Top cricketers I played with said they were victims of racism

Sporting dressing rooms can be unforgiving places. This seems to have been the case with Sharif and Chambers

Cricket hasn’t been light on scandal over the years, from match-fixing incidents in international fixtures, to the ball-tampering saga that resulted in bans for former Australia captain Steve Smith and fellow stars David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.

But the sport, which was known as “the gentleman’s game” in its early years, and is still expected to project behaviour of the highest order on the pitch, now finds itself embroiled in its biggest crisis yet.

Former Yorkshire County Cricket Club player Azeem Rafiq revealed extraordinary testimony to British MPs this week, telling of appalling incidents of racial abuse he and others had suffered.

“Me and other people from an Asian background … there were comments such as ‘you’ll sit over there near the toilets’, ‘elephant washers’. The word P*** was used constantly. And there just seemed to be an acceptance in the institution from the leaders and no one ever stamped it out.”

Rafiq’s revelations have led to other cricketers stepping forward to voice their own horrific experiences.

Among them is former Essex cricketer Zoheb Sharif. The now 38-year-old told Sky News he was nicknamed "the bomber" throughout his time at the county, having made his debut a day after the September 11 attacks.

Fellow former Essex player Maurice Chambers has also described how he was subjected to racist bullying for 10 years at the club.

On a personal level, I briefly played Essex age group cricket alongside Sharif, who as a teenager was a standout star. One match I particularly remember saw him score a big century while playing against a higher age group. But he went on to make only four first-team appearances and says his race was used to hold him back.

Meanwhile, I played against Chambers in club cricket, where he was a fearsome fast bowler. He described to The Cricketer how he would “go home at the end of the day and cry” while at Essex.

Sporting locker rooms can be unforgiving places

Sporting dressing rooms can be unforgiving places. Thankfully, during my brush with elite sport, I never witnessed anything like what Rafiq, Sharif and Chambers have described.

But there has been plenty of recent debate around what constitutes abuse, and what is considered banter.

Many former professionals say what they miss most from their sporting days is the banter before, during and after matches. It can help to bond a team and put players at ease when there’s pressure and tension in the air. On a recreational level, it is arguably a more relaxed environment than the workplace and loaded comments frequently fly between "pals".

However, the line has clearly not just been crossed but completely ignored in cricketing circles for some time.

Going forward, the dressing room could well become a much quieter place with the joviality turned down. That, of course, is a small sacrifice to make if cricket is to regain its once clean-cut image.

Published: November 17th 2021, 4:25 PM
Ian Oxborrow

Ian Oxborrow

Ian has been at The National since 2012. He worked on the business and sports desks at The Telegraph in London and in various roles in regional newspapers in the UK. He is the author of two books, and has a particular interest in creating content on aviation, property, sport and anything with a fascinating set of statistics.