Financial bankruptcies happen gradually, then suddenly. The same fate can befall the morally bankrupt, too. Case in point: Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
It was a year ago that Azeem Rafiq, 30, a former player, revealed he had contemplated suicide after enduring racist abuse from teammates. Yorkshire initiated an independent investigation. It dragged on for months but eventually confirmed Rafiq had faced repeated instances of racist behaviour. The club apologised, but decided there was no need to discipline those involved.
Gradually, the sporting press picked up the sordid tale. Then suddenly, it became a national scandal. The Cricinfo website reported this week that a Yorkshire player — revealed later to be former England batsman Gary Ballance — had repeatedly called Rafiq a “Paki”. The club had ruled the term, widely considered a racial slur against British Asians, was friendly “banter” between players.
Few saw a funny side. Health secretary Sajid Javid, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, said that “heads should roll”. Major sponsors, such as Yorkshire Tea, another proudly local institution, cancelled endorsement contracts. As the club became a byword for prejudice, Yorkshire’s long-flailing leadership tried to remain silent. By Friday, club chair Roger Hutton had resigned.
The episode reveals much about the club and the state of English cricket. But it also suggests how far British discourse has shifted on matters of race.
Yorkshire is a peculiar case. Until 1992 it only picked cricketers born in the county. That kept out foreign players as well as talented Caribbean and Asian immigrants, left to forge local leagues to play among themselves. The change in Yorkshire’s policy assisted kids like Rafiq, who moved from Pakistan to the UK aged 10 and sought to fulfil his parents’ dreams of making it as a professional cricketer.
Yet the 158-year-old club’s insularity persists. It surfaced in a statement from Ballance, who said “I deeply regret some of the language I used in my younger years” but added that, in private, both he and Rafiq had “said offensive things to each other”.
This masked the point that Yorkshire tolerated a team culture in which racially-charged language was commonplace. A Pakistani who played with Rafiq recalls “systematic taunting” of Muslim players. It wasn’t banter but bullying.
The problem exists across English cricket. Michael Carberry, a black former England player, says racism is “rife” in the sport. A survey by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, the players’ trade union, found more than a third of ethnic minority players had experienced racism.
An inability, or refusal, to spot the problem stems from English cricket’s whiteness. One in three people in the UK who play recreationally are from Asian backgrounds, but the figure falls to 4 per cent for those with a professional contract. By contrast, about a third of English Premier League footballers are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The Premier League gains from multibillion-pound broadcasting contracts that attract the world’s best players. Football has historical problems with racism, particularly among fans, but many English teams are stacked with talented black British footballers, often with state-school educations.
The same cannot be said for elite cricket, which has many barriers to entry, from the need for expensive equipment to hours of technical training. The upper echelons of the English game have tended to be dominated by players reared at Britain’s overwhelmingly white private schools.
It doesn’t need to be this way. “In India, in the maidans [open spaces] of Mumbai, [cricket] is the game of the people,” Tom Harrison, chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, told me two years ago. “You can play with a bat and a ball. You don’t need a pair of whites and a helmet and a pristine cricket ground.”
Under Harrison, the ECB launched a “South Asian action plan” in 2018, a laudable initiative aimed at finding more cricketers like Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, players of Asian heritage who are part of England’s senior teams. It includes enhanced scouting of so-called Asian leagues and mentoring schemes for young ethnic minority players.
Stung by this week’s events, the ECB apologised to Rafiq, barred Yorkshire from hosting international matches and threatened more sanctions. Still, the ECB can expect blowback. In a parting shot, Hutton accused the ECB of failing to intervene when he made them aware of Rafiq’s accusations.
Later this month, Rafiq will give evidence to a parliamentary committee, which will also grill Yorkshire’s top order, including Hutton. They can expect a pillorying from lawmakers that will seek to reflect the disgust of mainstream British society. Far from accepting racial slurs as mere banter, MPs were among those willing to bat for Rafiq. That, at least, is progress.
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