Azeem Rafiq, the former England Under-19 captain who alleged systemic racism at Yorkshire that is currently under investigation, doubts he will ever be able to have another role within cricket and does not want to introduce his children to a bat and ball without seeing genuine, lasting change in the English game.
As part of Cricket Australia’s latest Cricket Connecting Country webinar, to be broadcast on the governing body’s digital channels on Tuesday evening Australian time, Rafiq spoke frankly about the toll of raising his voice on the issue of racism within cricket and his many painful experiences with Yorkshire. Appearing alongside his former coach, Jason Gillespie, Rafiq was visibly emotional when he described how he had stood back from introducing his son to the game because of how much pain it had caused him.
“We don’t even know how many people are out there suffering, and that’s a worry, everyone is going to heal in different ways. But to actually start the healing process it needs to start now – we can’t keep arguing and trying to show people there’s a problem,” he said. “That needs to stop, it needs to be about how can we stop it happening. My worry is what’s going to happen to our kids, are they going to be in the same position.
“The thing that really upsets me is that I love the game of cricket and I’m not sure I want my son to go anywhere near a cricket ground. That is really, really upsetting for me, because as Dizzy knows, I love the game, but I haven’t even got him a bat or a ball yet. And that really, really upsets me. I think it’s time we need to stop talking about and trying to show people there’s an issue, it’s time to move it forward, do something about it and get some solutions.”
Reflecting on the problems he had witnessed, Rafiq also spoke about how he felt his card was already marked in terms of further involvement in cricket, and for that reason he understood why others were so reticent to speak without the cloak of anonymity.
“It’s two cultures and you’re trying to fit in them both and you end up fitting in nowhere, but you shouldn’t have to. There should be a respect for everyone”
“Knowing why it was allowed to happen is something that will help me heal,” Rafiq said of the investigation currently underway at Yorkshire. “But I think more importantly it is for me about how we can stop it happening moving forward really. In my experience it is worse now because it’s done in such a way that it’s really difficult to open up and speak about it. What’s happened will help to get a few answers on that for my healing, but I’m not so much really bothered about myself anymore because I think my time’s gone.
“Especially since I’ve come out, I think it’s going to be really difficult for me to play any part within the game, but I think moving forward if I can help anyone – that’s been the sad thing, I’ve had a lot of messages reaching out from kids as young as 14-15, and that worries me, because right until the end I didn’t want to believe it was racism. I didn’t want to think it was that, I wanted to try and, as we’ve been brought up, fight through everything, let it go, let it go.
“If you pulled anyone up on it, it was like ‘well, can you not take a joke’ and a lot of times it was disguised as banter, but there was a lot of feeling in the banter. I don’t know [if it’s] coincidentally or not, a lot of the comments following on from that, they were acted on. So, the comment about ‘there’s too many of you lot’, I don’t think the four of us played a game together again. Whether that’s just banter or not is questionable really and a lot of times it is disguised as banter, but it’s quite simply not funny.”
Gillespie said Rafiq’s testimony had been “heartbreaking” and explained to him many of the problems he had witnessed in what he thought at the time had simply been a young cricketer wrestling with his game and the demands of professionalism. He now saw Rafiq’s Yorkshire career in a new and more unsettling light.
“When I saw this interview Azeem gives, that was quite confronting and quite heartbreaking for me as a coach, because some of those experiences happened when I was at the club,” Gillespie said. “A lot of those experiences happened when I wasn’t around, but still quite heartbreaking to listen to that.
“I remember there were a couple of times when I saw Azeem struggling, and I didn’t know there were these undertones of things going on regarding racism, because I remember Azeem, there were some issues with his cricket, but listening to that interview on Sky really opened up my eyes that there was a lot more to that period at the club when his game was suffering and he was battling off the field, and in turn there were battles on the field. Everything almost meshed together, and that’s why it was heartbreaking for me to watch that.”
Rafiq noted the complexity of the issue was shown by how the current England national team has proven itself to be a safe and welcome space for cricketers of colour, even as problems at county and club levels remain largely unaddressed in his view.
“The England team, and all due respect to them, knowing quite a few of them personally as well, I don’t know whether it’s happened by plan or by luck, but they don’t have this sort of issue in that dressing room, and that’s from speaking to a few friends of mine,” Rafiq said. “A couple of them say it’s the most comfortable they’ve felt playing cricket, they’re allowed to be themselves and they’re respected for their cultures, there’s no pressures on them to fit in in any way, shape or form.
“That comes from the leaders a lot, I think Eoin Morgan’s outstanding, I think Trevor Bayliss from what I’ve heard was really instrumental in that as well. But I think if you do strip it back, it’s just a rosy picture at the top currently. That’s not to say the England team hasn’t had this problem before and it won’t happen in the future.
“When you do ask the question, you get stuff thrown at you, like there were 50% in our academies from a south Asian background. You go into coaches I’m pretty sure it’s minimal, three out of 96 or something. There’s a lot of challenges you face when you go into that. It’s two cultures and you’re trying to fit in them both and you end up fitting in nowhere, but you shouldn’t have to. There should be a respect for everyone.”
The case of Andrew Symonds‘ racial abuse case in 2008 was among other issues discussed, and the Aboriginal activist Tamika Sadler pointed out that the toll of his premature loss from the international scene was to deprive Australians of colour of a rare non-white member of the national team to follow.
“I was only a young girl but that was the only person of colour, other than other international teams, that I would see that was on an Australian side, and as a young person growing up as well, Australia, we’re supposed to be so multicultural and multifaceted, yet why is there very few people of colour playing the sport,” she said. “Predominantly it is a very white privileged sport as well, and white society sport. When these situations happen, it can’t just be a situation and then nobody is learning from that, we can’t just keep having case study after case study, there has to be some action taken. It is up to clubs to take initiative with that as well.”