Yorkshire cricket’s great divide: ‘We’ve got to stop looking over the fence at each other’ | Cricket

It’s five-to-one on a Saturday afternoon, and at Bowling Old Lane Cricket Club in inner city Bradford the second XI are about to play East Bierley. Mo Mistry wants to know if I’ve brought my white coat. Mistry, who has volunteered to stand for the home side at late notice, is a little disappointed when he realises I’m not the visiting umpire he’s been waiting on, but just a journalist. “You’re from the Guardian?” Mistry says. “You should just copy and paste the article your paper did when it came here 25 years ago,” he tells me. “Nothing’s bloody changed.”

Back then it was the reports of racism in the stands at Headingley that brought journalists to Bowling Old Lane. This time it was the reports of racism in Yorkshire’s committee and changing rooms. “We’ve been deluged,” says Haqueq Siddique, who does most of the day-to-day running of the club. Most of Siddique’s time is taken up with the same sort of stuff you’d find troubling any number of other clubs, the insurance claim from the neighbours, the broken roller and the missing Swiss rolls. But that’s not why three TV news crews came here last year.

Around 30% of the male recreational cricketers in England have South Asian heritage but only 4% of the male professional cricketers do. It is a nationwide problem, but it has come into focus in Yorkshire after Azeem Rafiq spoke out about the way he was treated by the county team. Asked if the club was institutionally racist during a select committee hearing last November, the club’s former chairman, Roger Hutton, conceded it “falls within that definition”. Hutton was replaced, at the ECB’s behest, by Kamlesh Patel. He’s a Bradford boy, born and raised. He used to play cricket with Mistry in the back streets here when they were children.

Lord Patel’s old friends worry about how much he’s biting off with this job. He has spent the last few months trying to push through the reforms he, and the England and Wales Cricket Board, believe are needed in Yorkshire cricket. It has been a bitter, contested process. The club sacked 16 members of staff, who are now bringing legal action against them. There has been a backlash from some Yorkshire supporters who believe the club, and its staff, has been unfairly treated. This row has spread to the grassroots too. There are moves to have Yorkshire CCC take over the running of all recreational cricket from the county board, and there are more than 600 registered clubs in the county. That’s 20% of the total number in England.

Big as Yorkshire cricket is, it’s also a world where everyone knows everyone, and many have loyalties on both sides of this divide. Yorkshire’s former director of cricket, Martyn Moxon, used to play here at Bowling Old Lane. So did Darren Gough, who took over after Moxon was sacked. The atmosphere around the grounds is a little uneasy. People feel watched over, and are wary of saying the wrong thing and of offending the wrong people. No one is sure whether Patel will succeed, and after all the bad publicity no one trusts the press much. But if you want to understand the fissures in English cricket, Bradford is the place to start. The city supports multiple leagues, dozens of clubs and hundreds of recreational teams.

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Bowling Old Lane play in the Bradford League, which started in 1903. The league was, and still is, predominantly white, and has always had strong ties to Yorkshire CCC. But the city is also home to two separate Quaid e Azam leagues, set up, and run, by the British Asian community. They existed outside Yorkshire’s system until recently. “Cricket in Bradford is a metaphor for the divided city,” wrote Sarfraz Manzoor in 2009, “communities living apart, playing in separate leagues”. And on separate days. The Bradford League on Saturday, the Quaid e Azam on Sunday.

These divides stretch back to the late 1970s. In the photos on Bowling Old Lane’s clubhouse wall, the first Asian faces start appearing around then. In the photos from the mid-90s there are three or four, and in the modern ones, 11 or 12. It’s become what they call an “all-Asian club”. It’s one of a couple in the league. In the last 40 years, Bradford’s British-Pakistani population has grown from 4% of the city’s total to 20% of it. In the ward around Bowling Old Lane, Little Horton, the figure is higher still. In the 2011 census, 48.5% of the residents here had British-Pakistani heritage, and 58% were Muslim.

A lot of the old inner-city clubs that were around during this demographic shift folded: Eccleshill, Laisterdyke, Lidget Green, Idle. They all had one common problem. They weren’t just cricket clubs, but social clubs. Bowling Old Lane was the same. “In the old days this place was booming all weekend,” says the club’s chair, Nazaket Ali. The bar provided the large part of the income, but more than that, the promise of a few pints afterwards was a large part of why people gave up their weekends to play. It was (and still is) a way of breaking down barriers between the teams. Unless you were Muslim, and couldn’t drink.

