Explained: Racism row in Yorkshire cricket involving a Pakistan-origin cricketer

The club went on to declare that the context of the comments was simply “banter between friends” and Azeem Rafiq should “take such comments in the spirit in which they were intended.”

A racism row involving the Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC), that has gone on for three years, has now seen British Prime Minister Boris Johnson getting involved. Former Yorkshire all-rounder Azeem Rafiq – an Englishman of Pakistani origin – had reported in 2018 the alleged racist behaviour he had been subjected to by teammates and coaches during his two stints at the club. Yorkshire, however, has rejected the claims as “banter between friends,” prompting an uproar.

A spokesperson for Johnson said, as reported by The Times, that such language “should not be used in any context,” referring to the claim that Rafiq had often been called ‘Paki’ – a derogatory term for people of Pakistani heritage. Similarly, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid also tweeted “P*** is not banter. Heads should roll at Yorkshire. If the ECB doesn’t take action, it’s not fit for purpose.”

Who is Rafiq?

The 30-year-old off-spinner was born in Karachi but moved to England in 2001. He was captain of the English U-19 team which included the likes of Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and James Vince. He was a part of the Yorkshire team from 2008 to 2014, and then again from 2016 to 2018. In 2012, he became the first player of Asian heritage to captain the First- Class team.

What was the allegation?

In an interview to Wisden Cricket Monthly, Rafiq claimed that he had a “captain who was openly racist.”

“Why didn’t I stop it? It was the environment. The one time I did raise it, I was made out to be the person who was in the wrong. Through the years you feel like you have to do things to fit in, and I did. The minute I didn’t, I felt isolated.

“There’s one comment that stands out for me. It was around the time of my debut. There was me, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. We’re walking onto the field and one player said: ‘There’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that.’”

In another interview to Cricinfo, Rafiq said the harassment often prompted suicidal thoughts.

Rafiq had first taken his complaints formally to YCCC in August 2018.

How did YCCC handle it?

The club only acknowledged that there was an independent inquiry in September 2020, only after Rafiq first went to the press. In August this year, the investigating team found that the comments made against Rafiq were “capable of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” and accepted Rafiq’s “evidence that he was offended, degraded or humiliated and that this amounted to harassment under the Equality Act and the Club’s Equal Opportunities policy” – as reported by Cricinfo.

Initially, in August, YCCC apologised to Rafiq and acknowledged that several of the allegations had been upheld. Last Thursday however, the club declared that their internal panel “does not accept that Azeem was offended by comments, either at the time they were made or subsequently.”

The club went on to declare that the context of the comments was simply “banter between friends” and Rafiq should “take such comments in the spirit in which they were intended.”

The panel instead went on to levy charges against Rafiq claiming that he called a player of Zimbabwean heritage ‘Zimbo.’ The panel declared this term as derogatory, but in general the term is used as a harmless abbreviation similar to ‘Aussie’ and ‘Kiwi’ for an Australian and New Zealander respectively.

Has the ECB taken action?

The governing body has issued a statement saying it will conduct a full investigation into the case.

“We are conscious about the length of time that Azeem has waited for resolution and the toll that must be taking on his well being and that of his family. We are sorry that, as a sport, this has not yet been resolved.

“We will conduct a full regulatory process that is fair to all parties, but also ensure this happens as quickly as possible. To achieve this, we have secured the services of a QC (Queen’s Counsel – or a senior lawyer), along with other external investigatory support to upweight resources around our process. The ECB board has also reaffirmed its commitment to provide more resources, should the investigation require it.

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“We are aware that the select committee have called Yorkshire’s chair, Roger Hutton to give evidence. In the meantime, we will press ahead with our investigation.”

Hutton has been summoned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for parliamentary scrutiny.

Was this an isolated case of racism at YCCC?

According to The Guardian, former Australia World Cup winner Darren Lehmann had been banned by the ICC for calling a Sri Lankan opponent ‘black c***.’ Yorkshire however, his county at the time, did not take any action.

“You can’t say it was malicious, far from it,” said Colin Graves, the chairman at the time. “I’m disappointed the ICC has taken it down this route. He is not a racist.”

Is the club facing any other repercussions?

Yes, financial. One of the sponsors, Anchor Butter, has declared it will no longer be associated with the team. Another company, Emerald, which has naming rights at Headingley, Yorkshire’s Test venue, released a statement: “As sponsors of the stadium we are dismayed by the conclusion of an independent panel that the former player, Azeem Rafiq, suffered racial harassment and bullying during his time at the club.

“We are pursuing the actions from the YCCC in response to their latest statement and will continue to review the findings from the tribunal and ECB investigation in due course.”

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