Why Asian and Black players have felt alienated in Yorkshire cricket

Migrant communities in Yorkshire have historically felt excluded by the county Nigel French / © PA Photos/Getty Images

At one time, Imran Khan had more clout in Yorkshire than Lahore. His government-bashing in Pakistan was largely ignored but when, during the 1999 World Cup, he accused Yorkshire of failing its Asian community the club was "inundated" with enquiries from aspiring young players.

Yorkshire, stung into action, held an open trial attended by 96 young Asians, with the full coaching staff in attendance. Chris Hassell, Yorkshire's chief executive, described the day as "very successful", and it certainly attracted plenty of media coverage, but the enduring criticism of Yorkshire is that they are unable to translate their apparent enthusiasm into a worthwhile outcome.

The only Asian to play for Yorkshire by then was Sachin Tendulkar, who in 1992 heralded the end for the policy of only selecting players born in the White Rose County. The large Asian communities in West and South Yorkshire, however, date back to the 1960s and have always nurtured a deep resentment towards the county's selection policy. This anger was fuelled by claims from cricketing icons, like Imran Khan and Viv Richards, that they had experienced racism at Headingley. Indeed, most Asians of a certain age will readily attest to the atmosphere at Headingley being thick with racist tension.

By the start of the 1990s, the mood in the Yorkshire establishment had changed. The Black and Ethnic Minorities' Forum was launched, followed by the demise of the "only born in Yorkshire" ruling. Many Asian hopefuls were now born in Yorkshire anyway, but the county's inability to unearth a Saeed Anwar or Anil Kumble remained an embarrassment. By contrast, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, who too received plenty of criticism, between them had nine Asian-origin players.

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Mike Atkins, then chairman of Yorkshire's Black and Asian forum and chairman of Sheffield Caribbeans Sports Club, believed that Yorkshire had made progress but two obstacles remained. Firstly, they had yet to win the hearts and minds of that generation of young cricketers. Here Yorkshire had a direct role in promoting change. Secondly, the league system remained riddled with racist attitudes, which the county had little say over but the ECB could influence.

Atkins's club had struggled for 15 years to gain admission to the South Riding League [as the South Yorkshire League was known until 2002]. Previously, they had been refused because they didn't have a ground. When they did have one, it wasn't good enough. And when the ground was satisfactory, their playing record wasn't. By 1995, Sheffield Caribbeans had satisfied all entry criteria that they were aware of, but their application was voted down by the league's Yorkshire-wide ruling body. They still didn't understand why.

Black and Asian cricketers frustrated with being ghettoised in their own leagues started joining predominantly "white" clubs en masse. The Leeds League, for example, was one of the first to have several clubs with large ethnic-minority memberships. The downside, however, said insiders, was that some clubs moved to less prestigious leagues apparently for reasons of race.

So, while Yorkshire's initiative was to be welcomed, it didn't wash that they had been unable to unearth a single home-grown Asian player. Yorkshire had a legacy of racial affront to redress, and, until the make-up of the Yorkshire side changed, their reforms appeared cosmetic. Yorkshire needed to be more pro-active and better integrated with the Asian community rather than expecting players to turn up at the Sutcliffe Gates playing air-shots with an Ihsan or emerge from the uneven playing field of club cricket.

"Growing up in Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s was a unique cricketing experience for a migrant. You wouldn't think about playing for a non-Asian team, and the other teams wouldn't try to recruit you however good you were"

Chris Hassell's response at the time was revealing: "We need to concentrate our resources. If they don't want to be bothered to go and play club cricket then we're not going to waste our time. There's only so much we can do, we can't chase moonbeams. We need them to perform well in the leagues. Cream rises to the top."

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Herringthorpe playing field never had much to recommend it, other than the sight of Peter Elliott, the red-haired Olympic middle-distance runner, training hard to catch Seb Coe. It was, however, ideal for Rotherham's soccer and rugby bruisers to lay into each other on freezing Sunday mornings. Did they ever notice those cruel slopes that sap a fast bowler's energy? Or the potholes and craters that make it impossible to bowl a straight delivery, let alone face one? Once the winter biffers and booters finished churning up the turf, a council groundsman cut a few squares. Next, he painted on white lines at baffling distances apart, sometimes he even managed 22 yards, and another cricket season was underway.

When I moved to Rotherham in 1974, Herringthorpe was for teams which had no ground and little money. This was cricket for the socially excluded, both white and Asian. With a few bats, pads, and balls to share between countless wannabe Javeds and Zaheers, selection was more to do with seniority than ability. We changed in clapped-out Datsuns or behind bushes. We joined the Saturday and Midweek leagues, the least distinguished in the area, under team names like Shaheen, Muslims or Internationals.