Nasa Hussain was a teenager when he became one of the first British Asians to play in the Bradford League. These days he is the groundsman at Bradford Park Avenue. “When I was a kid we played Ben Rhydding, out Ilkley way,” he says. “The lads decided to stop at every pub on the way home, so I didn’t get home till midnight. ‘Where have you been?’ my Mum asked me. I couldn’t say: ‘I’ve been to every pub on the road from here to Ilkley, could I?’” Hussain carried on playing anyway. “For me it was about the cricket, I wanted to play whenever and wherever I could.”

White Rose CC players take a drinks break in their Quaid E Azam Premier League fixture match against Darulshafa.
White Rose CC players take a drinks break in their Quaid E Azam Premier League fixture match against Darulshafa. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

So he found ways around it. When Hussain led his team to a trophy the chairman gave him a bottle of champagne. “‘What do I do with that?’ I said. ‘Well, when you win, what do you do? Spray it!’ He obviously had no idea that I couldn’t touch it, and I wasn’t going to tell him.” Hussain ended up passing the bottle on to a teammate. “I look back on it and laugh now because he would never have known.”

It wasn’t just alcohol. It was the teas, too, ham sandwiches, scotch eggs and sausage rolls. “I remember walking into the tea room and thinking: ‘What can I eat?’” Hussain says. He told everyone he was vegetarian. “I’m not,’” he pats his belly, “I eat a lot of meat.”

So there were cultural differences. And yes, sometimes there was racism. “Of course we’ve had stuff said to us,” says Ali. “We’re Asian cricketers, so yeah, of course it has happened, and of course it left a sour taste, but I don’t want to go back into the past. I could say: ‘Oh yeah, it happened to me, I got called this in 1986.’ All that’s done with. We can’t change it.” The problems we’re talking about now may seem smaller than that, sandwiches at tea, pints after play, victory champagne, but they’re bigger, too, because they were the rituals that surrounded the game and if you couldn’t partake in them it was hard to feel part of the community that played it.

A mural in honour local hero Adil Rashid at the Bradford Park Avenue ground.
A mural in honour of local hero Adil Rashid at the Bradford Park Avenue ground. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Bradford League teams ended up with pockets of British-Asian players. “You’d have one or two come through and that was OK,” says Ali, “but it was when they started taking over the whole second team, then the whole first team, that things changed. A link got broken. Asian players couldn’t socialise in the same way, so people didn’t have that time in the bar anymore, the beer, the banter, that wasn’t happening.” So the white players started to move away. As that happened, a lot of those old clubs found they had no one to do all the unpaid work it takes to keep a cricket club going.

“The Asian community would come and play cricket and go home, that’s all they’d do,” says Ali, “they had no experience about governance.” Which smacked of ingratitude to some of the older white members who had run the clubs they were playing for. But then, the British Asian players had never really been brought into the running of things. “Some of those people were in their positions for a long time,” says Ali, “the treasurer, the chair, they’d been there 30 years or more, so there weren’t the opportunities.” Or the invitations.

And then there’s Manningham Mills CC. What happened there was different. And it’s also the story I came to Bradford to learn about. Only no one really wants to talk about it, and most of the emails I send mentioning it go unanswered. Manningham Mills were a founder member of the Bradford League, and had been a champion team. Like Bowling Old Lane they became an all-Asian club, and a good one, too. Manningham Mills was Patel’s first club and years later was where Adil Rashid played his first competitive cricket. They had a financial backer and had received a large development grant from the county board. But in 2013 they folded after they were voted out of the league by their rival clubs at an extraordinary general meeting.

A helmet, belonging to a Darulshafa CC player, bearing the badge of Manningham Mills, which was disbanded in controversial circumstances.
A helmet, belonging to a Darulshafa CC player, bearing the badge of Manningham Mills, which was disbanded in controversial circumstances. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Almost a decade later, this wound still hasn’t healed. The only person I do meet who will go into it asks to be anonymous because he doesn’t want be seen as a troublemaker. And even he stops talking to me when an older player tells him he shouldn’t be opening up about it in public. “Manningham were a great club,” he says, “and we were doing great things. We were in the heart of our community, we were giving new opportunities to a lot of kids who had been into drugs and would have been out on the streets. And we were winning.” Then a row broke out about a £75 fine the club owed the league, which they had refused to pay. There were complaints about litter on the outfield, a broken sightscreen and a “threatening atmosphere”.

