crusade on “wokery”. And cricket has, once again, become a favoured battleground.

On 28 June, Eton and Harrow met for their annual match at Lord’s cricket ground. Most of the stands were empty, but in the Mound, two banks of smartly suited teenagers, carefully separated, supported their respective sides. Every so often, one group rose to its feet and hurled an insult, in perfect unison, at the other. “We’ve got more prime ministers than you,” sang the Etonians. The Harrovians pointed to themselves and proudly cried, “Winston Churchill”, then gestured to their antagonists with a sneer: “Boris Johnson”.

Harrow scored 265 from their 55 overs; Eton were 28-2 in reply, then 59-4. The Eton parents grumbled that Harrow offers sports scholarships: Eton never has. Eton lost by 86 runs; a couple of the young spectators were ejected for setting off blue flares.

The rivalry dates to 1805, making it the longest-running fixture at Lord’s. But this year may well be Eton-Harrow’s last at Lord’s: from 2023, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) plans to replace the game with the final of a new schools’ tournament. The theory behind this change – offering the opportunity to play on hallowed Lord’s turf to the best young cricketers in the country, rather than those with the wealthiest parents – is admirable. The reality is that it could take years, possibly decades, of investment in state school cricket before a non-private school reaches the final two.

On the benches in front of the pavilion, relatives of the players – some of them also MCC members – were angry about the club’s decision. “It’s pathetic,” said one grandfather, “absolutely pathetic.” His daughter-in-law was less vehement, but agreed it was a shame. “We’re losing all our traditions – there won’t be anything left,” she said. “Ascot, Henley – we have to hold on to these things.” If she were extremely rich, she added, she would open a riding school in every comprehensive. “You are extremely rich,” her father-in-law replied.

Another mother told me the boys themselves were “very sad. But it’s the way the world is going – people don’t want elitism any more.” Her husband called it “Boris syndrome”, a reaction against Johnson’s premiership and the privilege that lay behind it. “I question the timing,” he said. “It’s change for change’s sake: we can’t get rid of all our history. And now my son will never get his chance to play here – it’s been taken away from him.”

The former Test Match Special presenter Henry Blofeld, an Old Etonian, has threatened to resign as an MCC member if the game is not reinstated. But while he has some support within the club, even the most traditional cricket lover would not claim that the English game is in a healthy or sustainable condition, or a fair reflection of the society in which it exists. The MCC has recognised this, recently creating a network of cricket hubs for promising state-school-educated children; last year, an inaugural national competition culminated in boys’ and girls’ finals on the main square.

Cricket, once cherished as our summer game, is no longer a national sport, neither watched nor understood by the mainstream. In the recent BBC series Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams, the former England all-rounder returned to his home town of Preston to get local teenagers into the game. “You’ve got to be lucky, or privileged, to play it,” Flintoff said in his introduction, and his raw recruits – many of whom couldn’t name a single cricketer – demonstrated how far the sport has ebbed from the national consciousness. The majority of state schools lack the equipment and the expertise to teach it; in the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative government is estimated to have sold off 10,000 school playing fields. Nine of the 11 England Test players that took on Pakistan at Southampton in 2020 were privately educated – a record high. Several England players developed their talents at private schools, albeit several on scholarships.

[See also: With little left to be proud of in this country, at least we still have county cricket]

Many of the problems English cricket has in tackling racism are magnified by an ingrained classism. Its club structure is focused on Saturday league games and “after work” training sessions, despite a fundamental shift in working patterns for those in low-income jobs, be it the 24-7 demands of the retail and service industries, or the unsociable hours of shift work. “Different leagues need to cater for that,” Middlesex’s Ankit Shah told me. “Clubs have a huge role to play in championing change. But it’s not happening because it’s reflective of how they’ve been run in the past, and they want it run in the same manner now.”

He pointed without hesitation to several cultural barriers to entry – from a disinclination to join post-match drinks to the need to attend religious or family occasions. The simplest solution, he said, was greater diversity among coaching staff and at the organisational level. “It’s about seeing a face that parents or kids feel comfortable speaking to. When it comes to selection for the talent pathways [into county and national squads], if you’ve got a 99 per cent white coaching set-up, there are going to be some biases whether you like it or not.” The BBC presenter and former England player Ebony Rainford-Brent, whose Ace programme encourages young people of African and Caribbean heritage into cricket, echoed this. “We haven’t created a system that works for diverse, lower socio-economic groups,” she told me last summer. “If you’re black, and living in the inner city, and going to state school, there’s no cricket. There’s a void. As soon as we offered people the chance to play, they grabbed it.”

Middlesex’s own research has identified a major decline in diversity once players reach the professional game. Until then, 65 per cent of the talent is of Asian ethnicity. “In the pathways, you play with people you’ve grown up with, who look and sound like you,” said Shah. “In the professional squads, you get a lot of players from public schools – because that’s when they enter the system, having developed their game through the university set-ups. The dynamic in the changing room is different, and it’s not what some of the working-class kids are used to.”

For many, Azeem Rafiq’s testimony came as a shock – that such overt racism could exist within the 21st-century game. For others, it was not a surprise. “It was nothing new to most ethnic people playing cricket,” Ronak Shah told me. He started playing for Crouch End with his twin brother, Niren, last year, when they were 25. Some of their friends had given up the game, even those with the talent to represent their county. “You ask them why they stopped, and they say, ‘I got dropped for a guy with a double-barrelled surname,’” said Niren. He and his brother were unusual among their friends and family for supporting England; since hearing Rafiq’s testimony, they have switched allegiance to India.

