Middlesex chairman Mike O’Farrell has apologized for comments about Black and South Asian interest in cricket, which was called “painful” and “outdated” by former English player Ebony Rainford-Brent.
O’Farrell said football and rugby are becoming “much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community” and that cricket was sometimes “secondary” in terms of training for young South Asian players.
He spoke at a committee hearing in Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on how cricket plans to tackle racism in sport.
Rainford-Brent said such “outdated views” were “exactly” why cricket was under pressure to tackle diversity and inclusion issues following former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq’s report on racism in sport.
O’Farrell subsequently offered his “wholehearted apologies” for the “misunderstanding” his comments during the hearing had caused.
“I fully accept that this misunderstanding is solely due to my own lack of clarity and context in the answers I have given, and I am crushed that my comments have led to the conclusions some have drawn,” he said.
“To clarify, I aimed to draw attention to the fact that cricket as a game has failed a generation of young cricketers, by systematically failing to give them the same opportunities that other sports and sectors provide so successfully.”
A parliamentary report earlier this month recommended the government should limit public funding to cricket unless there was “continuous, demonstrable progress” in eradicating “deep-seated racism”.
Rafiq, who in November told DCMS select committee it English cricket was “institutionally racist”, said O’Farrell’s comments “confirmed what endemic problem the game has”.
When asked about Middlesex’s record in terms of diversity and inclusion, O’Farrell said 57% of their players under the age of 17 came from “culturally diverse backgrounds”.
He said it was “harder” to maintain at higher levels, and especially in academia, for “several reasons”.
Going into these reasons, O’Farrell argued that “the world of football and rugby is becoming much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community” at that age.
He added: “As for the South Asian community, there is a moment where we find out that they do not necessarily want to spend the same amount of time that is necessary to go to the next step because they prefer – not always say, that they do it.it – sometimes they prefer to go into other areas of education and then cricket becomes secondary.
“Part of it is because it’s a somewhat more time consuming sport than some others, so we think it’s difficult.”
He said the situation was “changing” with Twenty20 and one-day cricket, and because there was “much more choice and variety in the game”, young South Asian men and women found this a much more attractive sport.
He added: “We are moving it forward – it is not as fast as we would like it to be and we are trying to create as many opportunities as we can.”
Rainford-Brent said on social media that “unfortunately, decision makers hold on to these myths” and “the game deserves better”.
“Just painful,” she added.
In 2018, South Asian players represented 30% of the recreational players, but only 4% of first-class county players.
The proportion of recreational players who are South Asian has since decreased to 28% but the ECB says there has been an increase in South Asian players at county academies, from 11% in 2018 to 17% in 2019-20.
Rainford-Brent helped find Surreys African Caribbean Engagement Program (ACE) to counter a 75% drop in cricket participation from members of the black community over the last 25 years.
She said: “The interest is that the young people just need the right offer.”
Rafiq also called O’Farrell’s comments “painful”, saying they showed “how far removed from reality these people are”.
In his statement, O’Farrell added cricket “will not make the progress it needs to” unless it learns to make the game “an attractive proposition for young people of all backgrounds to continue through the path into the professional game”.
“We at Middlesex are no different,” he said.
“We have an academy site that contains more than 60% of British-born Asian and black young cricketers, and we must take responsibility for ensuring that the path into professional play is as accessible and appealing as other sports or opportunities.
“I speak on behalf of the whole club by saying that our wish is to see a first XI go out to play for the club, which really reflects the wide diverse county that Middlesex is today and that we will do everything, what is in our power to make it happen.
“I apologize once again for any disruption or injury that my previous comments may have caused, that was definitely not my intention.”