April is the traditional month for optimism in county cricket. Before a bowl has been bowled, grand ambitions, in 18 dressing rooms, are yet to be disproved.
But this season begins in the context of the most troubling winter. The testimony of Azeem Rafiq, his account and experience of racism, must have consequences.
Derbyshire all-rounder Anuj Dal hopes it will have changed the game for good.
“What Azeem showed in his testimony was that the South Asian players, and players from different backgrounds, now feel as though they’ve got someone there who’s spoken out about issues that are there within the game,” he told BBC Sport.
“And I don’t think there is that stigma anymore. Now people are thinking ‘how can I be actively positive to encourage guys and make sure we all get given the same opportunity, make sure we all get treated the same and feel respected?’. And that for me is a huge one.”
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Dal, 25, is also vice-chair of the Professional Cricketers’ Association. In that role he addressed MPs in the ongoing Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) enquiry into racism in cricket, recounting his own experiences of racial stereotyping during his childhood.
The PCA has had to acknowledge its own mistakes in its handling of Rafiq’s case. It has also delivered an education programme about diversity through the professional game. Dal believes that will make a difference.
“The foundation has to be the education,” Dal added. “Knowing that we’ve all received the same thing, the same training, and we know where the line is, we know where that boundary is.
“But I think it’s an understanding, it’s a respect thing. For me, coming into a very new environment at Derbyshire when I was 21 just felt very encouraging and positive. That was such a reassuring thing, knowing that I could be myself, be who I wanted to be. That’s what counties need to do more of.”
South Asians ‘mad about cricket’
Derbyshire was also the county where Rafiq said he felt valued and welcomed during a brief spell on loan from Yorkshire.
But significant barriers to professional cricket clearly remain. When the ECB launched its own South Asian Action Plan it acknowledged that at recreational level a third of players are from South Asian communities but at first-class level this drops to around 4% of cricketers.
At his own local club, Gedling and Sherwood, in Nottinghamshire, Dal said there were regularly seven or eight South Asian players in the team.
“They’re just mad about cricket,” he said. “They work in factories from 11pm at night until 5am in the morning and turn up to play their club cricket on a Saturday at 9am.
“But I think the challenges in the past have been around this drinking culture within the game. That’s considered the social norm and I think for players of South Asian background, or any players that don’t drink, it’s always been difficult.
“You’ll see them often; they’ll play their game, they’ll love their game and then they’ll go home. So, it’s harder for them to create that bond.
“Sometimes that’s when those conversations happen about, ‘shall we put you forward for trials?’. That kind of thing often happens at the end of the game.
“Players kind of get lost when they get to 16, 17 or18. I was very fortunate that my parents were in good position, they sacrificed a lot. My dad retired just to transport me around the country, playing my cricket.”
Making Derbyshire welcoming
Derbyshire chief executive Ryan Duckett said he wants to ensure the club is seen as a welcoming environment for players, staff and spectators of all backgrounds.
Rather than setting targets for playing diversity, he hopes there will be a natural progression.
“We’ve got a large representation on our pathway and hopefully that talent is going to come through over the next few years,” said Duckett.
“We’ve done a lot of work and hopefully over the next few years we’ll continue that work and more and more people will feel more welcome.
“Policies are great, I think we’re in a good place as a club with our policies, and people know where they need to go if there are some issues and speak out. But ultimately it’s about the people and the culture they create.”
Dal recognises and embraces the status he has in that process as a role model. But a big question remains about how representation will be affected by the winter’s revelations.
During his testimony Rafiq spoke of his reluctance to let his own son go anywhere near cricket. Alongside his playing career Dal also runs a cricket coaching business and he knows many people in communities now have to be convinced of cricket’s credibility.
“It is a tough one,” Dal added. “Because Azeem’s testimony was so powerful, I think a lot of parents would have really responded to that and thought ‘maybe the game isn’t what we think it is’.
“That for me was quite heart-breaking and unfortunately that may be the case with certain parents. But I think there’s that natural background, just so much love and passion for the game, that I hope it swings the other way.”