Headingly Cricket Stadium home of Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Headingly Cricket Stadium home of Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Photo: JohnSeb - Flickr / Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC2.0 linked below

The board at Headingly should be forced out for mishandling allegations of racism by Azeem Rafiq, argues Sean Ledwith

Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) is currently doing a great job of turning a crisis into a catastrophe by their shameful handling of the racism allegations by former player Azeem Rafiq. It would be difficult to find a more glaring example of institutional racism in English sport than their shambolic attempts to deny, cover up and mishandle the long-standing claims of Rafiq, who was a spin bowler for the team up to 2018 and captain of the England U19 side. In 2012 he briefly became the first Asian player to captain Yorkshire. 

Utterly shameful

This week the club has become the eye of a perfect political and media storm with sponsors falling over themselves to pull out of deals and politicians from all sides of the spectrum wading in with rightful denunciations of YCCC’s appalling failure to address Rafiq’s allegations. Labour MP Zarah Sultana tweeted: 

“I know that being called the p-word is never “friendly banter”. For @YorkshireCCC to describe it as such is utterly shameful. Solidarity to @AzeemRafiq30, who has been so badly let down by his former club.

Yorkshire Tea, Tetley’s and David Lloyd Leisure are among the local businesses that understandably have no wish to be associated with the increasingly toxic brand that is Yorkshire Cricket. A leaked report from the club’s internal inquiry revealed that a fellow player had repeatedly used the P-word with reference to Rafiq but that no action was taken against the offender as the remark was deemed to be ‘in the spirit of friendly banter’.

The fact that the board regarding such language as not worthy of disciplinary action suggests their social attitudes are stuck in a 1970s time warp when offensive terms were a regular staple of TV sitcoms. This archaic response is an example of how so-called banter in the 21st century has become the pernicious code behind which racists and misogynists try to excuse their vile bigotry.

Thrown under the bus

The player concerned, Gary Ballance, has now come forward and identified himself as the culprit. Ballance’s apology is tepid and displays a failure to appreciate the gravity of his offence:

“I do not wish to discredit Rafa by repeating the words and statements that he made about me and others but I have to be clear that this was a situation where best friends said offensive things to each other which, outside of that context, would be considered wholly inappropriate. I regret that these exchanges took place but at no time did I believe or understand that it had caused Rafa distress.”


Ballance’s ignorance, however, is just symptomatic of a deeper problem within the culture of YCCC. The cowardly board members clearly think throwing him under the bus will be sufficient to dampen the firestorm that is swirling around the club. Their clueless detachment from reality is beyond repair if they think one mealy-mouthed apology will end this unprecedented crisis in the history of the club.

 Last month Yorkshire tried to can the affair by producing a heavily redacted version of its internal investigation which prompted an exasperated Rafiq to comment:

“Wow just when you think this club couldn’t get more embarrassing you find a way. Still awaiting the full report. Thanks for mentioning the people that have provided your protection and given the green light to racism.

Rafiq submitted his complaints to the club over a year ago that a dressing-room atmosphere was making him and other Asian players feel hugely uncomfortable:

“In one of my first few games, we were going onto the field at Trent Bridge and there was me, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad and Rana Naved and one of the senior players said: ‘there’s too many of you lot, it’s something we need to have a word about’.

Legacy of racism

The ultimate problem for YCCC is that the Rafiq episode is not an isolated case. Over many decades up till 1992, the club’s defining Yorkshire-born only recruitment policy had mutated from a source of regional identity into a thinly veiled pretext to exclude the county’s sizeable Asian population from the team. Despite the huge pool of talent available among BAME players in Yorkshire league cricket, the team remains overwhelmingly white.

In 2003, Darren Lehmann, an Australian recruit for the county was banned by his country for a racist insult. His YCCC employers, however, not only failed to follow suit but later made him the coach without any apparent problem. In 2014, club captain Andrew Gale was banned for two games for an offensive comment to a black South African player.

Sack the board

This is not an exclusively Yorkshire problem. A survey of BAME professional cricketers across England in January revealed over a third of them have experienced racism from team-mates and spectators. However, Yorkshire’s abysmal record over many years on this issue has deservedly put the club in the spotlight. The best way forward is for the current board to resign immediately and a new ruling body formed that is more in tune with 21st-century attitudes-and which does not hide behind the word ‘banter’.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

Tagged under: