English cricket is riddled with racism and it made my life hell, says ex-Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq

English cricket is riddled with racism and it made my life hell, says ex-Yorkshire player Azeem  Rafiq
Azeem Rafiq of Yorkshire, July 22, 2016 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images)

Former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq broke down in tears on Tuesday as he told a British parliamentary committee of ‘inhuman’ treatment at the cricket club and described the sport in England as riddled with racism.

In more than an hour of testimony, Rafiq (30), a former England Under-19s captain of Pakistani descent, catalogued a culture of widespread racism at Yorkshire.

He and other players with Asian backgrounds were subjected to racial slurs such as “You lot sit over there” and referred to as “Paki” and “elephant washers”, Rafiq said.

“I felt isolated, humiliated at times,” he said during emotional testimony to the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport panel.

The scandal has shaken English sport, cost Yorkshire sponsors and the right to host England internationals, seen the club’s top brass quit, and embroiled former England captain Michael Vaughan and present England skipper Joe Root.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson commended Rafiq for his “brave testimony”, saying on Twitter there was no excuse for racism anywhere in society.

“We expect @EnglandCricket and @YorkshireCCC to take immediate action in response to these allegations,” Johnson said.

Rafiq, a Muslim off-spin bowler who played for Yorkshire from 2008 to 2014 and again from 2016 to 2018, recounted having red wine poured down his throat as a 15-year-old and spoke of Asian players being singled out for mistakes while they were fasting.

Rafiq broke down as he recounted how, the day he had returned to the club in 2018 after his son was stillborn, director of cricket Martyn Moxon had “ripped the shreds off me” in a meeting.

“Some of the club officials were inhuman,” he said. “They weren’t really bothered about the fact that I was at training one day and I get a phone call to say there’s no heartbeat.”

Azeem Rafiq of the Yorkshire Vikings bowls during a Vitality Blast match against the Derbyshire Falcons at Headingley in Leeds on 30 July 2018. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

He also said the racism he endured at Yorkshire was “without a shadow of doubt” replicated across the country, and said British Asian representation in the professional game had dropped by 40% since 2010.

He told the hearing he would not want his son “anywhere near cricket” and that players from other counties had contacted him with similar experiences.

Former Yorkshire chairperson Roger Hutton, who resigned following Yorkshire’s failure to discipline anyone in response to a club report into Rafiq’s allegations, said the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) should have carried out the investigation.

“It would have been far better had they done that. This was a whistle-blowing claim from 2007 to 2018, against the executive of the club,” Hutton told the hearing.

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison said the first-class game was struggling to wake up to diversity issues.

“If we’re not in an emergency, we’re approaching one, he said.”

Toxic atmosphere

Rafiq said there was a toxic atmosphere at Yorkshire under captain Gary Ballance, vice-captain Tim Bresnan, head coach Andrew Gale and Moxon, saying the constant racist abuse caused him to have suicidal thoughts.

Recalling a night out during a 2017 pre-season tour, Rafiq said: “We were in a place and Gary Ballance walks over and goes: ‘Why are you talking to him? You know he’s a Paki.’ This happened in front of teammates. It happened in front of coaching staff.”

Rafiq said Ballance used the name “Kevin” as a derogatory term to describe any player of colour and that the term was an “open secret within the England dressing room”.

Azeem Rafiq of England is bowled by Jason Holder of the West Indies during an ICC U19 World Cup quarterfinal at the Mainpower Oval in Rangiora, New Zealand on 23 January 2010. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In a 4 November statement, Ballance, who played 23 tests for England, acknowledged he used racial slurs and said he deeply regretted some of the language he used when he was younger.

Yorkshire said last week that Moxon was off work with a stress-related illness, while Gale had been suspended for an alleged anti-Semitic tweet he sent in 2010.

Reuters has been unable to reach either for comment.

Rafiq said the extent of racism in English professional cricket was an open secret but that players’ lives were “made hell” if they spoke up.

Some of English cricket’s biggest names have been dragged into the controversy.

Rafiq says ex-England captain Vaughan told him and two other players of Asian origin that there were “too many of you lot, we need to do something about it” before a match in 2009. Vaughan strongly denies the allegation.

Rafiq said that current England captain Root, a Yorkshire player, was a good man who “has never engaged in racist language”. But the fact that Root could not remember hearing racist language spoke volumes about the culture at the club.

