Moeen Ali mingles with fans after the Test win

Moeen Ali has been a key point of focus in England's troubled summer

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Not so grim up north

When traditional English cricket clubs need first-generation immigrants to survive, you can expect challenges

David Hopps

It was when we refused to take the field in protest at racial abuse that we knew we finally had a multiracial cricket club we could take pride in. For all of us, it did not feel like just another trivial Saturday-afternoon club-cricket argument, to be forgotten almost as soon as it had begun; it was a deeper statement, not only about how we wanted to play but how we preferred to live our lives.

I have clung to that memory of proper, decent, fulfilling multiracial cricket, of players naturally saying "enough" after the fast bowler blurted that Masood was a "slogging Paki c***". I have clung to it recently as English cricket has made its way half-blind, bewildered, through a mire of racial prejudice.

Jimmy Anderson's altercation with Ravindra Jadeja, and the conclusion that England's attempts to play aggressively had a disturbing darker side; the abuse hurled at Moeen Ali by British Indians during England's T20 against India at Edgbaston; the strange case of Andrew Gale, a Yorkshire captain on his way to winning the Championship one minute, the first English county professional to be charged with racist abuse the next. It was not the incidents alone but the comments they generated from fans that were demoralising - some of them intelligent and agonising, others prejudiced, petty and sometimes downright racist.

So I have clung to the good memories. There we were on a warm day in West Yorkshire, making our own statement: This Is Unacceptable. We were chasing promotion. A team ethic is always stronger when you are winning, the smiles broader and friendships deeper, and we had lots of good times to cherish. The emergence of a multiracial team had often been a challenge, a combustible package of cultural failures and misunderstandings, but it had also become a joy, a delight in the richness of our differences as well as our similarities. Cricket had rarely been more fun than in that season - seven, eight years ago maybe?

On the evidence of England's grim summer - because it has been a grim summer and the ECB's inability to respond coherently has been deeply disturbing - it is possible to presume this cannot have happened. Throughout much of my lifetime, we have been repeatedly presented as the two tribes from hell: white club cricketers descended from generations of unreconstructed, opinionated Yorkshiremen and first-generation Pakistani immigrants. Café Latte liberals (and I suppose I could easily be depicted as one if I lived in London) have long presented Yorkshire cricket as a bastion of prejudice, once with good reason, but now as a convenient exemplar, an imaginary foe upon which they could pour their anger and guilt. And as for the county's Pakistanis, the New York Times, in an examination of child abuse in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham, reflected this September upon "a community frozen in time" - held back by poverty and prejudice, and also suffering from its own inability to integrate into the mainstream.

Fat chance we had of unity, according to that analysis. And on that warm afternoon, we were on the frontline. "Come on then, David, let's get on with the game," said one of the umpires, decades of service to the amateur game behind him, draining his mug of tea. "Let's stop the nonsense. There'll be no more trouble."

One of our Pakistani quartet asked the imam for permission to attend the prize-giving. The message came back that the pub car park was acceptable. Inside the pub was not

What followed was a mishmash, the saucepan lid clattering because of the volatility underneath. Something like this: "Sorry, we're not going out there until we get an apology. When we get an apology, we will play, and we will play properly. You won't get any trouble. But if we don't get an apology, we'll report him and we will concede the game. But we are drawing a line."

"The League won't like it."

"Then I'll appeal to the Yorkshire Cricket Board. If they don't like it I'll appeal to the ECB. We'll take a minibus down to Lord's."

"If I get him to come in and apologise, what will your lads do?"

"We'll sit quietly. Nobody will say a word and we'll get on with the game."

The young fast bowler came in, no more than 20, bravado long since gone. He shook slightly as he apologised, head down, no eye contact, but in a strange way we all admired his bravery. We sat and listened, we nodded our acceptance and the game continued. There were no thoughts of recriminations. I think we won. We drank in their bar afterwards, although not for long. Even some of the Pakistani boys had a quick orange juice. By Monday, we had posted an anti-racism code in the away dressing room. We have never needed to refer to it.

Nothing is for long in club cricket. Many clubs lose personnel at an alarming rate. The old-style sense of community that is essential for clubs is collapsing. Work demands are greater. Husbands are more committed to parenting. Teenagers have other ways to spend Saturday afternoons. School cricket outside the private sector is virtually non-existent, and the efforts of charities like Chance to Shine can only do so much. Amateur cricket clubs are going under at a disturbing rate, even in Yorkshire, which accounts for about 15% of clubs in England but where it can no longer be guaranteed that every village of any worth will have one.

Don't believe the participation figures. I know a club in Essex that was told to count every kid who turned up to an open day as a junior player. Is there a sport that tells the truth about participation? Apparently it is claimed that there are so many casual basketball players in London that you are fortunate stray basketballs are not lying ten feet deep on the South Circular.

At the end of that season of our one-hour strike, we won promotion, and we were fulfilled. The promotion party was to be held in one of the village pubs: a well-to-do village to the north of Leeds that these days seems to have far less enthusiasm for cricket than that found among the Pakistani communities in the poorer areas of Harehills (which we habitually raided).

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The pub was the club sponsor, although most seasons they forgot to send us the cheque and the sponsorship amounted to little more than a few post-match sandwiches. The pub was also the centre of the club's social life. It was the place to celebrate, plan, explain, argue, and occasionally, fall out. When we did, the landlady took no prisoners. I was on a final warning more than once for flashes of temper. "What's the name again of the angry one?" the wife of our 1st XI wicketkeeper once asked.

But the pub is no place for many Muslims. Although we understood religious reasons must hold sway, for the well-being of a small Yorkshire club built on traditional lines this posed problems. It was a rare cricketer of Pakistani origin who could respond to defeat or victory with equanimity. Most were even more volatile than me, and without the chance to wind down post-match, they could easily harbour and magnify resentments. We were used to addressing tensions in the pub - not always successfully. More than once I stormed out, but at least I knew where we stood. For Masood - and not only Masood - the emotional currents were deeper, only discovered when it was too late. He left, as I knew one day he would, in a confused tirade of love and resentment towards the club that had become his own. In principle, we tried to solve this by sitting down in a circle for ten minutes after a match to talk things through. That was only in principle. Normally, people just rushed to go their separate ways.

So one from our Pakistani quartet went to the local mosque and asked the imam for permission to attend the prize-giving. After all, not for the first time, they had won most of the awards. The message was that the pub car park, for the purposes of the prize-giving only, was acceptable. Inside the pub was not. There was a stage in the car park left over from a live band the week before so we made full use of it with an award ceremony in the style of an Am Dram pantomime. I still have the jester's hat. Nobody witnessing that night could have regarded us as two lost tribes.

 It would be refreshing to relate that our bond with the Pakistani community was forged through the 1990s either through an enlightened wish to spread the game into all communities, or by daily social links that developed organically into sharing a cricket field. It would be refreshing, but it was not really the case because even though we were only around six miles apart, we were separate communities. It was largely born of desperation. There were no longer 22 names on the team sheet come Saturday morning. We needed reinforcements. We changed because social forces forced us to change.

An opposing player looked askance at our two circles of players at the tea interval, unthinkingly divided among racial lines, and remarked: "They don't mix, then"

There are regular flights to Islamabad from Leeds Bradford Airport and about 3% of Leeds' population is of Pakistani origin - it is 20% in Bradford, Leeds' neighbouring city. There was a yearning there to play cricket that could not be satisfied by inadequate council pitches or random knockabouts in Roundhay Park. The multiracial breakthroughs that occurred in the West Yorkshire conurbations in the 1980s were now spreading to the satellite villages. Assimilation could not happen fast enough.

Nothing came easily. Developing a resilient team spirit on the field was one challenge, but even then people tended to retreat to their comfort groups - cliques, some would call them - during breaks in play. I didn't get proactive until an opposing player looked askance at our two circles of players at the tea interval, unthinkingly divided among racial lines, and remarked: "They don't mix, then."

"Which they?" I asked.

From that point, to the countless tasks undertaken by a club cricket captain was added the one that said: "Under no circumstances must the opposition see you lot sitting apart." As the years passed, it gradually happened naturally, but not without a great deal of positive reinforcement.

In the early years, our provider of players was the Doc. The Doc delivered. Selection worked on a curious two-tier system that sounds unjustifiable but was part of the transition. On the good weeks, we chose specific players and they turned up. On the bad ones - and there were many - the 2nd XI captain would just shout down the phone on a Friday evening: "Doc, we've got nine, bring us two more." And so he would, often at the last minute, sometimes without kit, rarely with any money to pay subs.

As captain, commitment to a multiracial team began to hit my pocket. We had a reasonably enlightened policy, with half-priced subs for those who had genuine difficulties, but it was not long before the committee observed the club's financial position was deteriorating. To keep the peace, I would mark people down as paid and endure the cost.

"In Pakistan, the Big Man always pays," somebody once told me.

