Saviour of Yorkshire CCC Robin Smith declares his innings closed

COLIN GRAVES is rightly regarded as the modern-day saviour of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, with the business skills and personal wealth of the former chairman/chief executive helping to keep the club afloat in the earliest years of the 21st century.

Departing: Yorkshire County Cricket Club chairman Robin Smith at his home in Shadwell near Leeds. Picture: Tony Johnson

But the man who masterminded Yorkshire’s metamorphosis from a club facing possible extinction in 2002 to the vibrant, professional body that it is today is a mostly unheralded figure by comparison.

Robin Smith, who today retires from his position as chairman, was the man who initially forged stability out of chaos and, as such, deserves to be recognised as one of the most influential people in Yorkshire’s history.

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Headingley closed as Yorkshire CCC players ordered to train at home
Robin Smith, seen with former Yorkshire CCC chairman Colin Graves, left, pictured at York Minster after a 150th anniversary thanksgiving service for the club

Without Smith’s vision and strategy for survival, aided and abetted by Graves’s cash, Yorkshire might have gone the way of the Dodo, the Pyrenean ibex and the Baiji white dolphin; which is to say, dead and gone.

“I was the club’s president at the time and suddenly there was a big problem with the bank,” says Smith as he reflects on those difficult days of 2002.

“There was a £2m costover run on the building of the Western Terrace, the East Stand and the Cricket Centre at Headingley, which were all built at the same time, and the bank was basically saying: ‘What are you going to do about it?’. The answer was that no-one knew.

“The club was under real threat – it would have run out of money – and when I realised that I’d got to take a grip, because there was no-one else to do it, we had a big and unwieldy committee and very committed cricket people who didn’t necessarily know anything about how to run a business.

DEVELOPED: Emerald Headingley Stadium Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

“It was an opportunity to modernise the whole structure of the club and, through that, the whole business model, and I decided that the best way to do that was to get the committee to agree to delegate all its powers (via a change in the club constitution) to a small group of people who knew what they were doing in this respect.”

So was born ‘The Gang of Four’, a term almost invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The gang members, so to say, were Smith, Graves, finance director Brian Bouttell and Geoff Cope, the former Yorkshire and England off-spin bowler.

“It started off as just Geoff and me because I was the president and Geoff was on the committee,” says Smith.

“We needed people with business clout and wealth – just in case – and a finance man, who was Brian Bouttell, a very nice fellow who was already involved at the club as a debenture holder.

“Happily, ‘The Gang of Four’ gelled from the outset: Geoff had known Colin for some years and they were good friends, Colin came in as chief executive and Geoff was made chairman.

“Our clear objective was to recover from the prevailing disarray and turn the club into a modern business fit for the 21st century.”

Smith’s first task had been to reassure the bank.

“The absolute imperative was getting HSBC on side because we owed them the money,” he says.

“The manager of HSBC was a chap called Wayne Bowser, who I knew very well, so I went to see him.

“I said: ‘Wayne, we’ve got a problem, but I can solve it for you.’ He said: ‘How?’, and I said: ‘I’m putting this team of people together, I’ll bring them to see you, I’ll bring the business plan and, if you’ve got confidence, I want you to back me.’

“He said: ‘Fine, go ahead’. The plan we put together showed how we could turn the club around – the £2m we’d have to borrow from the bank, all part of the plan – and that the income we could generate, including proper management of, for instance, the retail side could get us through.

“We also said that we’d like to move on to buying the ground and securing the Test future of Headingley.”

At the time, Yorkshire did not own the ground and were tenants of landlords Leeds Rugby.

Ownership was necessary under the terms of Yorkshire’s staging agreement with the England and Wales Cricket Board to guarantee international cricket going forward amid an increasing dogfight to stage international games.

“Test cricket was an integral part of the Headingley model,” says Smith.

“The ground even without the redevelopment was an expensive ground; with the redevelopment, we simply had to have Test cricket, and the only way we could guarantee that was by owning the ground.

“Test cricket is a part of Yorkshire’s history, and to contemplate a future in which we abandoned Test cricket in favour of other parts of the country was just not on.

“It was our responsibility as quasi-trustees to ensure its continuation into the future.”

Smith, 77, first got involved with Yorkshire in 1985.

Born in Nottingham to Mancunian parents, then raised in Watford before the family moved to Doncaster when he was 12, his background was the world of corporate law.

“In 1985, I got a phone call from (club secretary) Joe Lister to say that they’d had a lot of problems at Yorkshire, of which I was well aware – EGMs and factions arising out of Geoffrey Boycott’s sacking – and that two solicitors had been lost in the space of six months as a result of it all and would I care to step in as the club’s solicitor?

“So I did, and for the next 10 years I was the club’s solicitor and, from a position of some disarray when I arrived to deal with the legal side of it – and it could not have got any worse legally – matters improved.

“They would still have improved whether I’d done anything or not, but I got the credit for it and, when the club was looking around for a new president in 1999, my name came up as I’d got to know the club pretty well by then.

“I was a Yorkshire fan and member prior to my involvement, and I’d played club cricket, too, as a young man.

“I played for Romany Cricket Club in Leeds as a batsman – albeit not a very good one, I have to say.”

Smith chuckles at the confession and, as he reflects on a proud and distinguished association with Yorkshire, is in typically amiable and courteous mood.

He has always had a certain breeding about him, a personal style that makes him popular wherever he goes and, it must be said, one which has come in particularly useful during some tempestuous times in Yorkshire’s recent history.

Smith is a master at bringing people together, the sort of fellow who could probably walk into a high street brawl and, within minutes, have the warring parties warmly shaking hands (or, in the current climate, bumping elbows) and agreeing that there is no place in society for violence.

He is a natural unifier whose old-fashioned charm, if it might be described, will be sorely missed.

Not that he is really going anywhere… “I will still continue to attend the matches and remain as a vice-president of the club,” he says.

“I’m retiring with mixed feelings but, I believe, with the club in excellent hands.”

For, just as Smith believes that Yorkshire were fortunate to have Graves’s financial support, so he believes they are lucky to have their present management team.

“I’ve every confidence in (chief executive) Mark Arthur, (finance director) Paul Hudson and (director of cricket) Martyn Moxon,” he says.

“The three key executives at Yorkshire are top-quality people.

“I think we’re respected now throughout the game as a club which is financially successful, which is well-run, which is going places, which has a very fine ground – one of the finest in the game, not just in the UK – and we’re very careful about succession planning.

“It’s a magnificent club, blessed with so many talented staff and people, and it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have been involved.”