Azeem Rafiq lays bare 'normalisation' of racism at Yorkshire cricket

Bowler breaks down on a number of occasions as he recounts to MPs his experiences of abuse

Cricketer Azeem Rafiq has laid out a litany of “inhuman” racial abuse he suffered at Yorkshire County Cricket Club in an extraordinary testimony before MPs.

During an emotional appearance on Tuesday, the professional cricketer gave evidence of appalling incidents of racial abuse he and other players of colour suffered at the club.

Rafiq has been waiting for the chance to air his full allegations in the public arena and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee hearing offered him the opportunity to speak with the protection of parliamentary privilege – a freedom he used to issue a string of previously unheard claims.

As well as going into disturbing detail of his time at Headingley, Rafiq, 30, took his accusations close to the top of the game, suggesting racially derogatory use of the term ‘Kevin’ by former teammate Gary Ballance was “an open secret in the England dressing room”. He further alleged that another former England batter, Alex Hales, had given a dog the name because it was black.

Rafiq’s voice cracked and he fought back tears on several occasions but he spoke with clarity and resolve for almost an hour and 40 minutes, interrupted only by one brief adjournment when emotion got the better of him.

Rafiq concluded that racial discrimination, and his decision to take a stand against it, had cost him his career in a sport that he feels has ingrained problems above and beyond his own story.

International players were named, including current England captain Joe Root. Rafiq said he found it “hurtful” that the player he called "a good guy" denied hearing racist comments despite allegedly being present during looker-room taunts.

Rafiq appeared before MPs after Yorkshire’s inept handling of his racism complaint. An internal report substantiated his accusations yet the club failed to take any disciplinary action against serving personnel.

Members looked on aghast as the player detailed allegations of racist remarks that were so common he said many players failed to even notice them.

A Pakistani-born Muslim who moved to Yorkshire as a boy, Rafiq outlined one incident when a professional Yorkshire cricketer forced red wine down his throat when he as only 15. It was the first time he had drunk alcohol and he later went on to become a heavy drinker.

Constant references of the derogatory P-word were used against him and other non-white players, along with slurs such as suggesting bearded Asian men in the street were Rafiq's “uncle”.

Rafiq, who played for England schoolboys, fought tears recounting the moment when in 2017, shortly after he had made a formal complaint about racism, his son was stillborn but the next day he had faced criticism from former England player and Yorkshire stalwart Martyn Moxon.

“My first day back after losing my son, Martyn Moxon got me in a room and literally ripped shreds off me,” he said. “The treatment that I received from some of the other officials was inhuman, they weren't really bothered about the fact that I was training one day and I got a phone call saying there's ‘there's no heartbeat’.”

Quote
The treatment that I received from some of the other officials was inhuman
Azeem Rafiq

It was some distance from his rapture on joining Yorkshire, then a team filled with his sporting heroes, including former England captain Michael Vaughan and bowler Matthew Hoggard.

But Rafiq, a talented off-spinner and decent batsman with a first-class century to his name, was almost immediately subjected to abuse.

“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.”

Several times he named former England batsman and ex-Yorkshire captain Gary Ballance as regularly using the “P-word” and for introducing the name “Kevin” which was an “open secret” in the England dressing room “to describe anyone of colour in a very derogatory manner.”

Mr Ballance, originally from Zimbabwe, has since apologised for his actions.

Hales, another former England player, named his dog “Kevin” because it was black. “It’s disgusting how much of a joke it was,” Rafiq said. Hales has posted on Instagram about his dog “Kev”.

Root has publicly refuted the allegation that he heard racial abuse at Yorkshire. But Rafiq found the captain’s denial “hurtful” because Root was Ballance’s housemate and “had been involved in a lot of the socialising where I was called a ‘P***’”.

“Rooty is a good man, he never engaged in racist language. It shows how normal it was that even a good man like him doesn’t see it for what it was. It’s not going to affect Joe but it’s something I remember every day.”

Rafiq said 2005 Ashes winner Matthew Hoggard, once a hero of his and subsequently a teammate, had phoned him to apologise for hurtful comments, and that he had raised a complaint about the conduct of other players.

He claimed Jack Brooks, a two-time County Championship winner at Yorkshire, had started the disrespectful practice of calling India star Cheteshwar Pujara “Steve” during his stint at the club.

Rafiq was scathing about the assistance offered by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, who represent the interests of all players in this episode, and the personal development manager he was assigned by the organisation, Matthew Wood, whom, he claimed, was working “for Yorkshire, with Yorkshire” and not in his best interests.

The cricketer, who was brought up in the Yorkshire town of Barnsley, was spotted as a teenager and played for England Under-19s.

“All I wanted to do was play cricket and play for England and live my dream and live my family’s dream,” he said.

But that ideal was shattered by his racism complaint that at one point last year took him close to killing himself.

He told MPs that the problem at Yorkshire was replicated “up and down the country” and England and Wales Cricket Board initiatives on diversity were “box-ticking” exercises and “tokenism”.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan has been named in the independent report into Rafiq’s claims, but has strenuously denied allegations he told four of his Asian teammates that there was “too many of your lot, we need to do something about it”.

Asked about Vaughan, Rafiq said: “He probably doesn’t remember it because it doesn’t mean anything to him.”

Rafiq, married with two young children, said by speaking out as a “voice for the voiceless” he hoped that there could be a “massive change” in attitude because he was “staggered” when Yorkshire announced no one would face disciplinary action over his experience at the club.

"All I wanted was an acceptance, an apology, an understanding, and let's try and work together to ensure it never happens again," he said. “I want to help the young lads who want to achieve their dreams to prepare better.”

He said that a change would also benefit England’s first team with a current dearth of South Asian players in the professional game despite its popularity in the community.

British Asian representation in professional cricket has since 2010 dropped nearly 40 per cent and England have missed out on "a hell of a lot of talent", Rafiq said.

Roger Hutton, Yorkshire's former chairman who resigned this month, also gave evidence and offered his "profound apologies" to Rafiq. He said Moxon and former chief executive Mark Arthur had "failed to accept the gravity of the situation" and “have not wanted to apologise or take the recommendations of the panel going forward".

Both men have subsequently resigned but neither accepted the committee’s invitation to appear before it.

Their club has suffered a severe financial shock from the crisis with sponsors, including Nike and Yorkshire Tea, withdrawing and the club being banned from hosting Test matches at their Headingley ground.

The MPs hoped that the club would publish the damning report into Rafiq’s complaints, something it continues to refuse to do.

Speaking after the evidence was given, Prime Minster Boris Johnson called on the cricket authorities to take “immediate action” in response to the evidence of Azeem Rafiq to MPs.

The Prime Minister praised Mr Rafiq’s courage in speaking out about racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

“Brave testimony from Azeem Rafiq. I commend him for speaking out,” Mr Johnson tweeted.

“There is no excuse for racism anywhere in society and we expect @EnglandCricket and @YorkshireCCC to take immediate action in response to these allegations.”

Updated: November 16th 2021, 5:57 PM
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