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

<span>Headingley will host County Championship Division Two fixtures again this season following Yorkshire’s relegation in 2022.</span><span>Photo: John Mallett/ProSports/Shutterstock</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Fdf5qRGFliUi_QfNb4xNHw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/746a5b19220145621a 41d8aafe2589d9″ data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/Fdf5qRGFliUi_QfNb4xNHw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/746a5b19220145621a41d8 aafe2589d9″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Headingley will once again host County Championship Division Two fixtures this season following Yorkshire’s relegation in 2022.Photo: John Mallett/ProSports/Shutterstock

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

“When I left here in 2015, I had no intention of coming back here even one iota, in any form. I have done my part,” he says. “I balanced it out and left it in the hands of good people. It’s disappointing to see that it has declined because if you look back at 2021 it was at the top in every respect. It made a profit, it paid off the debts, it produced players, we did well on the pitch. Everything was hunky dory.”

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

The England and Wales Cricket Board described Rafiq’s experiences as “horrendous” and Yorkshire’s handling of it “completely unacceptable”, temporarily banning them from hosting international matches and seeing a succession of major sponsors walk away. By the end of the year, their chairman had resigned and their entire coaching staff had been fired. With the focus consumed by repairing the damage to the club’s reputation and subsequently to its finances, things fell apart both on and off the pitch.

Yorkshire were relegated to the Second Division of the County Championship in 2022 and last year, amid fears of impending rule and after being deducted 48 points by the ECB for their poor handling of the Rafiq affair, finished in seventh place the eight teams (without the deduction they would have come in third place). In December 2021, sixteen employees were made redundant as part of the response to Rafiq’s experiences, decisions that have led to millions of pounds in compensation payments. Graves dismisses reports that any of them are on the verge of returning, but says they would be welcome to apply for positions at the club. Asked if he was surprised by the way it was run in his absence, he said the “most disappointing thing” was “Some of the decisions that were not good for the club were not good for individuals and they suffered.”

But now, the club hopes, the instability has come to an end. With Harry Brook and Joe Root strengthening the team in the first weeks of the season, they are aiming for promotion. When asked what the goal of this campaign is, Graves raises an index finger: first place. “What I said to the players, the coaches and everyone else is: ‘Yorkshire shouldn’t be playing in the Second Division’, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “Forget all the excuses, go out, enjoy your cricket and get us back to the First Division.”

In many ways this will be a transition year. They are in the process of recruiting their executive and want to replace the recently departed Darren Gough, who was the highest paid cricket director in the country. “I was very surprised,” Graves says about his contract. “It was certainly not within the limits of what a county cricket club could afford.” An appointment before September is unlikely. “As soon as a high-profile position became available at the club, my phone wouldn’t stop, my emails wouldn’t stop, the same goes for Colin,” says Vaughan, as Graves’ phone buzzes with theatrical timing.

Yorkshire have applied to host one of eight professional women’s teams that will play in a new competition starting next season, and expect to hear a result in the coming weeks. They backed their proposal with analysis of the game’s growing popularity in the county – the number of girls’ and women’s cricket teams in Yorkshire has tripled to 302 since 2020. The club’s focus on improving diversity and reach since the low point of 2021 has led to them being, in Vaughan’s words, “at a very, very high level of compliance, almost above average”.

Membership numbers are reportedly at their highest level in five years. In a search for additional revenue streams, discussions are taking place with “two or three concert promoters” about hosting events at the site next summer, which would be their first since Madness played in 2015. “I think these are exciting times to be honest,” Graven says. ‘And that’s not just because I’m sitting here, but because I think we’ve surpassed that threshold. We’re going down that hill on the other side now.”

I ask whether Graves, at the age of 76, has been energized by his return to Yorkshire and the challenge of reviving a club he had saved once before as part of the so-called ‘gang of four’ in 2002. He literally recoiled in horror: ‘No, for God’s sake. You are joking.”

He points behind the window. “In 2002 this hardly happened. We didn’t have a blade of grass there. We owned nothing. We had a lease from the rugby club and owed £5 million to the bank. I have built a successful business [the supermarket chain Costcutter] from a blank sheet of paper, from nothing. I went [in 2015] to the ECB – which 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 have my own family business that I run. I’m chairman of a subsidiary of the Co-Op, so I do that, and I live on a 300-acre farm. I think I’ve had one or two challenges in my life. I certainly didn’t sit at home and do nothing.”

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

Graves was in Yorkshire for much of Rafiq’s time there, mainly as chairman, but denied any knowledge that racism would be a problem. “If I had seen or heard something, something would have been done about it, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “It would have been in action that day and at that moment because that’s the way I work.”

Last year, Graves suggested that much of what Rafiq experienced could be classified as “banter” (seven months later, and just before the membership voted on his return, he apologized for those comments). Rafiq has criticized him for “showing no remorse to this day” and even now he says he would do nothing differently, and that he was right to remain silent while 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 stick my head above the ground?”

Graves clearly believes that his return, despite everything, should have led to hosannas rather than hostility, and he is dismayed at the damage the Rafiq affair has done to his own reputation. “It was painful, to be honest,” he says.

‘I have not been mentioned in any investigation, my name has never been mentioned at all. So I found it very harsh that things were said about me by people who didn’t know me. And to start by saying that I shouldn’t come back to Headingley for reasons that are still unknown, I still can’t get 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 get this place back on its feet, I’ll continue – I’ve done it successfully before, and I’ll do it again successfully. To be honest, it hurt a lot.”

Graves has bought himself an opportunity to improve his own reputation and that of his club, to secure their long-term future, to continue the outreach and diversity work begun under his predecessors Kamlesh Patel and Harry Chathli to monitor improvement on the field. and to bring about decisive change in what has been a depressing conversation of late.

Vaughan says: “It would be nice if in a year’s time you did a survey in the middle of Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, and you talked about cricket in Yorkshire, they might mention a player, or talk about Headingley, or, you know you, , wonderful tests, whatever.

“Yes, we have been in the news for the wrong reasons, but we want to put a smile on people’s faces again. I think we are now at the beginning of that journey. This time last year we had 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. Let’s just hope that the weather will be nice and we can concentrate on what we are all here for.”

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