Crouch End recently had its own encounter with cricket’s “zero tolerance” approach to racism. Last summer, one of their players was verbally abused during a cup match in Surrey. A racial slur from the boundary was captured on the video feed of the game, and there was further abuse online. When the organisers investigated and found there was no case to answer, Crouch End escalated their complaint to the ECB. A confidential mediation process was arranged, with a resolution that the club still finds unsatisfactory.

“Hiren said that there was no point reporting it, and he’s been correct, because as far as I’m aware, they’ve faced no sanction,” said Crouch End’s secretary, Simon Tanner. “And it was a trope that started the whole thing off – the idea that Asian players cheat, that they claim bumped catches.” The ECB told the New Statesman: “We condemn any form of discrimination, and are working hard to make our game a more welcoming and inclusive one. It was agreed that this complaint should be referred to Sport Resolutions, an independent dispute service, who appointed an arbitrator. They issued a judgment and imposed a sanction they deemed appropriate.”

Crouch End’s rapid rise through the Middlesex league had caused resentment long before the club lifted the trophy last year. Its white wicketkeeper, Jac Cleaver, was asked: “Surely you can’t enjoy playing with these guys?” Rivals began rumours that its success was not legitimate, calling it a “brown envelope club” (one that pays its players – a practice strictly forbidden in the amateur leagues). “People say, ‘Yeah, I might leave my club and join yours, how much are you offering?’” said Desai. “We get it all the time.”

Omar Khan, who became Crouch End’s director of cricket in 2010, told me he was tired of the suspicion and resentment. He is proud of the club’s integrated community: about two-fifths white, two-fifths Asian and the remainder other ethnicities, including a strong Afro-Caribbean contingent. “My response is: have you asked yourself the real reason why we’ve done what we’ve done? We’ve got 20 to 30 lads, predominantly from ethnic minorities, who have not felt welcome in other clubs. Look at Aparajit – he’s probably the best spinner in the league, and he’s nearly 40 years old. I find it unbelievable that a guy who’s played all his league cricket in this country, in London, has never been picked up by his county.”

One Saturday in mid-June, I watched three Crouch End teams in simultaneous league action at the Cot. The second XI was racking up the runs against Highgate, while the thirds had a late-innings wobble against North London. The firsts put on a commanding performance against Ealing, one of the largest and most established London clubs. Wandering between the matches, the difference between the Crouch End teams and their opposition was notable. Ealing’s home ground is 15 minutes from Southall, the London suburb home to more Indians than anywhere else in the UK, but that day’s team was entirely white.

Out in the middle, Pratik Patel – a former Ealing member – was smashing fours and sixes. He reached 101 not out, taking Crouch End to a win by 39 runs. Meanwhile, there was news: Middlesex scouts had begun attending their games, and even offered a trial to one young player (ironically, it was their Australian player-coach, who has a British passport).

The county’s former director of cricket, Angus Fraser, who now oversees Middlesex’s academy and youth squads, had been in touch. “We’re aware that we need to do more,” Fraser told me. “And we’re trying to. We’ve brought more non-white coaches into the system. We’re educating coaches so they’re more culturally aware of the behaviours of players and parents.”

Khan welcomed this: he is convinced that a cultural reserve is held against his Asian players, who can appear less sociable in a dressing room setting. “We constantly hear: ‘Yeah, he can play, not sure about the personality, though.’ A lot of our lads are fairly quiet. They’re not going drinking, they’re not boisterous, and we’re told, ‘I’m not sure they’re going to fit in.’”

It is a question of expectation versus accommodation, of what we consider “Englishness” to be. Three decades after the notorious Tebbit test, when the Conservative minister Norman Tebbit suggested nationhood could be determined by whether someone of Asian heritage supports England, cricket is still circling the same questions. Must players conform to a 1950s vision of what English cricket should be?

Last year, on the eve of Euro 2020, which was delayed for a year by the pandemic, the England football manager Gareth Southgate showed another way forward. In an open letter (“Dear England”), he condemned the racism his players had faced and articulated a more inclusive patriotism: “We have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”

Stephen Fry, the incoming president of the MCC, has expressed similar sentiments, praising the Lord’s Eton-Harrow fixture as “a terrific tradition” while arguing that cricket must create new ones: “[The game] developed as a pastime for the working man. It needs to recover some of that”; “It’s not a ‘woke’ question: it’s about making cricket better.”

The ECB says meaningful change is happening. Since Rafiq’s testimony, progress on its 12-point action plan has included a new whistle-blowing procedure and increased board diversification, as well as a review of dressing-room culture. An anti-discrimination unit has been formed, and there is fresh funding for the Ace programme and coaching bursaries. This increased scrutiny is having an effect. In May Essex County Cricket Club was fined £50,000 for racist language used by its then chair at a 2017 meeting.

But in late July, Rafiq said he felt nothing had changed: “The ECB is not fit for purpose, simple as that. We need a total clear-out. Cricket is too much of a boys’ network: we need government to get involved, and an independent regulator, because the game can’t be trusted to regulate itself.”

Later this year the ECB’s Independent Commission for Equity will report its findings, and cricket – a game Khan described as “institutionally racist”, and Shah called “institutionally classist” – will once again attempt to remake itself. It won’t be easy. At Lord’s, the MCC will host a special general meeting, called by a small cadre of irate members, to demand a vote on the decision to replace the Eton-Harrow fixture. The private club has committed to making cricket a sport for everyone – but there are some who don’t plan on ceding their privilege any time soon.

Emma John is a writer, broadcaster and the author of “Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket” (Bloomsbury)

[ See also: The English Cricket Board is “not fit for purpose”, says Azeem Rafiq ]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special