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What is the Azeem Rafiq race scandal, and why it has gone beyond Yorkshire & English cricket

Karachi-born Rafiq, who hasn’t played for Yorkshire since 2018, spoke of slurs & discrimination last year. He recently appeared before UK parliament panel to elaborate on claims.

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New Delhi: The allegations of “institutional racism” that first rocked Yorkshire County Cricket Club in September 2020 have since spiralled into a scandal that has forced many in senior positions in the club to resign, and sparked a debate on the possible prevalence of discrimination across English cricket.

Azeem Rafiq, the Karachi-born English player who first made the allegations, has appeared before a United Kingdom Parliamentary Committee to elaborate on his claims.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, representatives from the ECB as well as other top-tier English cricketing organisations have “apologised unreservedly” to Rafiq for the discrimination, while he has also received support from Yorkshire CCC’s new chief, Lord Kamlesh Patel.

Writing on the scandal and Rafiq’s allegations in an article for the Daily Mail earlier this week, former England captain Nasser Hussain, who was born in Madras (as it then was) wrote, “It is prevalent throughout the game. And it has not been picked up because it has become the norm. It’s been a ‘that’s what we do’ attitude and that has been allowed to fester for far too long.”

However, Rafiq has himself been accused of making “anti-Semitic” comments in the past, for which he has now apologised. And according to a report by the Yorkshire Post Saturday, Rafiq is also alleged to have sent sexually inappropriate messages to a teenaged girl in 2015, when he was 24, three months after the pair had met on a flight. Rafiq has yet to publicly address this allegation.

ThePrint explains how the scandal began and recaps the developments in the past year.

Also read: 1 out of 2 Indian Americans faces discrimination, most due to skin colour, US survey finds

Who is Azeem Rafiq and what did he claim?

All-rounder Azeem Rafiq, who was born in Pakistan, played for Yorkshire’s senior team between 2008 and 2014, and then again between 2016 and 2018.

It wasn’t until August 2020, however, that he spoke publicly about alleged racism faced by him and his struggle with mental health issues in the past few years.

In an interview with Wisden‘s Taha Hashim then, Rafiq claimed, “I’ve been in dressing rooms where things have been said, and, really, I should have stopped it. I had a captain who was openly racist. Why didn’t I stop it? It was the environment…You look back and you think the one time I did raise it, I was made out to be the person who was in the wrong. Through the years you feel like you have to do things to fit in, and I did. The minute I didn’t, I felt isolated.”

Rafiq elaborated on his claims in subsequent interviews with Sky News and ESPN Cricinfo.

In September last year, Yorkshire CCC announced its own investigation into the allegations. However, in October 2021, Yorkshire said it would not take any disciplinary action against players, staff or executives, despite acknowledging that Rafiq had been “the victim of inappropriate behaviour” during his time at the club. The panel probing Rafiq’s allegations had reportedly upheld seven of 43 claims made by the player.

Last Tuesday, Rafiq appeared in front of a UK Parliamentary Committee to elaborate on his allegations against the club, after Yorkshire missed multiple deadlines to publicly release its own probe report.

In an emotional hearing that lasted over three hours, Rafiq laid bare the extent of racial slurs, personal abuse, dressing room bullying and discriminatory policies that he felt several senior employees, and Yorkshire CCC as a whole, inflicted on him during his two stints there as a player.

Rafiq also shared a 57-page-long witness statement he had submitted to the Leeds Employment Tribunal court in 2020.

The names that feature most prominently on the list are suspended Yorkshire head coach Andrew Gale, director of cricket Martyn Moxon, former chief executive Mark Arthur, as well as former England cricketers Gary Ballance, Tim Bresnan, Alex Hales, Matthew Hoggard and Michael Vaughan.

In Vaughan’s case, Rafiq claimed that, following the team huddle at the beginning of a T20 match between Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in 2009, the former England captain had told Rafiq and three other Asian players in the starting line-up that “there’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that”.

While Vaughan has repeatedly denied ever making this remark, Rafiq’s account has been corroborated by two of the three Asian players present — ex-Pakistan pacer Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and current England leg spinner Adil Rashid.

