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Yorkshire 2.0: how Colin Graves plans to rebuild county’s reputation
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Yorkshire 2.0: how Colin Graves plans to rebuild county’s reputation

Colin Graves sits in the office of Yorkshire’s chief executive, Stephen Vaughan, looking out over the playing field at Headingley on a wet March afternoon, a week before the start of a new County Championship season. Nearly two months have passed since he returned to the club as chairman after a nine-year absence, a comeback that until relatively recently would have been completely unexpected and to some – if not to a membership that voted overwhelmingly to embrace it – unwelcome.

“Leaving here in 2015 I had no intention of coming back here one iota, in any shape or form whatsoever. I’d done my bit,” he says. “I got it on an even keel, left it in the hands of good people. It’s disappointing to see it has gone backwards, because if you look back to 2021 it was at the top of its game in every way. It was making profit, it was paying the debt down, producing players, we were doing well on the field. Everything was hunky-dory.”

And then it wasn’t. That was the year Azeem Rafiq’s allegations of racism at the club, and issues with Yorkshire’s handling of them, blew up. Rafiq had spoken in public of his experiences for the first time in 2020, and an independent review commissioned by the club submitted a report the following summer that minimised abuse as “banter” and said “it was not reasonable for Azeem to be offended”. Yorkshire admitted Rafiq had been “a victim of racial harassment” but attempted to keep the report private and said no staff would face disciplinary action.

The England and Wales Cricket Board described Rafiq’s experiences as “abhorrent” and Yorkshire’s handling of them “wholly unacceptable”, temporarily banning them from hosting international matches, and a succession of major sponsors walked away. By the end of the year their chairman had resigned and their entire coaching staff had been sacked. With focus consumed by repairing damage first to the club’s reputation and then to its finances things fell apart, on and off the field.

Yorkshire were relegated to Division Two of the County Championship in 2022 and last year, amid fears of impending administration and after being deducted 48 points by the ECB because of their poor handling of the Rafiq affair, finished seventh out of its eight teams (without the deduction they would have come third). Sixteen employees were sacked in December 2021 as part of the response to Rafiq’s experiences, decisions which have led to millions of pounds in compensation payouts. Graves dismisses reports that any of them are about to return but says they would be welcome to apply for positions at the club and, asked if he was surprised by the way it was run in his absence, says the “most disappointing thing” was “some decisions that weren’t good for the club, weren’t good for individuals and they suffered by it”.

But now, the club hope, the instability is at an end. With Harry Brook and Joe Root bolstering the team in the opening weeks of the season they are aiming for promotion. When asked what the aim is for this campaign Graves holds up an index finger: first place. “What I’ve said to the players and the coaches and everybody else is: ‘Yorkshire should not be in the Second Division’, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “Forget all the excuses, get out there, enjoy your cricket, and get us back in the First Division.”

In many ways this will be a transitional year. They are recruiting to their executive and looking to replace the recently departed Darren Gough, who was the most highly paid director of cricket in the country – “I was very surprised,” Graves says of his contract. “Certainly it was not within the realms of what a county cricket club could afford.” An appointment is unlikely before September. “As soon as a high‑profile role became available at the club, my phone hasn’t stopped, my emails haven’t stopped, the same with Colin,” Vaughan says, as Graves’s phone buzzes with theatrical timing.

Yorkshire have bid to host one of eight professional women’s teams that will play in a new competition to be launched next season, and expect to hear a result in the next few weeks. They backed their proposal with analysis of the game’s booming popularity in the county – the number of girl’s and women’s cricket teams in Yorkshire has trebled since 2020 to 302. The club’s focus on improving diversity and outreach since the nadir of 2021 has led to them being, in Vaughan’s words, “at a very, very high level of compliance, overachieving almost”.

