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Wisden Almanack 2022

Azeem Rafiq: Who do you think you are?

by Azeem Rafiq 5 minute read

Azeem Rafiq, writing in the 2022 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, reflects on cricket’s racism scandal.

When I first spoke, in the summer of 2020, about the racial abuse I received during my time at Yorkshire, I didn’t for a moment imagine I’d end up talking about my experiences in front of a parliamentary committee, or cause a once-proud club to internally combust, or force English cricket to examine its conscience. I didn’t think the chief executive of the ECB would be told he had to update politicians every three months on cricket’s fight against racism, or that the game would be warned its funding might come under threat. I didn’t think I’d be any kind of catalyst at all.

Even now, my emotions are mixed. I’m hugely grateful that Julian Knight and his colleagues on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee gave me the chance in November to release some of the pain I’d been carrying around for so long. And I was happy to see the changes made at Yorkshire by Kamlesh Patel, who is the kind of leader English cricket badly needs. I’m hopeful plenty of good can come from all this.

But, deep down, I’d rather have quit the game aged 18 than carry the mental scars I do now. They’ll stay with me for the rest of my life. I never thought being a whistle-blower would be easy, but nothing prepared me for the reality. Ever since I went public, other players have rung me and said they want to speak out about their own treatment, and I’ve had to tell them how challenging it is. At the same time, I know I can’t walk away: I want to be there for anyone who needs to talk.

I’ve struggled with my mental health since 2013 – and I’ve considered suicide. The toll on my family, too, has been huge. We recently received death threats and, although we can get someone to our place at a moment’s notice if we feel in danger, I have two young kids and ageing parents to think about. Of course you ask yourself if it’s worth it.

My wife, Faryal, has been amazing, and completely gets the mixed emotions. She said she could see the difference I was making to others, as well as the hell I’ve gone through myself. It’s exhausting, and yet I’ve come to accept that this is my life. Other members of my family have told me I’m an idiot. The trouble is, I can’t bear injustice. I’ve been incredibly lucky my voice has been heard. But I have to keep putting people under pressure so that, one day, cricket will truly be a game for everyone.

Until the start of 2021, I didn’t want anyone at Yorkshire to lose their jobs. I just wanted an acknowledgement that I had been treated dreadfully. But it was becoming obvious the club didn’t want to listen to my grievances. When that happened, it was clear to me that guys like chief executive Mark Arthur and director of cricket Martyn Moxon had to go. We are where we are now because Yorkshire wanted a fight. They could have handled things so much better.

A lot of mud has been thrown my way since then, including the claim that I’m in it for the money. That isn’t true. When I left Yorkshire in 2018, I had five months to go on my contract. They encouraged me to take a payout and sign a confidentiality form. And that five-figure sum would have been useful in the months ahead as I struggled to put food on my family’s table. But I turned it down because I wanted to be able to talk about my experiences. If it had been about money, believe me, I could have earned a lot more in recent years with a fraction of the stress.

Another common accusation is that I should have complained earlier. A lot of the upsetting stuff at Yorkshire happened during my second stint there. The truth is I didn’t want to believe it was racism. It’s draining when you do, and you wonder if it’s your fault, so initially I reported it as bullying. But that changed when we lost our son after a horrible pregnancy. I chose not to go on a pre-season tour, and I was treated awfully. I decided enough was enough: I could no longer put their behaviour down to anything other than the colour of my skin or my religion. I was fed up telling myself it was bullying.

Others have said I was sacked for cricketing reasons. Again, not true. When I came back to Yorkshire in 2016, we had been struggling in T20, but that year we reached finals day. I was joint-second in the club’s T20 wicket-taking charts – and the only guy above me, Tim Bresnan, had played four more matches. Our attack included several England internationals. In 2017, only one other bowler in the country took more wickets than I did in the Royal London Cup. So, no, it wasn’t about cricket.

The more I spoke, the more I was depicted as a troublemaker, which happens easily to people of colour. The implication is clear. Who do you think you are? Get back in your box. An age-group coach at Yorkshire said to me he was told to pick “two or three of those Pakis”, but no more. We’re allowed to reach a certain station, but if we strive beyond that, we’re labelled difficult, opinionated, selfish. Worst of all, we don’t play for the team.

I fully accept I’ve done things in my past I’m not proud of. I never said I was perfect. In some cases, I drank to fit in, and was more easily accepted by others as a result; when I stopped, so did the acceptance. More recently, some old messages of mine resurfaced in which I’d made anti-Semitic remarks. It made me sick to my stomach. It’s something I regret massively, and I am continuing to try to educate myself. Anti-Semitism is the same as racism. I should have been able to see that then, and I can certainly see it now.

Despite everything, there are positive signs. At Yorkshire, I’m shocked but pleasantly surprised how quickly things can move. It shows what happens when you have a leader who gets it. I’m hopeful they’re on the right path, even if some of the old guard have been obstructive. But I’ve seen a shift in momentum: a lot of people now want the changes at Yorkshire to be a blueprint for others to follow. The key is that we continue to scrutinise every county. We’ve seen promises made before, only for things to go back to the way they were.

It’s also important that institutions accept their own failings. The ECB have got this horribly wrong. They said they couldn’t step in at Headingley because they doubled up as the game’s regulators and promoters. For that reason, I’d like to see independent regulators given powers along the lines of anti-doping bodies: they can drop in at a club whenever they want, and check measures are in place to encourage diversity, and people are being treated fairly. The key is to act before the car crash happens, not after – which is partly why the Yorkshire situation became such a mess. And if the independent regulators are granted wide-ranging powers, such as stripping a venue of its international status, so be it. If cricket is serious about tackling racism, it needs serious sanctions up its sleeve.

I know many will regard this kind of scenario as extreme. I know those in the game won’t want to give up power. I know this will hurt egos. But the time for waffle and anti-discrimination T-shirts and action plans that never get acted on is over.

It’s clearly a good thing that the ECB will be held accountable by politicians every three months. As we’ve seen at Yorkshire, once sponsors start to leave, clubs and governing bodies take matters more seriously. But there is a long way to go, as some of the county chairmen demonstrated when they went in front of the DCMS committee in January. It was one thing to hear the Middlesex chair speak in stereotypes about black and Asian players – another to hear him say his club didn’t get enough credit for the work they’ve done on diversity. His Hampshire counterpart, meanwhile, said his club had “over-achieved”.

All that really triggered me, because it was the language used by Yorkshire to defend themselves – always citing the work they had done in the community. My argument is that a lot of that work happens because it ensures funding; it shouldn’t be used as a method of protection. So while I’m hopeful about the way ahead, there needs to be a diagnosis everywhere – not only at Yorkshire. We can’t just have administrators sitting there in front of politicians, saying everything’s great.

I would also like to make a plea for forgiveness. This isn’t about sacking people who have had the courage to apologise for mistakes from the past. The last thing I wanted, for instance, was for David Lloyd – Bumble – to lose his job at Sky because of comments he made. He rang me to say sorry, and that was good enough for me. We all need to show love and compassion.

I used to think my post-playing career would consist of two of my passions: coaching and media. But if anyone wanted me back in the game as a coach or a pundit, it would have to be on my terms. I won’t be quietened by the system any more, and I don’t care if you call me difficult. Besides, I’ve got a third passion now, and it’s the most important one: I want kids from all backgrounds to see cricket as a chance to have the time of their life. And I’m not interested in tokenism: I want an England team who are properly representative of their country, with players who fully deserve their place.

One thing is for certain: if the ECB don’t learn from this, we’ll be sitting here in 20 years with another racism scandal on our hands. If that happens, I hope whoever is involved survives the experience – because I nearly didn’t.

Azeem Rafiq played 35 first-class and 125 white-ball matches for Yorkshire in two stints between 2009 and 2018. He was talking to Lawrence Booth. 

The 2022 edition of the Wisden Almanack is available to buy here.

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