Rafiq accused Hoggard of coining the nickname ‘Raffa the Kaffir’, referencing a slur that was used against non-White people in apartheid South Africa, and derived from the Arabic term that means ‘non-believer’. Rafiq has also said that Hoggard called him personally in 2020 to apologise for his behaviour, an apology which Rafiq said he accepted.

According to Rafiq, he was abused the most by Ballance, Bresnan and Gale. He claimed he had complained to the Yorkshire authorities while playing there about the abuse he faced, though he was he yet to speak publicly about it, but inaction by Moxon and Arthur against the complaints caused him maximum mental trauma. It was this, in addition to the death of his infant son in 2018, which pushed him to the brink of suicide, Rafiq has alleged.

While Ballance and Bresnan are named over 40 times in the witness statement, Moxon is named more than 80 times, and Gale over 100 times.

Rafiq has described numerous instances of bullying and personal abuse which, in his view, were not inflicted on Yorkshire’s White players. A common theme that ran through his statement was the frequent usage of the racial slur “Paki” by those mentioned above, and the club’s seniormost members shrugging it off as “banter”.

Also read: 65-year-old Asian-origin woman punched, kicked & ‘racially abused’ on her way to church in NYC

Support for Rafiq

It was perhaps former ESPNCricinfo reporter George Dobell’s extensive coverage of Rafiq’s case that caught the attention of UK Health Secretary and Conservative Party leader Sajid Javid, who is also of Pakistani descent.

“’Paki’ is not banter. Heads should roll at Yorkshire CCC. If @ECB_cricket doesn’t take action it’s not fit for purpose,” Javid had tweeted earlier this month, in response to a tweet by Dobell on the issue.

Javid’s tweet gave urgency to Rafiq’s long wait for justice, turning the scandal from a cricketing issue to a national and international issue.

As such, Dobell has labelled Rafiq as “the most stubborn man in Yorkshire”.

When asked by an MP during the hearing about how he “summoned the strength” to fight his case for over a year and recall his experiences, Rafiq simply said, “I’ve got a bit of Karachi and a bit of Barnsley in me”, a reference to his birth in Pakistan and upbringing in the UK.

Called out for anti-Semitic remarks

Rafiq has, however, not walked out of the scandal unscathed either. His credentials as a crusader for anti-racism in UK society have also been questioned after anti-Semitic remarks he posted on Facebook in 2011 resurfaced recently.

Rafiq has since apologised for the remarks and reiterated his desire to take responsibility for other past transgressions made.

Also read: Black Lives Matter must fire up India’s anti-caste movement to fight its central villain

Impact on Yorkshire and England cricket

Not only have most of those accused by Rafiq issued public statements since on the issue, but chief executive Arthur also resigned from his position, and senior player Ballance and head coach Gale have been suspended by the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and the club respectively.

Chairman Roger Hutton, who had joined Yorkshire in April 2020 and reportedly attempted to implement reforms, also resigned and labelled the club as “institutionally racist” at the parliamentary committee hearing, hitting out at the ECB for failing to support his efforts for change.

Hutton’s replacement as chairman, Nairobi-born Lord Kamlesh Patel, currently faces the task of guiding Yorkshire away from a future of financial ruin and ensuring a more inclusive atmosphere at the club. So far, Lord Patel has openly expressed his support for Rafiq, and under his leadership, Yorkshire has set up a hotline for anyone wishing to formally complain about racism faced in connection with the club.

“Azeem giving evidence is an important moment and, as a whistle-blower, he should be praised for speaking up. I have said from the outset that we need to listen and to learn in order to create urgent change at Yorkshire County Cricket Club,” Lord Patel told The Cricketer.

Since the scandal following Rafiq’s allegations started, the club has lost nearly all its sponsors, and its home venue, Headingley in Leeds, has been barred from hosting international cricket matches by the ECB.

Summing up the developments of the past year and their possible impact on the future, Nasser Hussain wrote in the Daily Mail, “Lord Patel has talked about seismic change and as long as the game means it and doesn’t just go in for those box-ticking exercise, like wearing T-shirts and all that sort of stuff, then maybe we can be optimistic for a brighter, more inclusive future.”

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: What colour is God’s skin, asks Punjab & Haryana HC, calls for ending racial discrimination


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