1 30 Azeem Rafiq| Photo: ForwardDefensive – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article 1 30 Azeem Rafiq| Photo: ForwardDefensive – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

Repeated failures to address the racial abuse suffered by cricketer Azeem Rafiq illustrates the endemic racism which plagues the game, argues Jamal Elaheebocus

In August last year cricketer Azeem Rafiq revealed his experiences of racism within Yorkshire County Cricket Club. He said that the racial abuse he experienced from supporters and coaches led him to the “brink of suicide”.

As a result of this, Yorkshire was forced to institute an independent investigation into the allegations made by Rafiq, including the claim that the club is institutionally racist. Despite the report being complete, Yorkshire have not released it. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have asked for a timeframe of when it will be released but Yorkshire have only said it will be in the next few weeks.

However, Rafiq said he lost faith in the process by which the report was created because key supporting witnesses had not been approached for evidence.

The club have instead released a statement saying that Rafiq was “the victim of inappropriate behaviour” and offered their “profound apologies”. Rafiq rightly criticised the club and accused them of downplaying racism. He said:

“A year of pain, a year of trying to get people to listen, a year of giving people an opportunity to do the right thing and we end up with a statement that turns racism into inappropriate behaviour.”

The failure of Yorkshire CCC to take Rafiq’s claims seriously is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of racism in cricket but exemplifies how bad the situation is for many non-white players.

“Rife with Racism”

Rafiq talked of several experiences of racism which he went through, including a player saying to him and three other cricketers from Asian backgrounds: ‘There’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that.’

Rafiq also talks about other incidents, such as when someone in the crowd yelled racist abuse at him during a match. When the players and staff found out about this, Rafiq says “everyone in the dressing room laughed”, and Yorkshire CCC also failed to investigate the incident.

After the death of George Floyd in May 2020, several current and former players and umpires came out and spoke about their experiences of racism. This included former England batsman Michael Carberry who said:

“Cricket is rife with racism. The issue you have in cricket is, the people running the game don’t care about black people in it. Black people are not important to the structure of English cricket.”

Ebony Rainford-Brent, Michael Holding, Darren Sammy and Ismail Dawood were among many other players who also revealed the extent of the racism they faced and continue to face.

However, the issues had of course been going on for some time before this and many players who currently play for England have not been able to speak out about the game.

Michael Carberry, underlining the restrictions on players speaking out, said, “If you ask Moeen [Ali] and Rash [Adil Rashid] about their issues in the game, understandably they are not going to come out and say, because they are in the set-up.”

Not only is it individual cases of racist abuse that players have spoken out about, but it is the structure of English cricket which allows racial abuse to go unpunished and causes inequalities in who can access cricket.

Throughout all formats of the game there is a lack of diversity. The ECB has failed to appoint an African, Caribbean or Asian umpire to first-class cricket for 29 years and there has never been a black coach of the England cricket team. There are few permanent BAME players at county clubs and this comes down to the fact that cricket is far less accessible for those from BAME backgrounds and poorer backgrounds.

This is not helped by the fact that the ECB lacks diversity among its members, with very few coming from a BAME background.

Pressure has been building on the ECB to finally take action and deal with racism in cricket. It has been 24 years since the “Racial Equality in Cricket” report was published. The report made several suggestions, including ECB-affiliated clubs implementing a Code of Conduct which prohibits racially abusive comments, establishing forums at all levels to discuss anti-racism policies, ensuring supporters making racist comments are banned from future matches and ensuring ethnic minority clubs have equal access to pitches and grounds.

The vast majority of the recommendations of that report have not been implemented, exemplified by the fact that current players like Rafiq are still suffering from racist abuse and that it is not being dealt with seriously.

Action not Gestures

Instead the ECB has taken to gestures which do very little to eliminate racism. The latest example of this was the suspension of Ollie Robinson for eight matches from the England test match team after historical racist and sexist tweets were dug up. The tweets dated back to 2012 and 2013, when Robinson was 18 or 19.

While these tweets were clearly wrong and should be condemned, suspending a player for offensive tweets from several years ago will not do anything to tackle the racism players like Rafiq are experiencing now. It appears this was to an extent a publicity stunt and an excuse for the ECB to say they are taking racism seriously.

Rafiq’s experience must be a turning point for the game. There must be proper action from the ECB to tackle racism, starting with implementing the recommendations of the 1994 report. But it must also go further than that and ensure that there is equal opportunity of access to cricket and that racial abuse is not tolerated. Rafiq sums up the change in attitude needed in the ECB very well:

“I want them to stop looking at the issue of race as a PR activity or a marketing activity. I want them to really engage and listen and change. Someone is going to be tipped over the edge if we’re not careful.”

Putting this into action will mean forcing Yorkshire to release the findings of the investigation and ensuring that they implement changes to ensure that racial abuse is not downplayed and ignored but is dealt with seriously.

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