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31 March 2023

The Azeem Rafiq case shows the ECB can’t solve cricket’s problems

Cricket’s grass roots need to take control of their sport.

By Peter Williams

The most shameful thing about Azeem Rafiq’s account of the racist bullying he suffered while a player at Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) is that little of it was really news. That racism existed throughout the game; that players from an Asian background, who comprise at least 30 per cent of participants in amateur cricket in the UK, are underrepresented at professional level; and that Yorkshire cricket had a particular problem bringing Asian players through are all things a semi-attentive fan could have told you 20 years ago, when Rafiq was an age-group cricketer of great promise.

The findings of the Cricket Discipline Commission (CDC) hearing on Rafiq’s time at Yorkshire, released today (31 March), will do little to help the game move forward. The most high-profile defendant, the former England captain Michael Vaughan, was cleared of telling four Asian players “there’s too many of you lot” before a game in 2009, but the seven others, including the former England players Matthew Hoggard, Tim Bresnan and Gary Ballance, were all found guilty of or admitted bringing the game into disrepute. Sanctions will be announced by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) at a later date.

The CDC hearing was conducted in public at the request of Rafiq, who hoped it would achieve “transparency and closure” for him, his family and those facing misconduct charges. It has done no such thing. The lives of both Rafiq – forced to move abroad with his family to escape threats and harassment – and those implicated have been devastated by the muddled attempts by the ECB and Yorkshire to provide redress for Rafiq, and the room they have left for continued dispute, doubt and mud-slinging.

Most of the individuals charged refused to attend the CDC hearing, arguing that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, while the CDC’s standard of proof was the highly contestable “on the balance of probabilities”. Much of the defence that has been aired within and outside the hearing has attacked Rafiq’s character and highlighted his own less than stellar past behaviour. And despite the CDC panel declaring that “these findings do not in any way undermine the wider assertions made by Azeem Rafiq, many of which of course have been confirmed by the admissions of YCCC”, and that “this is not a case which necessitated a conclusion… that anyone has lied or acted out of malice”, many will use the Vaughan verdict to claim that Rafiq was being untruthful.

There have been other problems too. Rafiq’s appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in November 2021 enabled his statement to an employment tribunal to be published under parliamentary privilege. It is a powerful document, but the tribunal in question was truncated after Yorkshire decided to settle with Rafiq, meaning none of those named ever had a chance to respond. Yorkshire has admitted that six of those who left the club in late 2021 – 16 members of staff were sacked – were dismissed without due process.

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[See also: A battle for the soul of English cricket]

If those who care for the game are to extricate something worthwhile from this mess, they should recall the time of Rafiq’s select committee appearance in 2021, and how far the sport was plunged into darkness by the force of his testimony. How others came forward with accounts of racism in the professional game – including David Lawrence and the Essex players Maurice Chambers, Jahid Ahmed and Zoheb Sharif. And that cricketing misogyny was also in the news then, as the former Worcestershire cricketer Alex Hepburn left prison following his conviction for rape in 2019 – a crime that resulted from a competition for sexual conquests with teammates, including the England prospect Joe Clarke.

Rafiq forced everyone who has played the game to perform a double take. On the one hand, his was an extraordinarily bleak account of casual cruelty, despair and language suited more to stories of the National Front in the 1970s than the ultra-controlled environment of a 21st-century professional sports team. On the other hand, the culture he described – the wretched “banter”, the preoccupation with status and hierarchy, the macho denigration of all and everyone, the pressure to “fit in” (a phrase that recurs throughout his tribunal statement) – will have resonated with a lot of male club cricketers, and perhaps led them to remember times when a teammate, opponent or official said something that was reprehensible but allowed to pass.

This has always been Rafiq’s point. What happened to him was behaviour learnt within cricket, not imported from elsewhere. He told the select committee last December: “Such ‘banter’ occurred throughout the game – most of the issues are institutional not personal, which is why I have completely accepted apologies I have received.” The episode where a 15-year-old Rafiq was forced to drink red wine, contrary to his Muslim faith, replicates, with sinister overtones, the sort of boozy, blokey idiocy that will play out in clubhouses across the land this summer.

It also illustrates another problem, something that in healthier climes would be a strength. Cricket is a multigenerational sport, unusually so, at professional and amateur level. It is standard in league cricket for teenagers to play alongside every species of adult male, from bleary-eyed undergrads to spry seventy-somethings. They will be exposed to grown men – their culture, habits and speech – at a time when they are looking for non-parental role models. What adults do and say in these environments matters; what kids hear while playing with them matters. It is not hard to see why adolescents, with the great urge to fit in that many of them feel, would shape themselves to whatever team culture they find, would be excited if they fancied themselves an accepted part of it.

The Rafiq case also shows how unlikely it is that the ECB, for all its brochures outlining action plans and pathways, will be equal to the task of driving out discrimination (Rafiq is sceptical), even as it awaits the recommendations of a major report into inequality in cricket. In any case, it can’t install an official in every dressing room in the land, and as Jonathan Liew has recently argued with respect to scandals at the Welsh Rugby Union, expecting sports governing bodies to fulfil everything that falls within their absurdly broad remit is unrealistic and unhelpful, regardless of how well they function.

Whatever safeguards, standards, tick-box processes and glossy literature the ECB devises, it is down to captains, players, officials and administrators at every level to look after their own patch. Many are already doing this. The rest will have to either start now, or leave. The continued rapid growth and professionalisation of women’s cricket, and its greater integration with men’s cricket at club level, will also help to improve the culture at those clubs where the bar on a Saturday evening resembles an episode of Life on Mars.

I heard once of a young pro who had come to England to play club cricket, who has since represented his country, being told with zero fuss or sanctimony by one captain that his preferred descriptions for women weren’t welcome. There was no lecture, no one pretending it was a road to Damascus moment, but a simple instruction that he couldn’t speak like that in this particular team. There needs to be a lot of that. It will be those at the game’s grass roots, those who truly love the sport and know it can enrich lives, who are going to have to prove that cricket is a thing worth preserving, never mind extending.

[See also: The long shadows over English cricket]

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