"I suppose I should be grateful you think I'm the Big Man," I said, prompting much laughter about the Big Man with small pockets.

The supposed opening batsmen turned out to be bowlers. The fast bowlers turned out to be lower-order sloggers. Everybody wanted to be a star. At that stage, many were of limited quality, but they retained a desire to play cricket that seemed to be fading in our village.

The Doc was an allrounder, which in his case just meant that his batting and bowling were of equal standard: distinctly ordinary but entertainingly idiosyncratic. Next man in, he would march around the boundary line in his pads, shouting orders into a mobile phone.

The greening of Edgbaston: the Tebbit test has been in the news in England of late

The greening of Edgbaston: the Tebbit test has been in the news in England of late Gareth Copely / © Getty Images

"What job do you do, Doc?"

"Import-export."

Clothing, spices, maybe people? We did not really know. But he did know a disturbing amount of cricketers rumoured to be on expired visas. They were the ones who gave us one address for the league registration form and then asked us to pick them up from an entirely different address.

When the Doc brought an unregistered player, league rules were clear that he should not play. A proper registration system is the foundation of any league. This was not immediately understood by players from the Pakistani community who fed into the lower levels of Yorkshire amateur cricket. Many were used to ad-hoc games on patches of wasteland, starting time around 11, 11 a side if 22 turned up, otherwise just work it out, number of overs depending on the weather, kit if you could.

It is hard to send a player home for being unregistered, even if he is Ahmed when you were expecting Rafiq. Nobody likes playing with ten and nobody likes their friend to be refused a game. It is nearly 20 years now since I recoiled with horror when it was suggested after one too many beers that Mazhar Hussain had become a catch-all that season for at least five unregistered players. "And what's more, Hoppsy, he is probably top of the Division Five batting and bowling averages…. he'll be collecting a trophy at the league dinner." We tightened up procedures.

The first time a player rolled out a prayer mat by the side of the wood was another step.

"Which way is Mecca?" he asked.

"I'm not sure lad, but York Minster is over in that direction," came the reply.

We rarely talked politics - few sports clubs do - and if we did it was in the traditional Yorkshire manner of belligerent, brief pronouncements that brook no argument. But in the aftermath of 9/11, views were cagily - fearfully - explored. There were no insights, none that I heard anyway, no conclusions, nor attempts at any, just a vague sense that individuals were daring to explore previously unspoken thoughts.

After the Doc came Ayub. Look in at Dawn's Pizza in Harehills Lane. He will be the affable little one in the baseball cap (ask him why he used to cut straight balls). Through Ayub's efforts, we linked up with the four players who were the mainstays of our promotion year. There were a few unwise recommendations too. I remember searching for Sabir, ten minutes before the start, in a local supermarket. I never did find him. I believed in that kid, on the illogical grounds that he made me laugh. Not many others did. They were right. Then a player, still much-loved by his team-mates, who for one season told his martinet of a father-in-law that he was out job-hunting, and who used to hide around the back of a petrol station for the 1st XI captain to pick him up.

Paying to play is virtually unheard of in Pakistan, where the person in charge lavishes gifts upon players

 Players came, players went, but Amjad, Masood, Tanveer and Nazekat hold a special place in the club's history. Amjad, an aggressive opening batsman, was too good for us and went off to play for money in the Huddersfield League - and to search out a better standard of umpiring. It would be good to see him return one day. The last few months have been a salutary reminder that allegations of racism should not be casually levied, but even for a batsman who regularly hit across, he suffered more than his share of unfortunate lbws. I told Amjad how to welcome umpires on arrival, ask how they were, say it was nice to see them again, remark on the weather - always remark on the weather. I even told him the best way to avoid lbws was to be halfway through an amusing anecdote to the umpire when you got on strike. That way, the umpire would want to hear the end and turn down borderline shouts. That once worked for me with an umpire from the West Country who wanted to hear what Kevin Pietersen was really like.

Amjad was not convinced about the tactic. "I think I'll just stop it hitting my pads," he said.

But the ball kept hitting the pads and the finger kept rising. One day, as Amjad suffered his umpteenth lbw, I flew out of the dressing room in a rage and indiscreetly observed in front of the scorers that if the sequence carried on, eventually you would have to wonder whether it was racist.

"That's my husband umpiring," said the away scorer. "And I'm disgusted."

That was a difficult afternoon. We made up, but not until several years later.

Tanveer was a dignified allrounder from Karachi whose stately yorkers at the death quelled many a run chase, but he began to work Saturdays and later had to play for a club alongside those who could offer him employment. He told me that those who provided him with work also had first claim on him as a cricketer, that this was how it often was in Pakistan.

