England’s cricketing establishment faced a reckoning when the ex-professional cricketer Azeem Rafiq gave testimony to MPs detailing the racism he faced at Yorkshire County Cricket Club (CCC), one of England’s most famous sporting institutions.
Rafiq played at Yorkshire for the majority of his career, at both youth and professional level, between 2008 and 2018. It was two years later, in September 2020, when he first spoke out about the “institutional racism” he encountered at the club – which left him close to taking his own life.
“The word ‘P**i’ was used constantly… and no one ever stamped it out,” he told a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing in November. “All I wanted to do is play cricket.”
Rafiq’s revelations, which included allegations of racism against the former England and Yorkshire captain Michael Vaughan (which he “totally denies”), rocked the cricketing world – and an independent investigation on behalf of Yorkshire into Rafiq’s experiences was commissioned.
The report was begrudgingly released, and upheld seven of the 43 claims made by Rafiq. The Health Secretary Sajid Javid called for “heads to roll” – and they did. In the fallout, Roger Hutton resigned from his role as chairman of Yorkshire CCC, Mark Arthur resigned as chief executive, and head coach Andrew Gale was suspended as part of an investigation into a tweet containing an anti-Semitic slur he sent in 2010.
While Rafiq’s testimony shocked many in the game and beyond, the language, though harrowing, was the tip of the iceberg in his case. The isolating aura he experienced spoke to the more covert, insidious ways prejudice manifests: Rafiq’s not sharing the club’s “White Rose values” and “problematic” attitude in the dressing room, according to an anonymous letter sent by club staff, reeked of the ostracism that many people in minority groups, rich and poor, experience.
Anonymous briefing against him to less sympathetic newspapers started trickling out almost as soon as he began blowing the whistle on abuse by fellow players and the permissiveness of the club.
Shortly after his testimony, another story involving Rafiq broke: screenshots of messages, in which he made offensive and derogatory comments about Jewish people, had surfaced. He apologised, saying he was 19 at the time and was a “different person today”.
Kamlesh Patel, the new president of Yorkshire CCC, has apologised to Rafiq and hailed his “bravery” as a whistleblower. And since both stories broke, Rafiq has been labelled many things: a “hero” by some, and “hypocrite” by others.
Whatever his public reception, the scandal acts as a reminder that though the scourge of racism – whether in cricket or society at large – may often be out of sight, it is not always out of the minds of some.
Yet the case also exposed the grim public ordeal of those with the courage to speak out about it.
As Jonathan Liew, writing in the New Statesman, put it: “Unless we as a public and we as a media are prepared to scrutinise racist behaviour beyond the superficial level of incidents and language, the next whistleblower may well decide it really isn’t worth the trouble.”