To call the revelations that have rocked cricket over the last few weeks ‘damaging’ would be one of the understatements of a lifetime. The DCMS hearing into Azeem Rafiq’s experiences at Yorkshire has brought to the fore some uncomfortable truths about a sport which was initially formed to be played in a ‘gentlemanly manner’.
But cricket now finds itself reflecting some of the more sickening elements of society, with the fall-out from Rafiq’s emotional testimony set to continue for some time as multiple counties brace themselves for further disclosures relating to players or club practices.
Rafiq first went public with allegations of mistreatment at the hands of Yorkshire in 2020, claiming there was institutional racism within English cricket, and it is hard to disagree with his assertion given some of the experiences he detailed to a Parliamentary Select Committee, as well as many of the incidents which have been uncovered since then.
The off-spinner explained how he was pinned down and forced to drink wine as a 15-year-old club cricketer and practising Muslim, adding that the P-word was regularly used in the Yorkshire dressing room, and a “toxic” environment developed when Andrew Gale became the county coach and England batsman Gary Ballance its captain in 2016.
Former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq gives details to MPs of his treatment in the Yorkshire dressing room
Ballance, he said, used the name ‘Kevin’ as a derogatory term for players of colour, with his England team-mate Alex Hales naming his dog Kevin “because it’s black”. Moreover, he accused former national team captain Michael Vaughan of claiming Yorkshire had “too many of you lot” in reference to four Asian players, including Rafiq.
Hales, it later emerged, wore blackface for a fancy-dress party in 2009 in what he claimed was a tribute to American rapper Tupac Shakur, his favourite musician. And it didn’t end there, with former Yorkshire bowler Jack Brooks being reprimanded by his current county, Somerset, for tweets he sent in 2012 using the N-word after he had also been identified as the player who had given Cheteshwar Pujara the nickname ‘Steve’ at Yorkshire because he had been unable to pronounce the India batsman’s name correctly.
Essex chairman John Faragher resigned after claims he made a racist remark in a 2017 board meeting, while former player Zoheb Sharif says he was called a “bomber” by Essex teammates after the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Even Sky Sports commentator David Lloyd was caught up in the scandal after being identified as having made offensive remarks about Asian cricketers in 2020, soon after the TV company had made a concerted effort to support the Black Lives Matter movement and had received widespread praise for a package based around the experiences of former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding.
And Rafiq’s own historical anti-semitic language, which was unearthed over the past week, underlines the fact that almost nobody appears immune in the uncovering of cricket’s seemingly inherent racist practices.
The rap sheet is almost endless, so how on earth does cricket come back from this? With the Ashes series coming up in Australia in two weeks’ time, this should be a time of great excitement within the game.
Instead, we have the England captain Joe Root having to explain how he didn’t come across racism at Yorkshire when he shared a house with, and experienced many a night out with, Gary Ballance at a time when Ballance was helping to make Rafiq’s life a living nightmare. That is not to mention the inclusion of Ollie Robinson, who earlier this year was found to have used racist and sexist language in tweets dated between 2012 and 2013 when he was a teenager making his way at Kent and then Yorkshire.
There is also the matter of the ECB having done little to address murmurings of racist practices over a period of some years, with former Yorkshire chairman Roger Hutton saying there was a lack of support from the governing body when he reached out to them over the growing crisis within the county.
It is hard to see cricket recovering from this quickly. An unlikely success down under will not be nearly enough to overcome the current crisis. Not without widescale reform and independent intervention can the counties involved, the ECB and the sport as a whole even begin to be taken seriously again. And it will take people fronting up to their past, too. Carefully managed apologies on Twitter or Instagram will not suffice.
Cricket will need to show it has truly learned from Azeem Rafiq if it is to move on with anything nearing respect. This is a critical time for a once-respected pillar of sporting society.