Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s overplaying of the ‘no-nonsense’ stereotype has left them inept in the fallout of the Azeem Rafiq racism scandal

Abbie Rhodes writes on the historic racism within Yorkshire County Cricket Club

That Harry Enfield sketch aired 29 years ago. It’s since been uploaded to YouTube, where the top comment is highlighting the very current relevance of one joke, in which The Yorkshireman points to the only non-white character in the room and proclaims to him: “you won’t play for Yorkshire”. For those unfamiliar with the terrible world of county cricket, or perhaps just with the ever-looming presence of the infamous Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the quip is a reference to a curious paradox that emerged within the club in the 20th Century: that between the rule which said only those born in Yorkshire could play for Yorkshire, the large South Asian population established in Yorkshire, and the glaring omission of any non-white players from the Yorkshire squad. 

Fast forward three decades, and it seems very little has changed with regard to the club’s unabashed racist practices. Considering that they have gotten away with it for so long (if, in 1992, their reputation was so well-established that a joke about it could land for cricket and non-cricket audiences alike) it seems very little has changed everywhere else, too. 

Former Yorkshire player and captain Azeem Rafiq first raised allegations of racist abuse from fellow players and staff in 2018, when he left the club after ten years of service. He claimed to have played under an openly racist captain and suffered under such a persistent psychological tirade of racial gripes that it left him contemplating suicide. In August of 2020, he mentioned these incidents again in an interview with Wisden, which led to Yorkshire pledging to investigate the claims which they had, for the previous two years, completely ignored. 

Yorkshire conducted said investigation, keeping the subsequent findings a closely-guarded secret. It wasn’t until over a year later that they revealed their conclusions: Rafiq was a victim of racist bullying during his time at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, but Yorkshire County Cricket Club was not racist, nor was anyone working at Yorkshire County Cricket Club – at least in a way that would warrant disciplinary action. 

Uproar ensued. ESPN leaked information from the investigation’s report that detailed Rafiq being reduced to tears by a fellow player repeatedly calling him a racial slur. Said player was quickly revealed to be Gary Ballance, who released a statement in which he strategically dropped in allusions to Muslim Rafiq drinking alcohol, and equated his use of ‘P***’ to Rafiq’s use of ‘Zimbo’ toward Ballance – a Zimbabwean demonym which has no racist context, particularly when directed towards a white man. This backhanded undermining of Rafiq’s credibility cannot be isolated to one individual, however – arguably Ballance’s peculiar defence is a product of the very culture Rafiq claims exists, and Yorkshire claim does not. This is evidenced by the fact that such tactics have been employed against Rafiq throughout the unfolding scandal: he has been decried as a difficult trouble-maker by board members, and as being on a “one-man mission to bring down the club” by a delegation of staff. The knee-jerk reaction to smear and attack seems to permeate every dismal corner of Yorkshire’s response to the scandal. 

The truth is that this is not a “one-man mission”. Much to Yorkshire’s dismay and incomprehension, Rafiq has the cricketing press and the overwhelming majority of fans behind him. Fellow former Yorkshire player Rana Naved-ul-Hasan substantiated Rafiq’s claims that former Yorkshire and England captain Michael Vaughan was overheard saying “there’s too many of you lot, we need to do something about it” to a group of Asian players, after Vaughan attempted to smear Rafiq as a liar in his Telegraph column. Today, current England and Yorkshire spinner Adil Rashid also came out in support of Rafiq’s version of events against Vaughan. Another player detailed incidents where a Yorkshire teammate urinated on his head from a balcony, and others were overheard bragging about “shagging a bird” on her period and using a Muslim player’s prayer mat to “clean up the mess”. Day-by-day, the extent of Yorkshire’s cover-up and the continued attempts to maintain it are revealed in more sickening detail. And yet – even as Headingley loses the right to host international matches and big-name sponsors drop out – Yorkshire still seem reluctant to back down and change their approach.

Considering that this is certainly not a novel issue, let us step back for a moment. Just how have Yorkshire managed to harbour such an awful, open secret as institutional racism for so long? Why is it only now, after generations of shoulder-nudging jokes and side-eyes, that they appear to be finally facing their reckoning? One explanation is the typical culprit of external indifference, both from society in general and the club’s ‘higher-ups’, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). This is ultimately what protects all clubs at all levels of cricket, because it is nigh on impossible that institutional racism within a sport founded in colonialism and bourgeois elitism, governed by an organisation which employs several rebel tourists in senior roles, is so conveniently confined to a single hub in Headingley. 

