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Gaffe at select committee hearing is proof of cricket’s “endemic problem”, says Azeem Rafiq

The chairman of Middlesex County Cricket Club has been accused of reinforcing racial stereotypes, after telling MPs at a Parliamentary hearing in Westminster that the club’s lack of diversity is partly attributable to Black people preferring football, and Asians putting more focus on education.

Addressing the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Mike O’Farrell attracted widespread condemnation for his attempt to defend Middlesex’s poor record in bringing ethnic minority players through to its senior ranks – including from Azeem Rafiq, whose allegations of institutional racism at Yorkshire had triggered the parliamentary inquest, and who stated that O’Farrell’s remarks were further proof of the sport’s “endemic problem”.

“The football and rugby world becomes much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community,” O’Farrell said, in a bid to explain why – despite claiming that 57 percent of Middlesex’s youth-team participants come from diverse backgrounds – the current first-team squad has just two British Asian representatives out of 25, and no Black players.

“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 the next step because they prefer, not always saying they do it, they sometimes prefer to go into other educational fields,” O’Farrell added. “Then cricket becomes secondary, and part of that is because it’s a rather more time-consuming sport than some others.”

Responding on Twitter, Rafiq wrote: “Painful listen and just shows how far removed from reality these people are. This has just confirmed what an endemic problem the game has. I actually can’t believe what I am listening to.”

Ebony Rainford-Brent, the former England player-turned-commentator – who founded the ACE (African Caribbean Engagement) Programme in 2020 to help reinvigorate cricket in the Black British community – was similarly critical of O’Farrell’s comments.

“Honestly these outdated views in the game are exactly why we are in this position,” Rainford-Brent wrote. “Unfortunately the decision-makers hold onto these myths. ‘The Black community only like football, and Asian community only interested in education’ Seriously the game deserves better.”

The remarks came on the same day that the ECB announced a partnership with Kick It Out, football’s anti-discrimination organisation, alongside a full review of dressing-room culture in all men’s and women’s professional teams, at both domestic and international level. This will be led by Clare Connor, the ECB’s director of women’s cricket, with a report due in September.

O’Farrell later issued an apology for his comments, insisting that the “misunderstanding” was down to a “lack of clarity and context in the answers I provided”.

“For the purposes of clarification, I was aiming to make the point that as a game, cricket has failed a generation of young cricketers, in systematically failing to provide them with the same opportunities that other sports and sectors so successfully provide,” O’Farrell said.

“Cricket has to take responsibility for these failings and must learn that until we make the game an attractive proposition for youngsters of all backgrounds to continue through the pathway into the professional game, much like other sports and sectors are doing, the game won’t make the progress it needs to.”

A commitment to “remove barriers in talent pathways”, such as those that seem to exist at Middlesex, was one of the five key points in the ECB Action Plan that emerged in the wake of their last appearance before the DCMS committee in November.

A number of factors have contributed to the lack of minority representation in the professional game, including a tendency among youth-team coaches towards conformity; a lack of feedback to talented youngsters from marginalised backgrounds, and the prohibitive cost of equipment – including bats and helmets – that impedes the game’s reach in poorer communities.

Addressing such issues in November, Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, said: “That decision-making point between talented youngsters and becoming professionals around the country is a worrying statistic for us. There may be structural and cultural barriers in place that we need to remove. We just need to accelerate the work that’s going on here, but I don’t think we have all the answers yet.”

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket