Former cricketer Azeem Rafiq has spoken to UK lawmakers about his calls for disciplinary action to be taken by Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) following an investigation that found he had been subjected to racial harassment and bullying.
After a turbulent month which has brought to light multiple allegations of racism by former players of YCCC, Rafiq gave evidence before a parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) panel on Tuesday, with senior Yorkshire executives set to speak as well.
Throughout the hearing, Rafiq shared his experience at Yorkshire and broke down in tears on more than one occasion.
“From early on there was a lot of “You lot sit over there near the toilets,” the word ‘P***’ was used constantly, no one ever stamped it out,” said Rafiq.
“All I wanted to do was play cricket. Towards the end of my first spell but constantly throughout I knew there was something wrong. I started taking medication for my mental health. It was really tough.”
Asked to compare his treatment at Yorkshire to his everyday life, Rafiq said: “My every day life for as long as I’ve known has been cricket. It’s difficult to compare. Cricket is worse than society. If we make changes in cricket, we make changes in society. Everyone is responsible for the society we live in. Saying it is a societal problem is a cop out.”
“Do I believe I lost my career to racism? Yes I do,” added Rafiq.
“Maybe what was written for me is this … I’m a massive believer that everything happens for a reason and hopefully in five years’ time we’re going to see a big change and I can look back at it, that I did something that is far bigger than any runs I got or any wickets I got. But yeah, it’s horrible, it hurts.”
While many sports players and governing bodies have been grappling with issues surrounding race and inequality on and off the pitch, cricket is still seen as “staunchly conservative,” Tom Fletcher, an academic in events, tourism and hospitality management at Leeds Beckett University, told CNN.
“As you get further through the system, the game gets whiter and whiter,” he said. “That happens in all walks of the game, [it] happens within coaching as well,” Fletcher, whose research focuses on racism and social justice, said.
Former Yorkshire cricketer Rafiq made over 40 allegations against YCCC that he says took place between 2008 and 2018, according to a report summary of an independent inquiry conducted on behalf of the club, which noted that in almost all cases he alleged he was subject to racial harassment or bullying.
Rafiq said the experience left him close to taking his own life.
Though YCCC said the inquiry only upheld seven of Rafiq’s claims they conceded: “There is no question that Azeem Rafiq, during his first spell as a player at YCCC, was the victim of racial harassment.
The allegations have raised uncomfortable questions for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), which regulates English cricket.
The ECB’s Chief Executive Officer Tom Harrison and Chair Barry O’Brien will also face questions from British lawmakers at Tuesday’s inquiry, according to a parliamentary note sent on Monday.
“We’ve heard some harrowing personal testimony from Azeem Rafiq today about his experiences of racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club,” said lawmaker Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS select committee.
“Despite his bravery in speaking out, there can be no doubt about the terrible impact on him and his family of what he’s gone through over many years.
“The ECB failed to take decisive action at the outset and it is clear there is much work for it to do as a national governing body and a regulator if cricket’s tarnished reputation in this country is to be restored.”
String of allegations
In August, YCCC issued a statement saying “many of the (Rafiq’s) allegations were not upheld” by an investigation it asked a panel of volunteer experts to conduct. The club’s statement did not specify which.
For other allegations, the statement said “there was insufficient evidence.” But it said that “several” of Rafiq’s allegations were upheld, and that he had been “the victim of inappropriate behaviour.”
At least one player admitted to regularly using the term ‘P***’ – a word widely seen as a slur and used against people of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin in Britain – when talking to Rafiq, according to a report seen by ESPNcricinfo and detailed this month.
But the report said that the player in question was exonerated because the review panel saw the comments as “banter” between the two players, ESPNcricinfo reported.
According to the summary of YCCC’s September 2021 report “Rafiq and his teammate’s language towards each other was unacceptable and was racist and derogatory and the Panel did not condone the language.”
In a statement posted to his Twitter account in October, Rafiq said that the investigation into his allegations of racism “lacked transparency and due process,” and that he had not been allowed to see the report, which he said was completed in August.
At least one other player has come forward to corroborate details of the racism Rafiq says he endured at YCCC.
Last week, former YCCC academy player Irfan Amjad told the BBC that he was racially abused by a member of staff when he was 16 years old.
Amjad alleged that his batting style was criticized by a member of staff, referencing his Pakistani heritage.
“I was stunned, didn’t know what to do and was shocked. I had never been directly racially insulted like that to my face. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Another former Yorkshire academy player Tabassum Bhatti told BBC Sport he was subjected to racism from teammates at the club as a 14-year-old.
Bhatti said ”players urinated on his head, desecrated another Muslim player’s prayer mat and used racist language aimed at his Pakistani heritage.”
YCCC did not respond to CNN’s request for comment regarding the allegations from Amjad and Bhatti.
According to Fletcher, cricket in Britain at the top echelon of the sport faces a significant diversity challenge.
“In the UK, on an amateur level a little over a third of people who play cricket are from a South Asian background,” Fletcher told CNN.
“The statistical proportion of players from other ethnic groups other than whites is very low,” Fletcher, whose research focuses on racism and social justice, said.
“The issue lies with how you make those transitions from amateur to games and how you become recognized,” added Fletcher, noting that cricket is still considered to be “staunchly conservative” when compared to other sports.
Jamaican born Maurice Chambers told The Cricketer in a piece published on Monday that he experienced racism at Essex Country Cricket Club, with ”a senior member of the coaching staff reading out racist jokes in the dressing room,” and a colleague calling him a “f***ing monkey.”
The club released a statement, saying that “The allegations reported today, involving Essex and another club, make distressing reading. Everything which has been reported will be taken very seriously and investigated thoroughly.”
CNN has reached out to Essex for further comment.
Former Essex player Zoheb Sharif also made allegations of racist abuse relating to his time at the club between 2001 and 2004, published for the first time last week.
“It was a day after the September 11 attacks. People started calling me Bomber,” Sharif told the Mirror.
Essex Cricket Chief Executive, John Stephenson, said he was “shocked and saddened” to hear of racial allegations involving a former player, dating back to 2001.
“There is absolutely no place for discrimination of any kind at Essex County Cricket Club and we have a zero-tolerance policy towards racism.
“I immediately reached out to the former player to offer him my and Essex County Cricket Club’s full support and to encourage him to come forward and talk to myself and the Club about his experiences,” he added.
But “up until now, English cricket in particular has been pretty quiet on its position [on racism],” Fletcher said.
“Perhaps because actually they know full well [in] any sort of gesture.. they will line themselves up to criticism if they were to take a position on racism – so that players could come out and say well, you didn’t support my claim,” he said.
What happens now?
Lawmaker Knight has already called on the board of YCCC to resign in the wake of the allegations made by Rafiq.
“Given the endemic racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, I struggle to think of any reason why … the board should remain in post,” Knight said on Twitter in early November.
Club chairman, Roger Hutton, resigned earlier this month and apologized for what he described as “a constant unwillingness” on the part of the club’s leadership “to apologize and to accept racism and to look forward.”
Hutton apologized to Rafiq in a statement, saying that though he was not at the club during the period the cricketer was employed, “the club should have recognized at the time the serious allegations of racism.
Meanwhile, head coach Andrew Gale has been temporarily suspended while under investigation for a “historic” tweet he sent, YCCC said, though they did not give further details about the tweet.
Following the allegations, a number of high profile sponsors have left the club, which has been suspended by The England and Wales Cricket Board from holding internationals and other big games “until it has clearly demonstrated that it can meet the standards expected of an international venue, ECB member and First Class County,” the ECB said.
The club’s new chair Lord Patel last week announced the creation of a whistleblowing hotline and has urged others to “come forward and share their experiences.”
Mohinderpal Sethi QC has been appointed to lead an independent investigation looking into claims lodged through the hotline.