Yorkshire 37 for 0 trail Gloucestershire 227 (Harris 136, Fisher 4-19) by 190 runs
No word will have sounded sweeter all year to Yorkshire than the one where the umpire Ian Blackwell called “play” and their Championship season rumbled into life. A winter of condemnation as Azeem Rafiq’s allegations of racism attracted national attention gave way to what they hope will be a Spring of renewal. Beleaguered no more, or at least not as much.
“I have always dreamed of playing for England – that was at the top of my sheet,” he said. “Deep down I am quite an anxious person over things, particularly with the injuries I’ve been through. I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. There are a lot of bowlers with a better record than me, but they have invested in me and I want to remember that.”
He has slightly extended his run after studying himself from side-on at the end of the season and deciding that he didn’t get enough momentum into the crease and was prone to muscle injuries as a result. He worked with Jon Lewis on an England Lions tour and feels that his pace has increased naturally, but the new approach – only 10 feet or so longer – has improved his accuracy because he is not straining so much. He had both of Yorkshire’s pre-lunch wickets to slip catches from around the wicket.
Darren Gough, Yorkshire’s MD of cricket, was present to oversee the start of what he hopes will be a grand awakening, an era where Yorkshire don’t just fulfil minimum social expectations on diversity, but set an example. “This is a one-in-a-generation chance to shape something and become a leading light for every county to follow,” he told BBC radio.
Gough does not do blandishments and it is very Yorkshire to respond to decades of failure when it comes to diversity by now wanting to do it better than anybody else. When he was not considering grand plans, he was mulling over small ones, such as more protection square on the off-side for the Pakistan quick on debut, Haris Rauf, who repeatedly offered width to Gloucestershire’s procession of left-handers; Harris’ first 10 boundaries against him all flew between third man and cover’s left hand.
Rauf, in only his fourth first-class match, bowled fast at times, took three wickets, saw catches dropped and disappeared at five an over. If Harry Duke had held a fast ‘keeper’s chance to his right when Harris was on 18, the story might have been different. Rauf also bowled the most eventful over of the day in which he saw Duke drop Ryan Higgins off successive deliveries (the second might have been a press box catch, to be fair), dismissed Higgins at short midwicket and then had Tom Lace lbw, first ball. Harris reached his century by square-driving him to the boards. When Zafar Gohar contributed the finest of cricketing dismissals – stumped for nought, charging down the pitch – Harris produced a gung-ho finale which ended when he skied a leg-side hit at Steve Patterson to the wicketkeeper.
A good day for the White Rose then, but there remains much off the field for Yorkshire’s players to block out. There has been talk this week that the ECB are considering charges of bringing the game into disrepute against around a dozen players, coaches and officials, although none (apart from Gary Ballance, who is absent on stress leave) are thought to be on the current staff which will help the healing process. Some critics still advocate docked points, a curious logic which, considering that a new regime is in place promising change, puts a thirst for punishment ahead of the need for progress.
Gough talks impressively about the development pathways Yorkshire are already improving in minority ethnic areas – and, as a working-class lad who knew as a teenager what it was like for money to be tight, he is wise enough to realise that affordability as well as cultural understanding is at the heart of Yorkshire’s challenge – but he has also been quick to offer the players emotional support.
“I was shellshocked myself when I took over,” he said. “I have never seen players as down. They had seen their friends sacked. Some of them had been at the club a long time. They were upset. I understand that. They still have questions they want answering. It is going to be difficult during the season. All those questions – are they going to drop us, are they going to dock points from us – they just have to focus on what they can. We are giving them an opportunity to play cricket. That’s what they have to do. Get out there and express their skills and play cricket for Yorkshire.”
The first day after Yorkshire’s latest revolution was a peaceful, united affair, a day that began with “a moment of reflection” on pretty much anything odious that people wanted to reflect upon. Travel back 38 years and the last Yorkshire revolution, over whether Geoffrey Boycott was sinner or saint (he was neither), had seen a new general committee virtually drink Taunton dry into the early hours. Resentful or vindicated men plotted in dark corners or stalked around the ground with folded arms. This time, life proceeded in a state of bliss.
When Rauf took a neat catch at long leg to dismiss Miles Hammond, hooking at Fisher, a man in a Wensleydale Creamery polo shirt leapt up and shouted “Good catch lad!” As the ECB-approved announcement on diversity rang around the ground, cries of encouragement for Rauf were sounding from the slips. Rafiq had an important message, but Yorkshire cricket is not evil incarnate. It is time for a sense of perspective and a new start – and Rafiq has said as much.
“I’ve always said we need to be role models on and off the field,” Fisher said. “This is a game for everyone. I like those announcements around the ground. That’s what I want to see more of.”
Returning to Bristol for the first time in a decade was a reminder that county grounds are steadily improving, as if in defiance of the professional game’s detractors, although the card-only payments in the Thatchers bar did cause a few grumbles. Bristol is not just the most environmentally-conscious, but also the most colour co-ordinated ground in the country. Its yellow and black is bright enough to send a nest of wasps into sexual ecstasy and the colour was appropriate as Yorkshire emerge, stings at the ready, from a waspish winter.
David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps