Colin Graves is set to make a controversial comeback as the chairman of Yorkshire after a tumultuous nine years. However, in many ways, he never truly left. Despite stepping down in March 2015 and claiming that his financial support for the club was over, Graves continued to provide financial assistance.
As a teenager, Graves began working at Spar before becoming a millionaire from his founding of Costcutter in 1986. In 2002, he joined Yorkshire, along with Robin Smith, Geoff Cope, and Brian Boutell, who were known as the “Gang of Four” and saved the club from financial ruin.
In 2014, he stated that he couldn’t bear to see Yorkshire County Cricket Club go bankrupt, which motivated him to take action. This occurred after the club achieved their first County Championship victory in 13 years, followed by a consecutive win.
He had a successful run for some time, gaining prominence as a board member of the ECB in 2010, advancing to deputy chairman in 2013, and subsequently being elected uncontested as chairman for a five-year term two years later, leading to his departure from Yorkshire. During his time at the ECB, England triumphed in both the men’s and women’s 50-over World Cups, with thrilling victories at Lord’s. However, he also became a polarizing figure, advocating for the implementation of the Hundred and suggesting that it would be beneficial for the sport if some counties focused on white-ball formats instead of first-class cricket. In 2018, Andy Nash, a former chairman of Somerset and an ECB board member for 14 years, resigned citing concerns about the “poor standards of corporate governance.”
However, it was not until Azeem Rafiq bravely shared his experiences of racism at Yorkshire that the reputation of Graves became tarnished. Following Rafiq’s public statement in 2020, the club acknowledged that he had been subjected to racial harassment and bullying during his time at Headingley. In February of last year, they also admitted responsibility for four charges brought by the ECB, which included a failure to address the ongoing use of racist and discriminatory language, spanning the majority of Graves’ involvement with the club, including his tenure as chair.
Graves has consistently denied the existence of racism at Yorkshire. In response to a question posed in June about whether he had personally seen any instances of racism, he stated that he had not witnessed any, regardless of the level or individual involved. He did acknowledge that there may have been instances of offensive language used in the dressing room, but maintained that it was not motivated by racism or a desire to harm. He suggested that the use of “banter” may have played a role in these situations.
Over time, two different approaches were developed for addressing allegations of racism within the club. One, led by former chairman Lord Kamlesh Patel, proposed admitting guilt and taking necessary steps to restore the club’s reputation. The other, led by Graves and Smith, argued that the club had nothing to admit and that focus should be shifted to questioning the processes used against them or Rafiq’s own character. For instance, Smith described a DCMS hearing where Rafiq spoke as “disgraceful, a sham, and a biased trial,” and criticized the ECB for neglecting their responsibilities in handling charges brought to their Cricket Discipline Commission.
Due to the pandemic and the loss of sponsors after Rafiq’s initial testimony to the DCMS, Yorkshire faced financial difficulties similar to those that Graves had saved them from twenty years ago. Although Graves had been lending money to the club during his tenure as chairman, the need to raise £500,000 annually to repay the debt (which currently stands at £14.9m according to their latest accounts) put the club in a precarious financial situation. If the club were to go into administration, the Graves Family Trust would likely gain control of their main assets, including their home stadium at Headingley.
There is ongoing discussion about the extent to which Graves used his financial stake to maintain control over the club’s daily operations. Upon joining the ECB, his loans were combined into a family trust to prevent any conflicts of interest. Smith, who served as chairman for two years starting in 2018, stated that the trust never meddled and that Graves was not involved. However, Roger Hutton, chairman from April 2020 to November 2021, claimed that Graves maintained significant influence over the club during his entire term. Graves countered by saying that he only provided advice and assistance.
Julian Knight, Member of Parliament and head of the DCMS committee, stated that there is evidence indicating that Graves has significantly and continuously interfered, but he has consistently declined their requests to provide testimony due to his age of 75.
There has been speculation about potential investments from Saudi Arabian or Indian groups, or a potential sale to previous Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, over the last 18 months. However, these talks have not resulted in any action. Now, it appears that Graves’s return and approval at a members’ meeting is imminent, possibly happening within the next few days. Reports suggest that he is prepared to lend the club an additional £4 million. Despite nearly a decade passing since his departure, the connection between Yorkshire and Graves remains strong.