English cricket hit by fresh racism furore after Middlesex chairman forced to make grovelling apology

·10-min read
Middlesex chairman Mike O'Farrell
Middlesex chairman Mike O'Farrell

English cricket has been plunged into fresh racism turmoil after a top county chairman used “outdated” stereotypes about black and Asian players.

Middlesex chief Mike O’Farrell was forced to issue a grovelling apology while former internationals and anti-discrimination campaigners rounded on his “mystifying” remarks to MPs.

O’Farrell has told parliament the sport’s lack of diversity was down to black players preferring football and rugby and the Asian community prioritising education.

The outburst was immediately likened with the career-ending words of former FA chairman Greg Clarke, who told the same committee in 2020 that south Asian people choose careers in IT.

The first-class county game - still reeling from the Azeem Rafiq furore - has been left scrambling to limit the damage again as:

  • Roland Butcher, the first black man to play for England, joined three former Middlesex players in piling the pressure on O’Farrell. “It is really unfortunate a club with such a history of diversity should have these ridiculous outdated announcements,” he told The Telegraph.

  • Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove denied allegations that he had played down racism in the sport after MPs claimed to have heard evidence that he said: “The trouble is that they’ve forgotten the value of white men.”

  • Mehmooda Duke, one of only two non-white chairs, is understood to have told MPs in a letter she had felt “intimidated”, “coerced” and “manoeuvred” by the ECB before she quit from her post at Leicestershire in November.

  • Kick It Out hit out at “lazy, unhelpful, and misguided” comments by O’Farrell just an hour after the England and Wales Cricket Board had announced a new partnership with the charity Rafiq, whose allegations about Yorkshire sparked national outrage, and Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to play for England, were first to condemn O’Farrell’s sweeping generalisations about black and south Asian athletes in the sport.

O’Farrell, who has been chairman of Middlesex since 2017, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee that football and rugby were “much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community”.

“And in terms of the South Asian community, there is a moment where we’re finding that they do not want necessarily to commit the same time that is necessary to go to the next step because they sometimes prefer to go into other educational fields, and then cricket becomes secondary,” he then added. “And part of that is because it’s a rather more time-consuming sport than some others. So we’re finding that’s difficult.”

Rafiq, who had been giving his bombshell evidence in the same room two months earlier, had already taken exception to Bransgrove, the Hampshire chief, suggesting to tell the committee that clubs were “overachieving” on tackling discrimination. “Overachieving? Am I hearing this,” Rafiq wrote on Twitter as he listened to the hearing.

Bransgrove was then forced to deny claims from Kevin Brennan, a member of the committee, that he had compared the plight of victims of racism with his own, as “a white man over 60”. The Hampshire chair told the committee that it was “absolute nonsense” that he had told a Novemver 19 chairs meeting at The Oval: “The trouble is that they’ve forgotten the value of white men.”

However, O’Farrell’s comments about black and south Asian players then sparked uproar across the sport. “This has just confirmed what an endemic problem the game has,” Rafiq said. He later described O’Farrell’s remarks as “incredibly disrespectful”.

O’Farrell later issued his “wholehearted apologies for the misunderstanding” over the comments to MPs. “I wholly accept that this misunderstanding is entirely down to my own lack of clarity and context in the answers I provided, and I am devastated that my comments have led to the conclusions some have made,” he added in a statement issued by the club.

But Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to play for England and now a commentator and director of women’s cricket at Surrey, added that the “outdated views in the game are exactly why we are in this position”.

Middlesex has an academy with in excess of 60 per cent British-born Asian and black young cricketers, and a host of former players subsequently told The Telegraph that O’Farrell’s position may be in question.

“Middlesex really set the trend for diversity for other counties,” Butcher, the Barbadian former Middlesex player who made history by playing for England in 1981. “I find it a little mystifying that Mike O’Farrell would not be aware, or did not demonstrate he is aware, of that. I think we need more explanation.”

Hackney-born Paul Weekes, who played for Middlesex for 16 years, also told The Telegraph: “He must have got hit by a bouncer for him to say that what he said. I did catch up with his apology but you can see why people keep saying institutional racism. If people are speaking like that in a public place, how are they speaking with your buddies in the pub?”

Scott Newman, a batsman for Middlesex between 2009 and 2012, added that O’Farrell’s apology was “too late”.

In a later interview, O’Farrell said he was “not at this particular stage” of considering resigning. “If the board decide that they think I should step down, I will do that,” he told Sky Sports News. “I have one more year to go. If the members feel strongly enough, I am sure they will tell me.”

O’Farrell’s kamikaze evidence had come immediately before ECB chief executive Tom Harrison announced a new partnership with anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out. The £200,000 partnership, partly paid for by Sky television, is the first time the charity has ventured into other sports.