Nazekat, for the hell of it, would sing me folk songs in Urdu from short midwicket. He broke his arm while arm-wrestling and his Saturday cricket ended as a result.

Masood bowled fast and hit adventurously, ego bursting from every pore. This was perhaps unsurprising as he insisted he was related to a Waziristan warlord who would arrange a safe escort if I ever wanted to see the Khyber Pass, an opportunity missed on a couple of England tours to Pakistan. He once memorably bowled himself into the ground on a hot day during Ramadan while fasting and we were concerned that his last words might have been: "What time's sunset?" He married a Yorkshire girl and returned the following season with a baby and sizeable girth, his fast, late swing replaced by something curly and more pedestrian. He left us in a blaze of passion because he did not think people cared enough. He had a point, but it would have helped if he had not slogged the first ball to mid-on.

A game at the Solitaire Cricket Club in Bradford

A game at the Solitaire Cricket Club in Bradford © Getty Images

I remember him joining me in a chase, with five down and much work to do.

"You block and I'll hit," he strutted in, grin firmly in place.

"Why can't we do it the other way round for once?" I asked.

Amused by the prospect, he agreed to try. Two overs later, he announced it wasn't working.

For a few seasons, Ayub ran ad-hoc T20 tournaments at the ground. Ayub's Lot v Another Lot - as one match was described by the groundsman - was never going to make an official League handbook, but the matches were approached with gusto, bouncers rained in and more sixes were hit in one morning than we managed in a season.

Some of the local dog-walkers, heading for the path in the woods, began to wear wary expressions on their Sunday constitutionals. "They seem to be enjoying themselves, but they do make an awful lot of noise," was supposedly the comment, passed on second hand, from one of the village's citizens.

Cricket at our level, where we defy limited ability, and on the best days manage to win amid a combination of serious intent and occasional laughter, provides a reservoir of stories. But a generation on from the initial breakthroughs, we have reached a critical point. Players of Pakistani origin still tend to join the traditional Saturday clubs with the mindset of temporary guests, however valued. Most clubs are multiracial to some extent, but our truth at least is that club loyalty does not extend beyond the game.

There is a striking lack of those from a Pakistani background sitting on committees, coaching juniors, raising funds, preparing pitches, committing to all the voluntary jobs that a cricket club needs done to keep its head above water. In our club, the Pakistani players could argue they could not feel communal because they were not part of the community. Maybe it was an unavoidable fact that we were too rural to attract a wider commitment from those who, after all, were excluded by poverty and who feel more at home in the city. But that same club dynamic occurs in the city. Involvement in all aspects of the club is all too rare.

That shortcoming is partly a consequence of old committee men clinging to power, of a ruling-class mentality among those who have preserved these clubs for so long and who communicate the notion, perhaps unknowingly, that the club belongs to us. But it is also because of the peripatetic nature of many cricketers from the Pakistan communities, the wish to play and go, a comparative poverty that makes financial contributions impossible to contemplate for many, and a reluctance to buy into the English tradition of community cricket clubs.

These days, of course, that reluctance is widespread. Three years ago, after completing a full set of Achilles and cartilage operations, I decided to call it a day. Perhaps permanently, perhaps there is time for one last heave. Others have taken up the mantle, but it has been a trying time. The 2nd XI has not got a team out for two months and the club is the latest to be in crisis: in the year of a Yorkshire Championship triumph too. It should not be that way. Together, England's communities are stronger and can protect this game. After a generation of testing each other out, of making mistakes, of smashing stereotypes and having fun, we need to take the next step.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

 

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  • POSTED BY Rob on | November 28, 2014, 19:46 GMT

    Wonderful piece Hoppsy. Perfect combination of honesty, wit and heartfelt political awareness. Everyone who plays the game in this curious island of ours should read this, including every last member of the ECB.

  • POSTED BY Ashwin on | November 23, 2014, 2:07 GMT

    Yes indeed agree with the other commenter, would love this level of openness with British politicians.

  • POSTED BY Paul on | November 12, 2014, 9:23 GMT

    Great piece - an honest discussion of the challenges, and more importantly rewards, of integration. Lots of it rings true, even down in Wiltshire. Would love to hear this level of openness from our politicians!

  • POSTED BY Harvinder Singh on | November 1, 2014, 22:04 GMT

    This piece is so very true, personally I think the P word should be astrixed out just like the N word would have been, shame it is still socially acceptable to print it. A great write which also made me laugh out loud.