‘It’s scary’: Azeem Rafiq says English cricket rife with racism

Former cricketer catalogues a culture of widespread racism at Yorkshire cricket club in testimony to British legislators.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq
Former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq fights back tears while testifying in front of a parliamentary inquiry [PRU via AFP]

Former cricketer Azeem Rafiq has told a British parliamentary inquiry that he was “humiliated” by the racist abuse he suffered at Yorkshire cricket club.

In more than an hour of testimony on Tuesday, Rafiq, who is of Pakistani descent, catalogued a damning culture of widespread racism at England’s most successful cricket club.

He and other players with Asian backgrounds were subjected to comments such as “You lot sit over there,” and being called “Paki” and “elephant washers”, the 30-year-old told the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) panel.

“I felt isolated, humiliated at times,” he said.

Rafiq recounted having red wine poured down his throat as a 15-year-old at Yorkshire [File: AFP]

The scandal has shaken English sport, cost Yorkshire sponsors and the right to host England internationals, seen the club’s top brass quit, and embroiled former England captain Michael Vaughan and present England skipper Joe Root.

Rafiq, an offspin bowler and former captain of the England Under-19s, played for Yorkshire from 2008-14 and again from 2016-18.

During emotional testimony, he recounted having red wine poured down his throat as a 15-year-old and spoke of Asian players being singled out for mistakes while they were fasting.

Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba, reporting from Westminster, said at one point during the hearing Rafiq was “on the verge of tears”.

“The session actually had to stop for a while when it became too emotional for him.”

Rafiq said the racism he endured at Yorkshire was “without a shadow of doubt” replicated across the country and said the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) were more concerned with box-ticking exercises than increasing the number of South Asian players becoming professionals.

Former Yorkshire chairman Roger Hutton and Tom Harrison, chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), were due to answer questions later.

Hutton resigned following criticism of Yorkshire’s handling of an investigation into the claims first made by Rafiq in 2020. In his resignation letter, Hutton said there had been “constant unwillingness” from members of Yorkshire’s hierarchy “to apologise and to accept racism and to look forward”.

‘I felt isolated’

Rafiq described the atmosphere in the dressing room under former captain Gary Ballance as “toxic”.

“I felt isolated. On tour, Gary Ballance walked over and said: ‘Why you talking to him?’ Going past a corner shop, I was asked if my uncle owned it,” Rafiq said.

Ballance, who played 23 tests for England, had described Rafiq as his “best mate in cricket” but admitted he used a racial slur and regretted his actions.

“‘Paki’ is not banter; racism is not banter,” Rafiq added.

Asked about the scale of the problem in English professional cricket, Rafiq said, “It’s scary. It’s clear the problem is there. Everyone has known it for a very long time.

“It’s an open secret. I’ve seen that if you speak out, your life is made hell.”

The new Yorkshire chairman Kamlesh Patel has apologised, praised Rafiq for his courage and promised “seismic change”.

Some of English cricket’s biggest names have been dragged into the controversy.

Rafiq said ex-England captain Vaughan told him and two other players of Asian origin that there were “too many of you lot, we need to do something about it” before a match in 2009.

Vaughan has denied the accusation.

Rafiq said it was ‘hurtful’ that England Test captain Joe Root said he had never witnessed anything of a racist nature at Yorkshire [File: Glyn Kirk/AFP]

“It was a long time ago. He might not remember it because it doesn’t mean anything to him,” Rafiq said.

Rafiq has also expressed regret that current England Test captain Root, a Yorkshire player and Gary Ballance’s housemate, said he had never personally witnessed racism at the club.

“Rooty is a good man,” he told the committee on Tuesday.

“He has never engaged in racist language. Maybe he didn’t remember it, but it shows the institution that a good man like him cannot remember those things … It’s not going to affect Joe, but it’s something I remember every day.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies