By Aiden McLaughlin
Let me tell you about a man called Azeem Rafiq.
Born in Pakistan on the 27th February 1991, 10 years later he moved to Barnsley, in South Yorkshire. In 2006, this right arm off-spin all-rounder was chosen to play for England’s Under 15’s, a side he would also captain. In 2008, at the age of 16, he made his debut for Yorkshire in a T20 match against Nottinghamshire and a year later, he made his first class debut for them against Sussex in the County Championship. His teammates that day included Michael Vaughan, Tim Bresnan and Jacques Rudolph.
In 2010, Rafiq captained the England Under 19 team in the World Cup, held in New Zealand. Players under his leadership included Yorkshire colleague Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler. In 2012, he became Yorkshire’s youngest ever captain, when he stood in for Andrew Gale in six T20 matches, where they went unbeaten. He was also their first captain of Asian origin.
However, in the years that followed, injury, loss of form and eroded confidence saw him drift away from the further heights that once seemed likely. He left Yorkshire in 2014 and trained with other counties before returning to them in 2016. Although he received his county cap in 2017, white ball cricket seemed to be his future. But in 2018, Yorkshire released him again.
In August last year, Taha Hashim from Wisden interviewed Rafiq. When asked about his experiences he said:
‘I’ve been in dressing rooms where things have been said, and, really, I should have stopped it. I had a captain who was openly racist. Why didn’t I stop it? It was the environment. I raised my voice about it once and I was made out to be the person….There’s one comment that stands out for me. And I remember it to this day. It was around the time of my debut. There was me, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. We’re walking onto the field and one player said: ‘There’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that.’’
The following month, George Dobell wrote a piece for ESPN CricInfo where Rafiq expanded on those comments:
‘I know how close I was to committing suicide during my time at Yorkshire. I was living my family’s dream as a professional cricketer, but inside I was dying. I was dreading going to work. I was in pain every day. There were times I did things to try and fit in that, as a Muslim, I now look back on and regret. I’m not proud of it at all. But as soon as I stopped trying to fit in, I was an outsider.’
In the aftermath of these interviews, Yorkshire launched an investigation into Rafiq’s allegations and in August this year, some 11 months later, they confirmed that the final report relating to that investigation had been completed and they were reviewing the findings.
Last week, Yorkshire released a further statement stating:
‘The Club has also carried out their own internal investigation following the findings in the Report after which they are able to report that they have come to the conclusion that there is no conduct or action taken by any of its employees, players or Executives that warrants disciplinary action.’
Yorkshire also confirmed that the report (which has not yet been made public) had been supplied to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for further investigation as well as an ongoing employment tribunal between Rafiq and Yorkshire.
Earlier this week, George Dobell revealed details of what was contained in the report, stating at least one Yorkshire player used the term ‘Paki’ when talking to Rafiq. The same player had admitted telling others ‘don’t talk to him, he’s a Paki’ and also saying to Rafiq, ‘Is that your uncle?’ when he saw bearded Asian men and ‘Does your Dad own those?’ in relation to dairies. Incredibly, Dobell reveals, these insults were dismissed as good-natured ‘banter’ between Rafiq and his teammate.
Yorkshire teammate Gary Ballance has now admitted using a racial slur in a statement issued via Yorkshire’s website.
While the ECB continue their investigation into the report, politicians have now become involved with the UK’s Heath Secretary Sajid Javid and Downing Street issuing statements on the matter. In addition, Rafiq, Roger Hutton, Mark Arthur and Martyn Moxon (Yorkshire’s Chairman, Chief Executive and Director of Cricket respectively) have all been called to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee on 16th November. The saga is far from over.
In isolation, this matter is extremely troubling, but unfortunately, it is only one of a number of shameful racial incidents that have raised their heads in the cricket headlines recently.
Much closer to home, a school cricket match in Hawke’s Bay was abandoned in January after racist, homophobic and sexist slurs were used. An initial 10 week ban for two players from Napier Technical Old Boys was subsequently reduced upon appeal.
Just over a week after the Napier incident, a two day match in Wellington between Victoria University and Naenae was abandoned after a Naenae player racially abused an opponent after he was dismissed. The offender was subsequently banned for the rest of the season.
In June, Ollie Robinson, having just made his test match debut for England against New Zealand at Lords, was banned for eight matches and fined £3,200 for racist and sexist tweets he made in 2012 and 2013.
Just over a week ago, Quinton de Kock withdrew from South Africa’s T20 World Cup match against the West Indies, after Cricket South Africa issued a directive that all their players should take a knee before matches. De Kock subsequently apologised, confirming he would take a knee going forward.
In South Africa, the Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings began in July this year. These public hearings have given current and former black cricketers the opportunity to give testimonies on racial discrimination. During these, former international Paul Adams told how he was nicknamed ‘brown shit’. ‘
‘I was called brown shit when I was playing. It often used to be a song when we won a game and we were in fines’ meetings. They would sing, ‘brown shit in the ring, tra la la la laa.’ ‘
Adams’ former teammate and current South African Head Coach Mark Boucher subsequently apologised to the hearings for his actions. An Ombudsman’s report into the evidence given at the hearings is expected to be finished in the next month.
So, where to from here? Above, we have a mixture of circumstances but, with the exception of de Kock, the situations revolve around the use of vile racist language. Some is towards the opposition. Some is towards teammates. Some is towards strangers online.
When it comes to teammates, the excuse is that it’s ‘banter’ and no harm is meant. Perhaps those saying those words genuinely believe that, but how can you be so blinkered that you can’t check yourself and think of the person or persons on the receiving end of those words?
When it comes to the opposition, it’s sledging, but not the witty, clever type that so many cricket fans can appreciate and smile at; instead it’s vile, racist language that is cruel in the extreme.
When it comes to strangers via social media, it’s playing to the like minded crowd; getting a rise from producing a cheap laugh, with no consideration to the group or groups of people online.
Racism has been around forever and will continue to be long after we are gone. That’s not defeatist, that’s just the reality. But it can be reduced, slowly. Is an ECB investigation going to manage that? Not sure. How about a Government select committee or public hearings? Perhaps. If the message is clear enough then attitudes will change, one by one by one. But when excuses are made, like they have by the investigation into Azeem Rafiq, then we won’t only fail to move forward, we’ll move backwards. It’s 2021 and we all have a voice. It’s frankly a disgrace that some who can use that voice to make things better, willfully neglect that responsibility.
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