Not 'friendly banter': Former English cricket star exposes racism

Azeem Rafiq, a former national cricket player for England, gave emotional testimony Tuesday in parliament about the racist slurs he endured while on the team. An investigation was launched in September 2020 following Mr. Rafiq’s complaints of institutional racism. 

House of Commons/AP
Former cricketer Azeem Rafiq gives evidence during a parliamentary hearing at the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport committee on sport governance at Portcullis House in London, Nov. 16, 2021. Mr. Rafiq spoke about the racism he suffered while with the Yorkshire team.

English cricket was forced to confront its racist culture on Tuesday when former player Azeem Rafiq testified through tears at a parliamentary hearing, with a determination to expose the Islamophobia and bullying he suffered for more than a decade.

“Do I believe I lost my career to racism? Yes, I do,” said Mr. Rafiq, who played for Yorkshire – England’s most successful cricket club.

“I hope in five years’ time we are going to see a big change, that I did something far bigger than any runs or any wickets I got.”

Racism complaints that led to Yorkshire launching an investigation in September 2020 reached the British Parliament after the report that dismissed some abuse as “friendly banter” led to no immediate departures from the club’s hierarchy and was not publicly released.

Mr. Rafiq told legislators that Yorkshire teammates used an offensive term referencing his Pakistani heritage and that the leadership at the 33-time winners of the English county championship failed to act on the racism.

“Pretty early on, [for] me and other people from an Asian background,” Mr. Rafiq told a House of Commons select committee overseeing sport, “there were comments such as, ‘You lot sit there near the toilets,’ ‘Elephant washers.’ The word P*** was used constantly. And there just seemed to be an acceptance in the institution from the leaders and no one stamped it out.”

Asked if he thought cricket was institutionally racist in the country, Mr. Rafiq responded: “Yes, I do.”

Two former players at Essex have recently also said they were racially abused at that club, whose chairman resigned last week over the use of racist language at a board meeting four years ago.

Mr. Rafiq, a former England Under-19 captain, said he felt “isolated, humiliated at times” by his treatment at Yorkshire during two spells playing for the club from 2008 to 2018.

During testimony, Mr. Rafiq also made fresh claims of racial discrimination against former England internationals Matthew Hoggard, Tim Bresnan, Alex Hales, and Gary Ballance who are accused of using the offensive abbreviation of Pakistani toward him.

“For any part I played in contributing to Azeem Rafiq’s experience of feeling bullied at Yorkshire, I apologize unreservedly,” Mr. Bresnan said.

Mr. Rafiq said Mr. Ballance’s use of “Kevin” as a blanket derogatory term for all people of color was “an open secret in the England dressing room” and Mr. Hales called his dog Kevin because it was black.

“It’s disgusting how much of a joke it was,” Mr. Rafiq said.

As a graduate of the Yorkshire academy, Mr. Rafiq recalled Mr. Hoggard told Asian players “you lot sit over there” and referred to them as “elephant washers.”

Mr. Rafiq has also said former England captain Michael Vaughan said “there’s too many of you lot” at a 2009 game for Yorkshire. Mr. Vaughan denies saying it.

Yorkshire said last month that it would not take any disciplinary action against any of its employees, players, or executives despite a report upholding seven of the 43 allegations that Mr. Rafiq was the victim of racial harassment and bullying. Only recently have the chairman and chief executive resigned.

The England and Wales Cricket Board has suspended Yorkshire from hosting international matches over its “wholly unacceptable” response to the racism faced by Mr. Rafiq, while sponsors are ending deals, including kit supplier Nike.

“I agree that the handling of the report indicates issues around institutional racism,” ECB chief executive Tom Harrison told legislators.

Mr. Rafiq said he was being talked about as a captain of Yorkshire before reporting his concerns in 2017. Then Mr. Rafiq said board minutes said he was “a problem, a troublemaker, and an issue that needs to be resolved.”

That followed a 2017 preseason tour when Mr. Rafiq said he suffered abuse from a teammate in front of others.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Ballance, a former England cricketer, admitted to using a racial slur against Mr. Rafiq when they were teammates at Yorkshire, but said that was in the context of friends saying offensive things to each other.

In a written submission to the hearing, Mr. Rafiq claimed that Yorkshire “protected” Mr. Ballance by allowing him to miss drug hair sample tests to avoid sanctions.

“When he failed a recreational drug test and was forced to miss some games,” Mr. Rafiq said, “the club informed the public he was missing games because he was struggling with anxiety and mental health issues.”

At one point, the committee had to break for several minutes after Mr. Rafiq grappled with the emotions of recounting painful experiences.

The Pakistan-born Mr. Rafiq, who is Muslim, described his distressing first experience of alcohol at the age of 15 after being asked about his drinking.

“I got pinned down at my local cricket club and had red wine poured down my throat, literally down my throat,” Mr. Rafiq said. “I [then] didn’t touch alcohol until about 2012 and around that time I felt I had to do that to fit in. I wasn’t perfect. There are things I did which I felt I had to do to achieve my dreams.”

“I deeply regret that but it has nothing to do with racism,” he said. “When I spoke, I should have been listened to. The game as a whole has a problem, with listening to the victim. There is no ‘yeah, but’ with racism; there is no ‘two sides’ to racism.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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