In late September, on one of the last good days of the summer, a 15-year-old girl called Rhia Sedha scored a 50 at Lord’s. Sedha was captaining the Bradford Girls under-15s in the final of a tournament run by the MCC Foundation for state school cricketers. She and her team made 135 from their 20 overs, then bowled out their opposition from the Cotswolds for 24.
In Bradford cricket, they already knew all about Sedha. The Asian Express has been following her for years, from playing in the back garden with her father, Deepak, through school, club and district cricket, the seven for none she took for Shadwell, her hat-trick for Bradford Academy, her debut for Yorkshire, her dream of playing for the England Women’s team.
In 2013, Yorkshire celebrated their 150th anniversary. To mark it, the Guardian published a short editorial that consisted entirely of one long list of great Yorkshire players. They were all men. Martyn Moxon is on the list, so is Michael Vaughan. If the club makes it through another 50 years maybe Sedha will be too. Yorkshire cricket belongs to her, just as much as it does to Vaughan; she has a claim on its future, he has a claim on its past.
The Guardian has reported on several cases of discrimination in cricket in the past few years. The Yorkshire story is depressingly familiar, but the sport it describes still feels utterly unrecognisable.
It is not the game Sedha was playing at Lord’s. It is not the game we saw during the World Cup in 2019, won by an England team led by an Irish-born captain and included first- and second- and third-generation immigrants from Barbados, South Africa, New Zealand and Pakistan, and when almost every other ticket was brought by a member of the south Asian diaspora. It’s not the sport I recognise from all the work I’ve done reporting on English cricket in the past 10 years, at schools in Hartlepool and leisure centres in Wolverhampton, village greens in Suffolk and Hampshire, and city pitches in Burnley and London.
I don’t believe English cricket has “gone backwards”. It’s not what I’ve seen in the work of the MCC Foundation, the Lord’s Taverners, the ACE programme, Chance to Shine or, indeed, the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation, which last week were at the Infinity Centre in Harehills, putting on football and cricket workshops for a group of 140 Afghan refugees who have just arrived in Leeds. The YCF were recently shortlisted for the Yorkshire Post’s excellence in business awards because of their work delivering cricket coaching to underprivileged children across the county.
And it’s not what I’ve heard in off-the-record conversations with staff at Yorkshire and on-the-record conversations with people across the game in the past few days. In Yorkshire, there is genuine fury that the progress made has been so badly undermined by the stubborn refusal of senior management at the club, and at the ECB, to deal with this situation head-on until now. The problem at Yorkshire isn’t just that players discriminated against players from Asian backgrounds, it’s that the management oversaw a culture that allowed that behaviour to pass and made such a mess of their opportunity to address it when it first arose.
There are plenty of people in cricket, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, who share that anger and who are sick of the institutional failures we’ve seen laid bare, again, in the past week, sick of the managerial class who have known about these problems for 25 years and more and are saying the same old things about how something needs to be done. Truth is, English cricket, and Yorkshire cricket, is already full of people who have been getting on and doing it.
Kamlesh Patel mentioned one of them on Monday, in his first press conference as Yorkshire chairman, when he was asked about Azeem Rafiq’s sister, Amna, who works as a community and development manager for the Yorkshire Cricket Board and is on sick leave because of the stress she’s been put under while her brother has been pursuing his case against the club.
Lord Patel already knows her. “She’s dynamic, and from my knowledge, what she did at Leicestershire, going out there, and working with the Asian women, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. Maybe you know her. We ran a short film about her work in 2017.
I’ve met dozens of people like her in just the past year. Ebony Rainford-Brent, who got so fed up at listening to all the talk about the lack of black British players that she decided to set up the ACE programme, is one. Sarah Fane, who spent years building school pitches in Afghanistan and now runs the MCC Foundation, is another. Will Gaffney, who has set up his own charity distributing cricket kit to underprivileged kids, is another. John Claughton, a former headmaster who is now running a programme that opens up private school facilities to local state-run junior schools, is another. There are countless more.
The ECB announced this week that it is launching a call for evidence about experiences of discrimination in the game. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What it needs to be doing is talking to the people – and there are plenty of them working in their own headquarters – who love the sport, who believe in its ability to bring communities together and who are out there, every day, working to make it better.
Find them, listen to them, give them more attention, more resources and more responsibility. Because the game they play moved on from all this a long time ago.