After Yorkshire County Cricket Club released a statement entitled ‘An update on the investigation into allegations of racism’, many hoped to see Azeem Rafiq’s awful ordeal bear the conciliatory fruit of genuine change. Instead, we saw none of the finished report into institutional racism. Instead, we read eight paragraphs of waffling trivia followed by an initial self-exculpation: ‘Many of the allegations were not upheld and for others there was insufficient evidence’.
Finally, there came a faint-hearted admission of partial guilt, that some allegations had been upheld, that ‘sadly…Azeem was the victim of inappropriate behaviour’. After viewing Rafiq in tears in an interview with the BBC, for Yorkshire to have the temerity to define something that drove their former T20 captain to the brink of suicide as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ went beyond saddening.
Many will see this as Yorkshire’s problem, an isolated incident away from a group of counties doing their utmost to prioritise inclusivity. The constant delaying, the refusal to face up to the realities of responsibility, suggest this problem runs deep within the club. Rafiq’s rare decision to make his experiences public is unique not because of the scarcity of the problem, but the trials of the process itself. To believe, then, that this is an issue relating to just one county would surely be naïve.
Many have spent this summer justifiably defending the institution of County cricket as the city-based Hundred competition takes hold of the English summer, but it becomes almost impossible to do so in view of Yorkshire’s failings and the Hundred’s contrasting success in making cricket accessible to all. They have promoted a resoundingly healthy image of diverse participation.
Abtaha Maqsood of the Birmingham Phoenix became Britain’s first cricketer to wear a hijab in a competition offering equal prize money to the men’s and women’s teams. As a result, young fans are seeing cricket as an accepting game, believing they can have a future within it thanks to their idols representing a part of their identity on the biggest possible stage. Conversely, they will witness this debacle at Yorkshire and view County cricket as a game they will not be welcomed by.
Cricket’s problem, if we take a step back, is not really in how many balls are bowled before another individual steps up to the crease. It is not in the designs of TV scoreboards or a fresh invasion of neon. Those elements of a new tournament are jarring at times, and an unsustainable schedule as its result is proving detrimental, but perspective renders their importance all but obsolete.
Cricket’s problem is not in its moving parts, but those that stand still. It is, like it or not, still a game rooted in elitism, discrimination and cultural inertia. It has changed substantially for the better, but in the price of a Test match ticket at Lord’s, the online abuse suffered last year by Jofra Archer, and in this harrowing incident involving Azeem Rafiq, it is clear that a huge amount of work remains to be done.
An opportunity had presented itself to make progress at Yorkshire. That opportunity, thus far, has been vividly squandered. Perhaps, some will argue, Rafiq’s is a societal problem, rather than a cricketing one. That, it seems to me, is nothing but an excuse for inaction. It needs to be realised that sport itself is a social institution, a reflection of the community surrounding it. It has both the means and the duty to pioneer growth.
Over the past year many have become familiar with the words of James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced”. Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and the game it represents, is refusing to face its problems.
The inaugural season of the Hundred is being accused of embodying all that is wrong with modern cricket. Looking through a human lens, some will be starting to believe that quite the opposite is true.