Within an hour of the announcement, Tony Burnett, the charity’s chief executive, was called into action to condemn O’Farrell’s comments.

“We have seen this kind of sentiment before,” he said. “It is lazy, unhelpful, and misguided to suggest that Black and Asian communities are not as interested in cricket as their white counterparts.”

Tuesday's hearing before MPs did suggest Yorkshire may be edging closer to getting permission to welcome England back, however. Executives at Headingley are ready to hand over evidence of efforts to clean up the club, with chairman Lord Patel admitting “it’s crucially important” as they are “financial not viable” without internationals.

Bumbling executives prove that counties are a roadblock to progress

By Scyld Berry

Never the twain shall meet. This has to be the Kiplingesque conclusion after the second Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport hearing into cricket.

On the one hand sits cricket officialdom in England and Wales. Most are no doubt well-intentioned and believe in the data they are spouting, like a 70 per cent or 700 per cent increase in the number of girls playing under-11 cricket in their county. The trouble is these figures are designed so that chairmen can go to their board meetings and say: look, this data must be true, so we are diversifying.

One cricket charity dispatched an employee to a city to run a class: even though nobody turned up, he ticked every box.
On the other hand is the world of club cricket, struggling to survive amid ever more challenges and increasing costs. Reality in a word. Unfortunately, the evidence on this side contradicts the assertions of the other, because the number of ethnically-diverse county cricketers is four per cent.

And never the twain shall meet. Cricket officialdom, as it now exists, will make sure of that – or it will politely listen, then ignore the grass roots.

There is also the gap between the England and Wales Cricket Board and the counties: the ECB may say the right things but can only cajole the counties to enact them. Mike O’Farrell, the Middlesex chair, was one of three first-class county administrators who testified to the DCMS that everything in their garden was lovely – given that Afro-Caribbeans had to be blamed for being more interested in football and South Asians in education.

Here is the reaction of a member of one of the 130 cricket clubs in Middlesex: “We Indians in this area are so anti-Middlesex we have given up. If we suggest something they say that’s a good idea, then nothing happens. Until everything changes, nothing will change.”

County cricket has long hidden behind this convenient excuse: that Asian kids prefer to become doctors and engineers, with O’Farrell again blaming education for distracting young Asians from cricket. Yet if there is a will – a very big if – there is a way. Middlesex, with all their London-based sponsors, are allowed to award scholarships to kids to enable them to go to universities which specialise in cricket, notably Cardiff and Loughborough, who are turning out some top county players.

Glamorgan chair Gareth Williams proudly pointed to 10 per cent of their playing staff being ethnically diverse. Yes, but Kiran Carlson, a very talented stroke player, has just graduated from Cardiff University while Prem Sisodiya went to that hotbed of economic deprivation, Clifton College, before attending Cardiff Met University.

The crux of the problem has been, and still is, that first-class counties expect people to come to them and subscribe to their values.

Glamorgan’s pavilion at Sophia Gardens symbolically turns its back on the park area behind it where dozens of Asians play every weekend on artificial pitches.

A general view of the game being played infront of an empty stadium during the T20 Vitality Blast game between Glamorgan and Gloucestershire at Sophia Gardens on September 18, 2020 in Cardiff, Wales - Getty Images
A general view of the game being played infront of an empty stadium during the T20 Vitality Blast game between Glamorgan and Gloucestershire at Sophia Gardens on September 18, 2020 in Cardiff, Wales - Getty Images

Middlesex have always been spoilt for choice. Australians with a British passport turn up in London, keen to play at Lord’s, and after a few club games Middlesex sign them on. Why increase the focus on nurturing a South Asian kid from the county Under-11s?

Gloucestershire and Warwickshire have joined the ACE project started at Surrey by Ebony Rainford-Brent to attract black British players back into cricket. One step forward. Then Surrey’s head coach Vikram Solanki departed this week to a new IPL franchise. One step back, or even two. The number of head coaches in county cricket from an ethnically diverse background? None, until Ottis Gibson takes up his post at Yorkshire.

Rod Bransgrove, the Hampshire chair, gave an example of how his county are sending players to coach in a deprived area of Southampton. The next stage is for counties, and clubs, to realise that they have to go into those deprived areas, engage with those who are interested, then transport them to the county or club grounds to be coached and play, then transport them home again if needs be.

Leicestershire did not select an Asian player from the city of Leicester until 2006, Jigar Naik. So much easier to sign players from other counties and the southern hemisphere. The seed of change has been sown: two Community Talent Champions have been employed to facilitate the pathway of young Asians into their professional set-up, but it will take time, not least because they are employed for one day a week. Only if there is money, as well as a genuine will, is there a way.