Mad, mad world that is Yorkshire cricket

Published : Aug 31, 2002 00:00 IST


I WAS born not more than a six hit from Edgbaston, but I was raised in a cricket sense in Yorkshire, where one half of my family has its roots. When I left 35 years ago I promised myself I would continue my devotion to the cricket team.

It's been a roller-coaster ride. They have produced some of the greatest cricketers who ever lived but the club is run with a streak of madness that means no-one ever says "the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum." Believe me, the lunatics have always been in charge at Headingley.

Which is why I was not too shocked when the news came. I had known it all my life. Finally the truth had reached the outside world.

Yorkshiremen are not the hard-headed businessmen of the northern myth. They are daft. That's one of their own words with a precise meaning somewhere between "lacking intelligence" and "down right stupid." They could not, to use another of their own phrases, organise a drinks party in a brewery.

In the past few weeks the club has announced that an unsuitable man has been appointed as chief executive, that more than five million pounds is needed if the East Stand is to be completed and that the bank has demanded a bigger say in the running of the club. Otherwise, no more cash. Their overdraft is already heading for seven million pounds.

Keith Moss, the chairman, has been forced to resign. He claims he is a scapegoat. Sorry, Keith, someone had to be. Four men, including the president Robin Smith (no relation of the Hampshire captain who used to play for England) have been appointed to run the club's business affairs and the general committee has been made to stand down.

"If they don't agree to these terms it means the club will be declared bankrupt," said Moss.

I wondered for a couple of days if the committee - which has been cut back in recent years to only 12 members - might reject the plan but they have accepted the general idea which at least shows a modicum of good sense.

Yorkshire County Cricket Club has never been run in a businesslike manner. They once had a committee of 30, each wanting his say, each representing the views of a small area of the biggest county in Britain. (Yorkshiremen love to call it, in their own broad vowels, the "county of broad acres.") Despite a membership of 7,000-plus they have totally failed to balance the books.

Yorkshiremen - like my grandfather, every one of their cricketers, Harold Wilson who was Prime Minister twice between 1964 and 1976 - are strong-minded to the point of obstinacy, careful with their money and believe that they are the greatest people to populate the planet.

They talk funny too but we'll ignore the accents for the sake of clarity. After all, I don't always understand them and I was brought up in their midst.

"You know lads," I once heard the biggest of several braying mouths say at Headingley as he summed up an informal debate that had slaughtered the committee, the captain, the team and the groundstaff, "we can criticise because we're Yorkshire. But we know, don't we, that everyone in the world wishes he were a Yorkshireman."

Really? From Tibet to Thailand via Taxila and the Tigris men and women wake every morning thinking "If only I'd been born in Leeds." Don't tell any Yorkshireman that it's a myth. He will be so upset he'll buy his own beer. (That's Yorkshire joke No. 2 by the way.)

The men who run the county club think of themselves as shrewd yet they have never made a serious attempt to buy Headingley which houses most of their games as well as a Test each season. When they attempted to leave for a greenfield site 25 miles away they did not even have the sense to read their rental agreement.

That removal plan was torn up because it would have cost half a million pounds in fees to leave. Nothing new there. Chances to buy Headingley in the 1930s and late in the 1980s ended in chaos. The present crisis would not have happened if they had been willing to pay 3,000 pounds for the ground 70 years ago.

The chairman was offered the ground privately 20 years ago but the committee rejected the offer. They even accused him of going behind their backs.

Recently the club lost 100,000 pounds because the sales from their shop were not properly supervised; when they erected gates to commemorate Len Hutton, arguably the greatest English batsman, they allowed an artist to show him playing an uncharacteristic shot. She also depicted a background of Asian women who rarely set foot in the ground. No-one had bothered to check her sketches.

The local paper The Yorkshire Post printed a picture of the gates from the wrong side so that it looked as if Hutton batted left-handed. The outcry was deafening.

The club decided to build the East Stand immediately after the Western Stand - a monstrosity which has replaced the Western Terrace, home to a horrible mix of racist, sexist and brawling hooligans - was complete and then faced the problem of who should open it.

Several months were needed to persuade everyone concerned that it would be best done by four of their living legends: Geoff Boycott, Brian Close, Ray Illingworth and Fred Trueman. A plaque will mark this rare moment of co-operation between four men who have spent their retirement years in conflict.

As I say, it is a quarrelsome club. Those former Test stars - all except Trueman captained England - have acknowledged to me that Trueman, now 71, ought to be the club president. Could they find enough backers for this idea? Don't be silly.

I heard from Jack Bannister, one-time Warwickshire fast bowler, that he was going out to bat at No. 10 when his side had been made to follow-on by Yorkshire. The game was almost over before lunch on the second day; his side had been pulverised. As he took guard he could not make the umpire hear his request for "two legs please" for the noise around him.

"This match would be all over if the captain had put in another short leg... if he'd bowled Trueman from the top end... if we'd declared earlier... and shut up you, what do you know about anything."

Five minutes later they had won by an innings and plenty but Bannister was accompanied to the pavilion by fielders still shouting the odds over the mistakes that had delayed victory.

Not easy men to lead. The amateur captains of the 1920s and 1930s were often ignored when the decisions were made by the professionals Wilfred Rhodes, George Hirst, Bill Bowes and Herbert Sutcliffe.

Championships came despite the bizarre way the club and the side were run. They had so many great players that several joined other counties every year. Brian Bolus left and was picked by England only a few months later. Yorkshire were still sure their way was right. Well, they were still winning titles in those days.

Two captains kept them on course. Brian Sellers was as rough and tough as any of his professionals and made his own decisions. Another amateur Ronnie Burnet took over when mayhem threatened after their great slow left-arm bowler Johnny Wardle was sacked for taking his grumbles to the Press.

In the 1960s the club let Illingworth go rather than give him a two-year contract and Close departed after another row. The 1980s consisted of a series of fights over Boycott's future. Last year David Byas retired after leading the team to its first championship since 1968 when he was told he was to be superseded by Darren Lehmann.

Byas went on to join Lancashire even though his heart was and is still with Yorkshire.

I know exactly how he feels. At least the four men who are to run Yorkshire in the future were all born in the county. They will be as sad as me if the side slide in Division Two, partly because they have up to three men in any recent Test, partly because Lehmann has proved to be less than adroit as a captain. In the meantime the side are likely to win the Cup Final against Somerset.

Only the wicket-keeper Richard Blakey was playing when they last won in a Lord's final in 1987. None of the staff of 15 years ago remain and the coach Wayne Clark has never been to Lord's. In any capacity.

Isn't that typical of the mad, mad world that is Yorkshire cricket.

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