Many of our players weren't very good, but they all believed they were stars. They would turn up straight from the night shift at one of the many local steelworks, or by taking an unscheduled break from the taxi-rank. Every week, one player would arrive with a sofa strapped to his car roof. As soon as he was out, he was off to deliver it. Some of these first-generation immigrants wanted trials at Derbyshire. Yorkshire's home-born policy was still in force then.

There was another side to cricket in Rotherham. A network of tough, earthy clubs, with grounds, pavilions, and important-sounding leagues, steeped in the traditions of Yorkshire cricket. It still exists. Back then it was a world apart, not least because it was almost exclusively white. We just accepted it as our fate; grateful that Herringthorpe gave us the chance to play the game we loved, however miserably.

Much has changed. Many Asians now play for welcoming clubs in better leagues. But an underworld of cricket still existed in Yorkshire and elsewhere, and the pain of exclusion because of race remained a reality into the new millennium. So it was the Black and Asian cricketers playing in that environment who most appreciated Going Forward Together, the ECB Racism Study Group's refreshingly robust report on racial equality in cricket published in 1999.

The report confirmed that many of those involved in cricket, 58% of all questioned, 70-80% of Asian and Black respondents, believed that racism existed. The proposed solutions included clubs implementing an open-door membership policy, ethnic-minority clubs being encouraged into the mainstream, and widening of scouting systems. The full list was impressively far-reaching, and a welcome surprise for those campaigning for change.

"As wonderful as it was to see an Asian of Tendulkar's calibre play for Yorkshire, the exercise seemed hollow. What really mattered was that a Black or Asian cricketer brought up in the county, and possibly even born there, should play for Yorkshire"

Terry Bates, the ECB's man on the study group, was delighted that the report was so enthusiastically received. He, for one, was determined to ensure that the recommendations didn't become broken promises. It is precisely on this point that the ECB's resolve would be ultimately judged. Even so, the first step was successfully taken in moving towards a multicultural cricket society.

But were we in danger of seeing racism everywhere? Eddie Murphy's paranoid film star in Steve Martin's movie Bowfinger does. He turns down a script after counting the number of Ks in the text. Divide by three, he fumes, and there are too many mentions of the KKK. But that ECB study group clearly dismissed any accusations that ethnic-minority cricketers were merely blighted with a similar paranoia. Indeed, strong evidence was now available for the ECB to act on.

The ECB didn't get everything right. For a start, the report's slogan, Clean Bowl Racism, was too soft for Nasser Hussain's era. It didn't have the spanking ring of, say, Hit Racism for Six, the campaign that sparked much of the ECB's work. Another weakness was a proposal to have reserved seats at international matches for spectators wanting late tickets and also for those bringing in musical instruments. Both groups are largely drawn from ethnic minorities and it is essential that they are accommodated, but "designated areas" sounded more like apartheid than progress. Better still to have those reserved seats scattered around the ground. There wasn't much else wrong with the report, though, which meant it was time to move forward. Many thanks to Herringthorpe, the next stop was Headingley.

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Growing up in Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s was a unique cricketing experience for a migrant. You played cricket in your own leagues, and if your Asian team did play any competitions in an "official" league you'd play against teams of white players. You wouldn't think about playing for a non-Asian team, and the other teams wouldn't try to recruit you however good you were. You were cricketers of the shadows. These fences were slowly dismantled but the status quo of racial division was tacitly accepted for too long. You were probably too poor to be sent to a private school, and only if you were lucky, as I was, did your state school offer cricket.

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Yorkshire was the only county to insist that players must be born within its borders. It was a strange rule that entirely disadvantaged migrants who might have lived most of their lives in Yorkshire, while creating unfair anomalies such as a player born in Yorkshire but brought up abroad was still eligible to play for Yorkshire. People would claim that they had rushed back to within Yorkshire's borders for their son's birth to make sure he was eligible for Yorkshire. This rule didn't help Yorkshire. Their glory days were long past, and the county's mad politics, centred on the personas of Geoffrey Boycott and Raymond Illingworth, made the Yorkshire way seem a dated concept and a source of ridicule.

These machinations and characters held little appeal for migrants whose love of cricket matched that of the host population. There was no route for a gifted migrant to play for Yorkshire and access to other counties was limited. Occasionally, optimistic players would arrange trials for themselves at Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire but nothing ever came of it. Players experienced casual racism in their club matches, and the door to Yorkshire was shut. For these reasons Yorkshire County Cricket Club didn't attract support from its migrant communities. Inevitably, the fortunes of our countries of origin held greater appeal.

In our school games it was rare to see another Asian or Black cricketer. Indeed, I can only remember two we played against regularly, despite a full fixture list playing the best schools in Yorkshire and neighbouring counties. Shanu Das played for Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Wakefield, the team we'd beaten to win the Yorkshire Lord's Taverners competition and set up our national fixture with Mike Atherton's school. Das opened the batting for Yorkshire at my age group, and played at school and county with Mike Smith, a left arm pace bowler who became a professional cricketer. But Das was the exception who proved the rule. He was excellently turned out and a model of English upbringing, unlike Asians I usually came across.

A Black player opened the bowling for one of Atherton's other teams, Manchester Boys. We'd play them every year, and the bowler would crank up his heavy left arm pace. Nobody fancied facing him. He was fast and bowled an awkward short length. There wasn't much to choose between him and Smith from our perspective, perhaps Smith was sharper and a better allround player, but we never heard of the Manchester Boys opening bowler again while Smith went on to play a Test for England.

This sparse representation of ethnic minorities extended to Yorkshire age-group trials, where Das and I were usually the only Asians. Selection was difficult since there were many good players. This is just a perception - a very real perception - but I never felt that I was properly considered for selection. I wasn't sure whether it was my origins or my school that was the problem? Perhaps it was both factors? Always, whatever my merits and I judged I did well at those trials, in the back of my mind was the nagging thought of the born in Yorkshire rule. What was the point of these trials, whose ultimate purpose was to develop Yorkshire players? I was privileged enough among migrants to attend the trials, but I wasn't privileged enough to be eligible for Yorkshire? Why select somebody born in Lahore even though his cricket schooling was in Yorkshire?

The born in Yorkshire rule was equally unfair on Yorkshire people born in other parts of Britain. It would have ruled out Michael Vaughan, for example, but it certainly alienated Yorkshire's growing migrant population and became a source of discontent. The conclusions were clear: Yorkshire County Cricket Club didn't want migrants, and migrants didn't want the cricket club of Boycott and Illingworth.

From Yorkshire, Lancashire seemed a world apart. Yes, a love of proper cricket was shared by both. Northerners have much in common that crosses county boundaries. But Lancashire looked more welcoming to migrants. There wasn't much to go on but migrants make their dreams out of glimmers of hope. Lancashire had no eligibility rule about being born in the county. More importantly, Lancashire had visible examples of their progressive attitude. Clive Lloyd, captain of the 1975 and 1979 World Cup winning West Indies teams, was Lancashire's overseas player. He was popular and effective. Gehan Mendis, a Sri Lanka born opening batsman, also served Lancashire.

But Lancashire hit the jackpot when by some genius they signed Wasim Akram. The contrast was sharp. Lancashire shone with a Pakistani player as star of the show, while Yorkshire looked inwards towards oblivion with their homegrown rule. Yorkshire were a focus of criticism for race equality activists inside and outside cricket. Separation of cricket teams and leagues on grounds of race and exclusion of migrants from the county club hurt Yorkshire's reputation. Living in Yorkshire, it was easier and felt more natural to support our arch enemies across the Pennines than it did to support Yorkshire.

"Herringthorpe was for teams which had no ground and little money. We changed in clapped-out Datsuns or behind bushes. We joined the Saturday and Midweek leagues, the least distinguished, under team names like Shaheen, Muslims or Internationals"

By 1992, the reputational damage, a realisation that cricket in Yorkshire was discriminatory, and the financial lure of an Asian audience meant that Yorkshire changed its eligibility rules. Home educated players didn't need to be born in Yorkshire. Ironically, the first Asian to benefit was Sachin Tendulkar, who signed as an overseas player but had no affiliation to Yorkshire. Thanks to systemic failings the pipeline of homegrown talent of migrant origin was completely dry. As wonderful as it was to see an Asian of Tendulkar's calibre play for Yorkshire, the exercise seemed hollow. What really mattered was that a Black or Asian cricketer brought up in the county, and possibly even born there, should play for Yorkshire. The pipeline started to trickle in 2003 when Ismail Dawood, a middle order batsman and wicket keeper from Dewsbury, became the first British-born Asian to play for Yorkshire. Next came Ajmal Shahzad, Adil Rashid, and Azeem Rafiq.

Developing players from migrant families isn't something unusual for Yorkshire now, at all levels. Societal problems that are inseparable from cricket inevitably still hold back players from minority communities. The number who make it to the Yorkshire squad is less than it should be. Yorkshire are still to convince us that their anti-racist stance is more than a cosmetic exercise, as Azeem Rafiq explained in his harrowing personal account of racism that he experienced during his time at the club.

It's hard to see much love for Yorkshire County Cricket Club among Black and Asian communities. But that's a matter of time, provided that Yorkshire are genuine in their desire to eradicate racism in their cricket structure. Just as the reluctance of migrants to support England in sport is disappearing, future generations can be full and loyal supporters of God's own county, for they may be far removed from the experiences that made us cricketers of the shadows.

This is an excerpt, edited for brevity, from a chapter in Kamran Abbasi's new book, Englistan: An immigrant's journey on the turbulent winds of Pakistan cricket, available now on Amazon. The chapter is adapted from articles previously published in the Wisden Cricket Monthly and The Nightwatchman