Yorkshire racism scandal: Cruel culture that’s hidden beneath the cloak of banter 


The evidence was damning, yet not surprising. The picture Azeem Rafiq painted of English cricket culture, from the lowliest clubhouse to the England dressing room and upwards to the executive floors of Yorkshire and the ECB, will be recognisable to anyone who has experience of the game, at any level.

The initiations, the jokes that aren’t, the blind eyes turned, the opportunities for change missed. Rafiq’s testimony was a litany of failings and flaws, a small number well-intentioned, far too many malevolent and cruel.

The wrongs begin in a car, travelling from a club game with Barnsley while still a schoolboy. Rafiq is a passenger because he is too young to drive. He’s 15.

Azeem Rafiq gave evidence before a DCMS select committee on Tuesday in Westminster

Despite this and despite a religious faith that makes the consumption of alcohol illegal, he is held and red wine forced down his throat by a senior cricketer, one who represented Yorkshire and Hampshire.

So that is the culture at root, ingrained and unremarkable. Liberties can be taken, respect and human dignity pushed aside.

Words do not have impact or meaning, everything is permitted beneath the cloak of banter. Asked why so many of his colleagues have no memory of the many insults and humiliations, Rafiq had settled regretfully on his explanation. They probably don’t remember it, he said, because it doesn’t mean anything to them.

That is a lot kinder than calling Michael Vaughan a liar, or sneering that Joe Root would toe the company line to the end. He could have done either.

If anything, the absence of vengeance in his demeanour made it all appear worse. He seemed such a decent, believable man. Not greatly motivated by the desire to see heads mounted on poles, or the ruination of brash individuals now in retreat.

What Rafiq wanted most of all was for his sport to change, for it to admit the mountain of mistakes, to learn and move on.

What Rafiq wanted most was for cricket to change, to admit the mistakes, to learn and move on

What Rafiq wanted most was for cricket to change, to admit the mistakes, to learn and move on

He actually spoke rather positively of Matthew Hoggard simply because, when the whole sorry mess became public, the former England man had the integrity to call him and apologise.

Given it transpires it was Hoggard who coined the nickname ‘Raffa the kaffir’ — Rafiq says at first he had no idea kaffir was a racist slur left over from apartheid-era South Africa — his acceptance seems an act of enormous graciousness.

Then again, as Rafiq admitted, it is very hard to accept you are the victim of prejudice, that a promising career will go nowhere because the world is set against you, that you have, quite literally, no chance with some people and that these are often the people who matter.

Yet to get this far, Rafiq has had to acknowledge that throughout his young life he was the victim of a vile conspiracy — and doomed. And that when he finally came to terms with this, no one in authority, at Yorkshire or the ECB, cared enough to act beyond saving their own skin or hiding behind process. Not even the chief executive Tom Harrison, who recently shared a £2.1million bonus for ‘spreading the game’. Much as one might manure.

Rafiq (centre) celebrates with former team-mates Joe Root (left) and Gary Ballance (right) as Yorkshire seal promotion to Division One in 2012

Rafiq (centre) celebrates with former team-mates Joe Root (left) and Gary Ballance (right) as Yorkshire seal promotion to Division One in 2012

Rafiq was by far the most impressive figure in that committee room on Tuesday. 

More eloquent than many of the mediocre minds asking the questions — Steve Brine and Alex Davies-Jones, good grief — certainly more relevant to the future of the game than the men and women answering them.

Incredibly, when the story about the red wine at 15 was told, nobody thought to link it with a culture that pervades the sport all the way to the England dressing room.

Gary Ballance, 23 Tests for England and a close friend of Root, called any person of colour ‘Kevin’.

It became such a joke inside the dressing room, said Rafiq, that when Ballance’s England team-mate Alex Hales bought a black dog, it was named Kevin, too.

Yorkshire’s players also found Cheteshwar Pujara’s name too problematic — understandable, really, it has three syllables like hard to pronounce English names such as William and Oliver — so called him Steve. And this was wildly repeated, not least by Shane Warne during commentary on the 2020-21 Australia-India series.

Ballance, who played in 23 Test matches for England, called any person of colour ‘Kevin’

Ballance, who played in 23 Test matches for England, called any person of colour ‘Kevin’

Rafiq claimed fellow England international Alex Hales used the word 'Kevin' for his dog (pictured together on the athlete's Instagram) after Ballance coined it for a person of colour

Rafiq claimed fellow England international Alex Hales used the word ‘Kevin’ for his dog (pictured together on the athlete’s Instagram) after Ballance coined it for a person of colour

As equivalency is the newest pastime, there will no doubt be those who still cannot see the problem. Cesar Azpilicueta is known as Dave at Chelsea and nobody seems to mind. Yet to wantonly ‘other’ entire races, as Ballance did, runs deeper than that.

Throughout history, the process of dehumanisation invariably involves the removal of the personal. That’s why prisoners are given numbers, not titles. What may have started as a clumsy joke about the complexity of some unfamiliar names tips into outrage when the same laugh is had at the expense of every person of colour.

It makes them all the same, strips a person of individuality and character. It becomes an insult and nothing more. This is no more a joke than calling a man a P**i.

The most horrid revelations in Rafiq’s testimony concerned his cold and callous treatment by Yorkshire following the death of his son. ‘I carried him from the hospital to the graveyard, how I’m being treated here is not right,’ he wailed in a particularly harrowing exchange.

Yet if Yorkshire have created a culture in which people of colour do not even have names, why should we be surprised at a complete absence of empathy towards their lives?

The most horrid revelations in Rafiq’s testimony concerned his cold and callous treatment by Yorkshire following the death of his son

The most horrid revelations in Rafiq’s testimony concerned his cold and callous treatment by Yorkshire following the death of his son 

What began in a car on its way to Barnsley permeates through the sport. Players brought up in a culture that would pour red wine down the throat of a 15-year-old Muslim, advance to the senior county dressing rooms and on to the coaching staff. Yorkshire’s Martyn Moxon was also a Barnsley man.

What became clear throughout Rafiq’s testimony was the sense of isolation. No one picked up on his anguish, no one was brave or powerful enough to challenge the gods of banter, no one came to his aid.

When he finally confronted Yorkshire, they saw themselves as the victims and tried to discredit him any way they could. One image concerning those who considered his complaint stood out. 

‘For the panel to be entertained by Yorkshire at the Headingley Test match shows how untouchable they thought they were,’ said Rafiq. ‘They thought little old Azeem Rafiq, nobody’ll believe him.’

They were wrong. Nobody who sat through close to two hours of evidence on Tuesday could argue the accuser was not credible. Nobody could argue he was inconsistent. Nobody could argue his tales from behind the scenes were not all too sadly believable.

Rafiq, 30, insists he would not let his son go anywhere near cricket after his experience

Rafiq, 30, insists he would not let his son go anywhere near cricket after his experience

Of course, there can still be jokes, there can still be drinking, the way forward is not to wholly sanitise the club environment. At no time did Rafiq speak like a man who did not love his sport and what it could be. Yet at one stage he was asked, as a parent from Barnsley, how he sees cricket now.

‘I can’t imagine a parent, hearing me speak today, would want their child to go anywhere near cricket,’ he replied. ‘I don’t want my son to go anywhere near the game.

‘As a parent, I’d say keep an eye on your kids because this is reality. I would not let my kid go there and just leave them in the hands of these people.’

And there will no doubt be some at Yorkshire, or beyond, who are hurt or offended by such a dismissive generalisation.

They will at least now have some insight into a fragment of the pain Rafiq has been put through.

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