The close relationship between cricket and scandal, almost since the game’s inception, is easily overlooked. Match fixing, sadly, has dogged the game for years and periodically raises its head to be dealt with, leaving one to wonder how many instances are undiscovered.
That said, the events that unfolded yesterday in a stuffy House of Commons committee room, was a new low for English cricket. It could and rightly should, be a pivotal moment not only for cricket but society at large. It was the day that English cricket’s dirty washing was held up for all to see, the putrid stench from years of wilfully neglecting the issue of racism, finally became suffocating.
For almost two hours, Azeem Rafiq provided a testimony that was in turns compelling, harrowing but ultimately unsurprising, at least for most people of colour. He detailed a disturbing history of racist abuse experienced when playing for Yorkshire County Cricket Club, a club that is synonymous with English cricket, and the lack of support he received from the institutions governing the game. Rafiq described mundane and seemingly childish name calling and the normalising of the p-word, it was reminiscent of the pernicious low level racist abuse suffered by ethnic minority communities in previous decades, but shockingly these events took place just a few years ago. The description of being pinned down and force-fed alcohol at the age of fifteen, while others looked on, must surely invite a criminal investigation.
Much of the testimony resonated beyond the cricket field; the nagging sense of self-doubt when calling out racist behaviour, the fear of jeopardising career prospects and being viewed as a trouble maker. Few have the courage demonstrated by Rafiq to speak out, ironically, it’s only when he has nothing else to lose that people have begun to listen, his cricket career and dreams of playing for England have long since dissipated.
A number of players and senior figures involved in cricket at Yorkshire and England were named in connection with Rafiq’s allegations. Interestingly Joe Root, England Test captain and Rafiq’s former teammate, was described as “a good man” but also someone who simply looked the other way or chose not to take notice when racist insults were being hurled. Joe Root himself has said he cannot remember racist language or behaviour during this time. There are two possible explanations for this; either racist language became so normalised that it was nothing out of the ordinary and forgettable, or that his privilege allows him to simply not take notice and forget. The biggest single lesson for even the good guys, is that looking away and staying silent is tantamount to rubber stamping a racist culture.
One of the most depressing aspects of a sorry saga, was the way that Rafiq was continually let down by some members of his own local Pakistani community, particularly those in positions of power and influence. A theme of collusion and self-interest is apparent, maintaining the status quo is always easier than dealing with the messy reality of anti-racist campaigning. The National Asian Cricket Council, who’s remit is dispute resolution, were part of the original investigating panel, formed in response to Rafiq’s allegations of racism at Yorkshire. The NACC endorsed the investigating panel’s findings, which included the assertion that use of the p-word was just “banter”. It’s unclear whether incompetence or complicity has led to the NACC’s position, either way this gives scant confidence to those they are supposed to help.
Yorkshire’s handling of Rafiq’s complaints, which involved ignoring, delaying and discrediting the claims, clearly fell well below the standards for any organisation, sport related or not. The huge grey area in the governance of English cricket, allowed Yorkshire to in effect investigate themselves. The English Cricket Board, the guardians of the game, have also fallen short, consistently trying to justify a hands-off approach to the slow-motion car crash taking place at Yorkshire. In recent years the ECB has paid lip service to the need for increased diversity and inclusion within English cricket, but there’s been little tangible output. The disproportionately low numbers of professional cricketers from South Asian backgrounds in comparison to the high numbers playing cricket at grass roots level, shows no sign of changing anytime soon. Disenfranchised cricket clubs, consisting entirely of British Asians, languish in lowly leagues with inadequate facilities, giving little chance for the abundance of talent to flourish.
The ECB CEO, Tom Harrison, didn’t inspire confidence in front of the parliamentary select committee, his convoluted business management speak did nothing to suggest that he could lead cricket out of this crisis. His reluctance to admit institutional racism existed in Yorkshire, was a prime example of not being able to read the room. In sharp contrast, Rafiq’s testimony was delivered totally unscripted and with sincerity.
If this is to be a genuine watershed moment for English cricket, the groundswell of public sympathy for Rafiq’s plight must translate into concrete action. The insatiable news media will latch onto the next scandal, inevitably involving MPs, the Royal Family, or a reality tv star. People have short memories (indeed the prime minister’s entire political strategy is centred on yesterday’s news being completely forgotten). It is essential that any next step in the fight against racism in cricket is a collaboration; so much of the heavy lifting in anti-racist campaigning almost exclusively involves people of colour. Revealingly, despite the Azeem Rafiq story initially being reported by Taha Hashim at Wisden Cricket Monthly, it was only after the unrelenting George Dobell at ESPNcricinfo, took up the cause that the story gained wider traction. Cricket desperately needs more people like George.
A change in the governance structure of cricket and the way County clubs are run are the most obvious and essential long-term goals to work towards to. But harnessing the visceral impact of yesterday’s testimony from Azeem Rafiq into something positive, is the challenge for everyone with an interest in the game. Yesterday’s committee hearing was reminiscent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa. Perhaps the only way English cricket can honestly move forward, is with a similarly unflinching acceptance of it’s past.