Middlesex chairman Mike O’Farrell has apologised for comments on black and South Asian interest in cricket that were called “painful” and “outdated” by ex-England player Ebony Rainford-Brent.
O’Farrell said football and rugby become “much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community” and cricket was sometimes “secondary” to education for young South Asian players.
He was speaking at a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee hearing into how cricket plans to tackle racism in the sport.
Rainford-Brent said such “outdated views” were “exactly” why cricket was under pressure to tackle issues of diversity and inclusion following former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq’s account of racism in the sport.
O’Farrell subsequently offered his “wholehearted apologies” for the “misunderstanding” his comments at the hearing had caused.
“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 said.
“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.”
A parliamentary report earlier this month recommended the government should limit public funding for cricket unless there was “continuous, demonstrable progress” on eradicating “deep-seated racism”.
Rafiq, who in November told the DCMS select committee that English cricket was “institutionally racist”, said O’Farrell’s comments “confirmed what an endemic problem the game has”.
When asked about Middlesex’s record on diversity and inclusion, O’Farrell said that 57% of their players under the age of 17 came from “culturally diverse backgrounds”.
He said that was “more difficult” to maintain at higher levels and particularly in the academy, for “several reasons”.
Going into those reasons, O’Farrell claimed that “the football and rugby worlds become much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community” at that age.
He added: “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 prefer – not always saying they do it – they sometimes prefer to go into other educational fields and then cricket becomes secondary.
“Part of that is because it’s a rather more time-consuming sport than some others so we’re finding that’s difficult.”
He said the situation was “changing” with Twenty20 and one-day cricket and because there was “much more choice and variation in the game” young South Asian men and women were “finding this a much more attractive sport”.
He added: “We are moving it forward – it’s not as fast as we’d like it to and we’re trying to make as many opportunities as we can.”
Rainford-Brent said on social media that “unfortunately the decision-makers hold on to these myths” and “the game deserves better”.
“Just painful,” she added.
Rafiq also spoke out in response to the Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove’s comments that his county was “overachieving” on inclusion and diversity.
“These people have come to a select committee and said they think that they’re overachieving, that the counties don’t get enough credit. I’m pretty angry,” said Rafiq.
“I think it shows that maybe the problem lies with the counties a lot more than the ECB. You’ve got a demographic of county chairs that don’t see the problem.
“I found it quite staggering to hear that one of the chairs felt that they were actually overachieving in this space.”
In 2018, South Asian players represented 30% of recreational players but only 4% of first-class county players.
The proportion of recreational players who are South Asian has since dropped to 28% but the ECB says there has been an increase in South Asian players in county academies, from 11% in 2018 to 17% in 2019-20.
Rainford-Brent helped found Surrey’s African Caribbean Engagement Programme (ACE) to address a 75% decline in cricket participation by members of the black community over the past 25 years.
She said: “The interest is there the young people just need the right offer.”
Rafiq also called O’Farrell’s comments “painful” and said they showed “how far removed from reality these people are”.
In his statement, O’Farrell added cricket “won’t make the progress it needs to” unless it learns how to make the game “an attractive proposition for youngsters of all backgrounds to continue through the pathway into the professional game”.
“We at Middlesex are no different,” he said.
“We have an academy side that contains in excess of 60% British-born Asian and black young cricketers and we must take responsibility for ensuring that the route into the professional game is as accessible and appealing as other sports or opportunities.
“I speak on behalf of the entire club in saying that our desire is to see a 1st XI walking out to play for the club which is truly reflective of the broadly diverse county that Middlesex is today and that we will do all within our power to make that happen.
“Once again I apologise for any upset or hurt my earlier comments may have caused, that was most definitely not my intention.”