Key statements

The following are key statements from Rafiq and the others questioned during his testimony to the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport panel on Tuesday on the racism he encountered at the county team:

On racial slurs

“From early on there was a lot of ‘You lot sit over there near the toilets’. The word ‘Paki’ was used constantly, no one ever stamped it out. All I wanted to do was play cricket.”

On racism from teammates

“I felt isolated. (Yorkshire batsman Gary) Ballance came over and said: ‘Why are you talking to him? He’s not a Sheikh, he hasn’t got oil.’ Going past a corner shop, I was asked if my uncle owned it.”

On Ballance

“(Ballance) used a racial slur in 2017 and the pre-season tour. I want to address Gary’s statement. There was a narrative there that we were the best of teammates.

“When he came to the club from Derby, I saw in him what I saw in myself, as an outsider. A lot of players called Gary things that were completely out of order, but it was such a norm that no one said anything.”

On being forced to drink alcohol aged 15

“My first incident of drinking, I was 15, I got pinned down at my local cricket club and had red wine poured down my throat. The player played for Yorkshire and Hampshire.”

On the use of ‘Steve’ and ‘Kevin’ for Asian origin players

“Everyone called (India’s Cheteshwar Pujara, ‘Steve’), high-profile players around the world, and it shows the institutional failings. ‘Kevin’ was something Gary used for people of colour in a derogatory manner.

“Gary and Alex Hales got close to each other playing for England but I understand Alex went on to name his dog Kevin because it was black. It is disgusting how much of a joke it became.”

On racism across the country and problems speaking out

“Without a shadow of a doubt, this is replicated up and down the country… I’d like to see it as progress that people feel they can come forward and not be smeared against and discredited.”

On raising complaints

“All I wanted was acceptance, an apology, understanding… When I raised the complaints again, it was a complete denial. I was lucky to be supported by certain members of the press but I felt like social media was my voice.”

On why he returned to Yorkshire for a second spell

“In my first spell, there were things that happened that I didn’t see for what they were. I was in denial.

“In 2016 I started well and I was training with Derbyshire. They didn’t have the finances to offer me a contract. I was in a position where putting food on the table was difficult, so that’s why I went back.

“For a person of colour to accept you’re being treated differently because of your race or religion is tough to take. You’re always asking, ‘Why?’ I didn’t want to believe it. After the loss of my son, I couldn’t look the other way.”

On England Test captain Joe Root

“Rooty’s a good man. He has never engaged in racist language. I found it hurtful because Rooty was Gary Ballance’s housemate.

“Maybe he didn’t remember it (nights out when racist language was used), but it just shows the institution that a good man like him cannot remember those things.”

On the Professional Cricketers Association

“I found the PCA stance incredibly inept. It was, ‘Oh, we’ve got members on both sides’. You’re protecting the perpetrators and you have no interest in where this is taking me?

“The PCA kept telling me when the report comes out, they would support me. Once it did, they said we have no powers, we can just push the ECB. An organisation that should have been there for me and supported me left to fight on my own.”

On former England player Matthew Hoggard’s apology

“After my Sky interview I took a call from Hoggard and he said, ‘I’m sorry if some of the comments made you feel how you described it’. I said, ‘Thank you, appreciate it’.”

Statements by others:

Former Yorkshire chairman Roger Hutton, who resigned following Yorkshire’s report into claims made by Rafiq

“There were a number of signals throughout the process. I was asked by the CEO (Mark Arthur) to abandon the process and investigation.

“An employment tribunal had been settled and the CEO did not want to apologise. I said Azeem Rafiq would be part of the process of healing and reconciliation and was told he would not be welcome.”

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison

I would say please understand that we are really sorry for the experiences you may have been through trying to experience cricket in this country.

“We know we may have let you down. We will fix it fast. We know the survival of our sport depends on it.”

Former England bowler Tim Bresnan, who was named by Rafiq in the testimony

“For any part I played in contributing to Azeem Rafiq’s experience of feeling bullied at Yorkshire, I apologise unreservedly.”

Lord Kamlesh Patel, director and new chairperson of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club and a legislator in Britain’s unelected House of Lords, has said he is looking forward to ‘driving the change that is needed’, amid the growing racism row involving former player Azeem Rafiq. (Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP)

Kamlesh Patel, who replaced Hutton as Yorkshire chairperson

“I am going to have to be an active chairman. This is an organisation that has been hammered left, right and centre. The hurt Azeem has gone through, others have gone through as well.

“By golly, we have to move on it quickly. There are too many people and staff suffering.” Reuters/DM


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