The smokescreen used specifically by Yorkshire, however, that which sets them apart from other first-class county clubs, is something a lot closer to home: their own mythology. As a club, their image is built around playing up to the (rather antiquated) Yorkshireman stereotype: the no-nonsense, plain-talking, self-assured man’s man that Enfield parodied in his 90s sketch. Boycott embodied it to the extent of becoming a walking caricature, and in doing so synonymised the typical Yorkshire County Cricket player with the typical Yorkshireman in popular culture for a very long time. This stint often goes as far as to personify the club itself as a sort of giant, spiritual Yorkshireman – dismissing the authority of the southern softies, confident in his exceptionalism and eternal success. 

In portraying themselves almost as an autonomous renegade, it becomes easy for Yorkshire to dispel criticism under the guise of outsiders not understanding their very localised culture. It’s a very convenient tool to pull out wherever and whenever a Yorkshire player or representative feels backed into a corner. Vaughan is a prime, relevant example: despite his racist views being well-known in cricketing circles, from the time he proclaimed that it was Moeen Ali’s duty to prevent terrorism by virtue of being a Muslim, to the time he suggested that no-one in London speaks English anymore, he retains a legacy of a highly-regarded Ashes-winning captain and the TMS contract to go with it. His many controversial comments are brushed off simply as the words of a man who “says it how it is”, who doesn’t concern himself other people’s trivial sensitivities. A proper Yorkshireman. 

As a Mancunian by birth, Vaughan arguably relies on overplaying the Yorkshireman stereotype more than most to validate his adopted identity, and up until now it has worked. It gives him an extraordinary right to make openly racist remarks and have criticism dismissed as the perspective of someone unacquainted with the complex nuances of Yorkshire culture. In our present times, this also fits in seamlessly with the current trend of decrying any and all criticism of public figures as Orwellian Wokeist Cancel Culture, something which fellow Telegraph columnist Allison Peason utilised in Vaughan’s defence, alongside his “wry Northern humour” (despite, by her own admission, having never met him). All of these arguments are, of course, completely nonsensical, not least because Vaughan was neither born nor raised in Yorkshire and so cannot claim it to be some conditioned response innate to his being. The pantomime of the Yorkshireman adopted by he and others at the club is a cheap and increasingly tiresome attempt to mask their disconnect with the county which they are supposed to represent, and – most crucially – the ordinary people who inhabit it. 

Where does this charade leave the club in the wake of the racism scandal? Institutional racism, in a racist society, is undoubtedly prevalent in all counties, perhaps even to a similar extent as in Yorkshire. But it does feel as though Yorkshire, in their brazen hubris and exceptionalism, were always going to be the most unapologetic about it, and thus be the ones who are exposed in the starkest light. Having cultivated an exaggerated persona who can never admit that he is wrong, the club appear physically unable to comprehend a situation wherein image salvation is required: Yorkshire have always been right, Yorkshire have always gotten away with it. Now their attempts are waning, the vast majority are siding with Azeem and not them, they fall into complete meltdown. 

On Tuesday, the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee will hear testimonies from Rafiq and representatives from Yorkshire. Parliamentary privilege could allow for darker details to be exposed, but equally for Yorkshire to increase the vitriol of their defamation campaign. Increasingly desperate smearing attempts against Rafiq from all mobilised units of Yorkshire County Cricket Club would make the Murdoch press blush in their ludicrousness; unlike the papers, however, most people are yet to believe them. With victims of racism still expected to be the perfect martyrs in order for their case to retain credibility, it is not unlikely that Yorkshire will harness the current cultural climate of reactionary, “anti-woke” hysteria to build their case against Rafiq and turn the tides against him. Already, the situation is being presented as “complex” and “multi-faceted”, portraying one man who has undergone years of racist abuse and the powerful institution which has been well known to facilitate such discrimination for decades as equally balanced viewpoints, with equally legitimate interests. 

In a better world, the only way for Yorkshire to come out of this is through complete regeneration: a replacement of all senior staff, a reworking of all youth pathways, and an undoing of their antiquated reputation. In reality, this feels as though it is only the beginning of somewhere we have been many times before, where a few frank conversations are had, in which the people who could really make a difference continue to hold back out of fear for their image, before it all dissolves into a meaningless culture war and no material change is actualised. Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s hearing, it can be certainly said at least that Yorkshire have, in their rather pathetic commitment to a tired stereotype, proven themselves in their current form to be unwilling to engage in good faith. The Yorkshireman is deeply rooted into the very foundations of Headingley, and if an inclusive, nurturing environment for players and staff alike is to be realised there in the future, it is up to every decent, genuine Yorkshireman left at the club to ensure he is finally laid to rest.

Abbie Rhodes

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