Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Azeem Rafiq’s testimony: Lessons to learn

Posted on 29 November 2021 by Arif Islam

Days after Azeem Rafiq’s testimony to the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, it has been revealed that Rafiq himself had engaged in racist behaviour.

In a text exchange with fellow cricketer Ateeq Javid from 2011 Rafiq had used anti-Semitic language.

The use of such terms is unacceptable and Rafiq should be held accountable and rightly condemned. This, however, does not discredit what was said in the testimony.

Some of the reaction in Britain to Rafiq’s remarks further highlight the countries deep-rooted issues with racism.

To suggest that Rafiq’s messages in some way neutralise or justify the clear racist culture at Yorkshire Cricket Club is frankly asinine.

It brings to light the unfortunate truth that there are still many who believe that people of colour in Britain ‘play the race card’ to exaggerate hardship, and that systemic racism is nothing but a myth.

Such attitudes reaffirm the importance of the testimony addressed to the select committee.

Azeem Rafiq’s experience

Despite the horrendous things said and done to Rafiq, the most significant statements to come out of this were not his personal experiences.

Much has been said of Rafiq’s situation which has almost led to the systemic barriers and issues to be overlooked. The focus is on Rafiq personally rather than the culture in its entirety.

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There were many things said in Azeem Rafiq’s testimony, his account of having red wine being poured down his throat at 15-years-old grab headlines.

The average person’s reaction would be of shock and disgust which should be the natural response.

However, racism in Britain is never overtly violent, rather it is characterised by subtle comments and actions.

The testimony: what was missed?

The accepted culture within Yorkshire cricket and clubs across the country, if are allowed to continue, will disillusion future generations of cricketers.

The effect is clear in the current climate. In the testimony, Rafiq said:

“British Asians representation in professional cricket since 2010 has had a drop off of 40%, recreational game has over 30% representation by the British Asians and that drops to a mere 4% at the professional level.”

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Such a drastic decrease suggests there is a bigger problem in the sport. Rafiq continues:

“Within our community the problem is not at the recreational level. We love the game. We want to play the game. But when we get to 16,17,18. When we have to go from academy to the professional game. Everything I’ve spoken about is a challenge.”

Azeem Rafiq’s experience then is clearly not an isolated one. There is a barrier for young south Asian cricketers attempting to transition to professional level.

90% of them did not have a sudden career change. Personal feelings aside, Rafiq’s account of the “boys’ network” within Yorkshire Cricket Club is apparent.

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While many young minorities may not have faced the level of explicit racism Rafiq did, the comfortable use of the P word by current and ex-England cricketers suggests such a word is frivolously thrown around within these clubs.

Such a culture would deter any 16 to 18-year-old attempting to pursue a career in the sport.

The future of cricket

Much of the criticism in the world of cricket has gone to the Yorkshire club. However, Rafiq also highlighted how the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) failed to deal with the issue.

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Rafiq said: “It seems to me whenever there is an initiative it goes straight to grass root because that box is already ticked, and they can tell everyone how great they have been.”

Rafiq highlighted south Asians have a love for the sport. So, initiatives and culture re-evaluations need to be had beyond the grass roots level, as that is not where the issue lies. As Rafiq says: “Tokenism is setting us back it doesn’t really deal with the issue which is in the dressing room and on the ground.”

One of the most damning statements that was made by Rafiq was that: “Age group coaches (in Yorkshire) have been told pick a few of them but not too many of them P*kis”

If there was ever a statement to epitomise systemic racism within a sport that would be it. This is the most shocking yet unsurprising statement to come from the testimony further illustrating how deep the issue of racism is within the sport.

A committee member highlighted how representation was key to stamp out systemic racism but said: “We aren’t in a position to talk”. All the members of the committee were white which reinforces the need for some major reform within society not just in cricket.

It must be stressed Azeem Rafiq’s testimony is not about Rafiq obtaining some personal justice but for the next generation of cricketers to never face such issues.