Everyone agrees that Manningham had a problem with its governance. But these still seem trivial reasons to kill off a cricket club. This was all happening at the same time as the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham schools, and it raises similar sorts of questions about who gets to run our community institutions. “It felt to me like they kicked us out because we had become a threat to them, because we had started winning things,” the anonymous man continues. “I never understood why the league put it to the other clubs, why they didn’t just give us a year or two, to sort it out and fix the things they were all complaining about. It was the first thing I thought about when Azeem Rafiq spoke out. It feels to me like this all has been building for a long time.” It will be a long time, too, until he, and his friends, trust the men and women who run cricket in Yorkshire again.

People assumed Bowling Old Lane would go the same way. For years, it was run by three white men, Brian Clough, Geoff Hanson and Michael Hope, who everyone knew as the “Three Musketeers”. By the 1990s the club had come adrift from its community, their old pavilion was burned down in an arson attack, and they ended up moving the changing rooms into their now deserted social club. They were smart enough to realise that they needed help, and invited Siddique over from the playing side into the running of things. He and Ali had grown up in the area. Hanson, who still presides over the club as the groundsman, used to shout out at them for climbing over the wall and playing on the outfield.

Bowling Old Lane’s groundsman and club secretary Geoff Hanson (left) inspects his handiwork, with club chairman Nazaket Ali (right) and Jamil Ahmed manning the heavy roller.
Bowling Old Lane’s groundsman and club secretary Geoff Hanson (left) inspects his handiwork, with club chairman Nazaket Ali (right) and Jamil Ahmed manning the heavy roller. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Siddique and Ali are social workers. They understood that the club needed to grow new roots in its new community. Hanson agreed. They started hosting alternative education sessions and running health check programmes for the elderly. They’ve been taking on apprentices and are just about to open a food bank and a community cafe. They’ve launched their first women’s team, “a big thing around here”, and have had a partially-sighted side playing there too. There are a lot of richer clubs around, but not many who are so well run, or have so much goodwill. Ali says they have put in a thousand hours of voluntary service already this season. The league has backed them but they’ve not had a lot of support from anyone else. “The ECB?” Mistry says to me, “they may as well be on Mars.”

They also brought in a local artist to put up a graffiti mural on the side of Hanson’s groundsman’s hut. It shows those Three Musketeers, as well as Siddique and the club’s over-50s team, who, captained by Ali, have won the Yorkshire championship for the last two years. “It’s about respect for the people who were here way before us,” says Ali. “The three guys in that mural have 180 years of voluntary service between them. They left a legacy and we’ve got to follow it.” The day before the start of the season, Ali painted the old wall on the square boundary. It rained that evening, so the whitewash ended up streaking. Hanson said they needed to redo it. That evening Ali invited some volunteers to break their Ramadan fast with him at the club that evening, and then worked through the night until they had put it right.

They still keep beer behind the bar, too, for the opposition, and they encourage their own players to talk to them over an orange juice. “We don’t want to be known as a Muslim club even if we are slowly getting more that way,” Ali says, “Our values are Yorkshire values.”

A scorer marks up the scorecard at Darulshafa CC v White Rose CC.
A scorer marks up the scorecard at Darulshafa CC v White Rose CC. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Ali, Siddique and Hussain were all part of a generation of British Asian Bradfordians who were “bussed out” to white schools in the late 1970s. Looking back on it now, the three of them have different views on what was, and still is, a controversial policy. Ali says it was the best time of his life, while Siddique thinks it set him back years. “You got a bit of preferential and you also got treated a bit like you had horns on your head,” says Hussain. “But it was the making of us, as well, because you learned how to handle yourself among people who are different to you. And we all need to learn a bit of that.”

Not everyone has. Out on the boundary I end up talking to a British Asian university administrator who says he doesn’t want his name published. “There’s no resonance between the communities,” he tells me, “they’re polarised by postcodes. The first time they come together it’s like water and oil. Watch after the game, you’ve got an all-white team and an all-Asian one but when they’ve finished playing they’ll all go their own ways.” He puts some of the blame for this on his own community. “It’s difficult because they want to be integrated, but they want to do it under their own terms and conditions. I hear this language: ‘You don’t allow us to be what you want us to be,’ but the community spends its money internally, the clothes they buy, the food they buy, the shops they go to, – it’s all in the community, there’s no need to go into town, and the town is dying on its feet.”

The next day I go to Bradford Park Avenue. White Rose are playing Darulshafa there, in one of the city’s Quaid e Azam leagues. The original was set up by and for the local Asian players who couldn’t get a game in the Bradford League. It wasn’t just that they felt shut out of it, they were often working on Saturdays, too. This still happens – there’s a local Bangladeshi league that plays on Monday afternoons, because that’s when the players have time off from their restaurant shifts.

Supporters look on as Bowling Old Lane’s second team take on East Bierley.
Supporters look on as Bowling Old Lane’s second team take on East Bierley. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“The original Quaid e Azam was just a group of lads, working long shifts in the textile factories,” says league chairman Basharat Hussain. “They would come together, issue a paper list of fixtures and off they went.”

Basharat Hussain had trials at Manningham himself in the 1980s. “I didn’t get in, and the fact I was born in Pakistan meant there wasn’t a career with Yorkshire even if I wanted it.” At the time you had to be born in Yorkshire to play for them. “So I decided Sunday cricket was where my place is. I only started playing Saturday cricket in my 20s, when standards were dipping. It’s different now. If you go into a Saturday club now you’ll be accepted with open arms.”

These days a lot of Quaid e Azam teams are open to everyone, White Rose have three players with West Indian heritage and, in an inversion of the way the Bradford League used to be, one white spin bowler too. The league has 1,700 registered players and so many umpires and scorers that they’ve started lending them to the Saturday leagues. The live streams of their games draw hundreds of viewers. Basharat Hussain sounds every bit as proud of all this as the men who used to run the Bradford League must once have been when their competition was in its pomp. There is a 12-overs-a-side league going on Wednesdays too, and they held a big hundred-ball tournament to celebrate the platinum jubilee.

What the Quaid e Azam sides don’t have are facilities. Some of the teams have been playing home games in Lancashire because they couldn’t find a pitch anywhere in their own county. Basharat Hussain believes the leagues need to come together to start sharing players and facilities. “That’s what we want to do, we’ve got to stop looking over the fence at each other, because we’re all trying to achieve the same thing.”

They do have Bradford Park Avenue. It was a great ground once and Yorkshire used to play three or four matches here a season. The last was back in 1996. One of the ironies of the Yorkshire scandal is that it was their last chief executive, Mark Arthur, who had the idea of revitalising the place, in the years before he was forced out because of the way he handled the Rafiq case. The money the club invested while Arthur was in charge paid for a new scoreboard and a set of nets, which, thanks to the support of the local businesses, are free to use. “The first day after lockdown was over we had 600 people here using them,” says Nasa Hussain. “I think it must be the only place in the country where you could say that.”

It’s his dream that Yorkshire’s first team will be back here one day soon. They have already been using it for practice matches. There are plans to build a new pavilion, with a nearby Mosque framed in one window and a nearby church in the other. The players talk excitedly about how good it would be to have floodlights here and the big crowds night matches would pull in. There ought to be a first class ground here now, in the middle of one of the most passionate cricket communities in the country, just as there was when this was once a predominantly white neighbourhood. It is the future of English cricket, and it’s overdue.

But the Yorkshire cricket establishment needs to win back the trust of the community first. The Bradford League is changing and, like Bowling Old Lane, they’re finally learning to adapt to the needs of their community. They’ve waived the rule that meant teams needed to buy at least eight teas from the host club, so the Asian clubs don’t end up forking out for meals they can’t eat during Ramadan. League officials recently completed unconscious bias training.

But it’s slow going. And the way Yorkshire handled the Rafiq case has set everything back. Nasa Hussain found someone had put a sign up on his gates at Park Avenue: “Elephant washers only,” a reference to one of the slurs used against Rafiq. It came from people in the British Asian community who were angry with him for working for Yorkshire CCC. He’s used to abuse, he was a taxi driver for 20 years, but that hurt. “I’m a Yorkshireman, I’m a Muslim with Pakistani heritage, and I’m proud of all of it.”

Nasa Hussain, head groundsman at Bradford Park Avenue, was one of the first British Asians to play in the Bradford League.
Nasa Hussain, head groundsman at Bradford Park Avenue, was one of the first British Asians to play in the Bradford League. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

For 20 years, Mo Mistry attended a BAME forum at Yorkshire CCC. They met every three months at Headingley. “We’ve been telling them all this for 20 years. Now the political wind has changed and all the talk is about how they need diversity. Well, we’ve been here 40 years already.”

He is tired of all the schemes and projects and journalists like me writing pieces like this. “Just let us into the bloody system already. You’ve got to understand that the South Asians were the future that got ignored, but that they have still become the backbone of cricket in this part of the country. Cricket is declining, clubs are declining, leagues are declining, volunteers are declining, the land is being sold off, the schools’ cricket around here is all gone. But they’ve got a chance with the South Asians. And yet South Asians still feel excluded, and they still don’t support Yorkshire. And you think: ‘What have you been doing all these years?’”

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