Membership is reported to be at a five-year high. In a search for additional revenue streams talks are taking place with “two or three concert promoters” about hosting events at the ground next summer, which would be their first since Madness played in 2015. “I think it’s exciting times to be honest,” says Graves. “And that’s not just because I’m sat here, it’s because I think we’ve got over that hump. We’re now going down that hill at the other side.”

I ask if Graves, at the age of 76, has been energised by his return to Yorkshire, and the challenge of resuscitating a club he had saved once before, as part of the so-called “gang of four” in 2002. He literally recoils in horror: “No, for Christ’s sake. You must be joking.”

He points beyond the window. “In 2002 virtually none of this was done. We didn’t own a blade of grass out there. We didn’t own anything. We had a lease from the rugby and we owed £5m to the bank. I built a successful business [the supermarket chain Costcutter] from a blank piece of paper, from nothing. I went [in 2015] to the ECB – that was in bloody turmoil when I went there. I turned it around in six years, we got the biggest broadcasting deal, we launched the Hundred, we won a women’s World Cup, we won a men’s World Cup. I’ve got my own family business which I run. I’m chairman of a subsidiary for the Co-Op, so I’m doing that, and I live on a farm with 135 acres. I think I’ve had one or two challenges in my life. I certainly wasn’t sat at home doing zilch.”

Colin Graves at the final presentation following day four of the fifth Ashes Test in 2019View image in fullscreen

But though it was presented as the only way of rescuing the club from impending financial catastrophe, Graves’s return has been controversial. It required a vote by members at an EGM to confirm the board’s ratification of the deal and while the motion was passed with 88% in favour; only a quarter of the 3,500 members cast a vote. Supporters past and present on the ground seemed divided. Rafiq despaired and described it as a “failure of leadership … and governance”.

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Graves was at Yorkshire, mostly as chairman, for much of the time that Rafiq was there, but has denied any knowledge of racism being an issue. “If I’d have seen something or heard something, something would have been done about it, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “It would have been actioned that day, that minute, because that’s the way I work.”

Last year Graves suggested much of what Rafiq experienced could be classed as “banter” (seven months later, and just before the membership voted on his return, he apologised for those comments). Rafiq has criticised him for showing “no contrition to this day” and even now he says he would do nothing differently, and that he was right to stay silent as the scandal consumed the club. “I was out of cricket,” he says. “Nobody pointed a finger at me and said: ‘Colin Graves knew this’, or: ‘Colin Graves knew that’. So why should I put my head above the parapet?”

Graves obviously feels that, despite everything, his return should have inspired hosannas rather than hostility, and is bemused by the damage the Rafiq affair has had on his own reputation. “It was hurtful, to be honest,” he says.

“I’ve never been named in any investigation, my name’s never been mentioned at all. So to have things said about me by people who didn’t know me, I think was very harsh. And to start saying I shouldn’t come back to Headingley for reasons that are still unknown, I still can’t get my head around that. Because the only reason I did it was to save Yorkshire cricket club. It certainly wasn’t for my own benefit. And when I’ve got this place back on its feet, I’m moving on – I’ve done it successfully before, and I’ll do it successfully again. It hurt a hell of a lot, to be honest.”

Graves has bought himself a chance to improve his own reputation and that of his club, to secure their long-term future, to continue the outreach and diversity work started under his predecessors Kamlesh Patel and Harry Chathli, to oversee an improvement on the pitch, and to decisively shift what has in recent times been a depressing conversation.

Vaughan says: “It would be nice in a year’s time, if you took a straw poll in the middle of Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, and you talked about Yorkshire cricket, they maybe mentioned a player, or talked about Headingley or, you know, wonderful Tests, whatever.

“Yeah, we’ve been in the news for the wrong reasons, but we want to put smiles back on people’s faces. I think we’re at the start of that journey now. This time last year we were having a dozen conversations a day with different financing companies, we were getting ready for legal conversations with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Cricket Discipline Commission. We feel a million miles away from that now. Fingers crossed we get some clement weather and we can start concentrating on what we’re all here for.”

Source: theguardian.com