George Dobell, in ESPNricinfo, 3 September 2020, where the title is “Azeem Rafiq was ‘on brik of sucide’ after experiencing racism at Yorkshire”
Azeem Rafiq has claimed his experiences of racism at Yorkshire left him on the brink of suicide. Rafiq, a former England U19 and Yorkshire captain, says he “lost faith in humanity” after his reports of racist behaviour were “ignored” by the club. Originally seen as a symbol of the club’s desire to embrace the ethnic diversity of the urban areas around its Leeds home, Rafiq came to believe that “institutional racism” at the club is “worse than it’s ever been”.
Now aged 29 and pursuing a career away from the game, Rafiq has chosen to speak out in the hope that he can “prevent anyone else feeling the same pain.”
“I know how close I was to committing suicide during my time at Yorkshire,” he tells ESPNcricinfo. “I was living my family’s dream as a professional cricketer, but inside I was dying. I was dreading going to work. I was in pain every day. There were times I did things to try and fit in that, as a Muslim, I now look back on and regret. I’m not proud of it at all.
“But as soon as I stopped trying to fit in, I was an outsider. There were no coaches on the staff from a similar background who understood what it was like.
“Yorkshire don’t want to listen and they don’t want to change. And part of the reason for that is the people who were involved in the incidents I’m talking about are still at the club. They just want to sweep it under the carpet.”
“Look at the facts and figures. Look at a squad photograph. Look at the coaches. How many non-white faces do you see? Despite the ethnic diversity of the cities in Yorkshire, despite the love for the game from Asian communities, how many people from those backgrounds are making it into the first team?
“It’s obvious to anyone who cares that there’s a problem. Do I think there is institutional racism? It’s at its peak in my opinion. It’s worse than it’s ever been.
“My only motivation now is to prevent anyone else feeling the same pain.”
Yorkshire have so far declined ESPNcricinfo’s request to make a public response to Rafiq’s claims.
They have, though, told ESPNcricinfo a board member is in touch with him and will file a report to the committee. For reasons of “sensitivity and confidentiality” they say it would be inappropriate to comment further.
This, however, was news to Rafiq. “Someone called me a week or so ago,” he says. “It was made very clear that the conversation we had was as friends and not in any official capacity. It now seems it was an attempt to show they were doing something. I feel quite misled, to be honest.
“This is an example of what I mean. When Michael Carberry came out with his comments, the ECB put out a statement which basically said ‘we’re sorry to hear this; we need to listen and we need to do better.’ That was, I think, exactly the right reaction. I have quite a lot of faith in Tom Harrison.
“But Yorkshire don’t want to listen and they don’t want to change. And part of the reason for that is the people who were involved in the incidents I’m talking about are still at the club. They just want to sweep it under the carpet.
“But not this time. Not again. I know what I’m doing here. I know that by speaking out I’m damaging my chances of working in the game again. But I also know it’s the right thing to do and if I have to stand alone to do it, I will.”
Rafiq’s views first came to light in an interview with Taha Hashim for Wisden.com. While the conversation was meant to be about his new business in catering – and his decision to provide free meals for care workers during the Covid-19 pandemic – he became, in his words, “emotional” when asked about his great friend and mentor, Adil Rashid. “And then a lot more came out.”
That was then followed up with further exploration on the theme in The Cricket Badger podcast with James Buttler. But his expectations that someone in power within the game would be in touch and ask for more details were disappointed. Nobody called. For a sport that is apparently trying to become more accessible to people from ethnic communities, it seems an oddly passive response.
“When I first spoke about this subject, to Wisden on-line, I didn’t mention the club by name,” he says now. “As a result, Yorkshire claimed I might not have been talking about them. So let me make it really clear: I am talking about Yorkshire. I believe the club is institutionally racist and I don’t believe they are prepared to acknowledge the fact or willing to change.”
There were times while he was on the staff when Rafiq did try to change things. During one game in Scarborough, a spectator kept shouting his negative views about the performance of the “Paki” players. The comments were reported by both another member of the crowd and by Rafiq. It turned out the individual concerned was the grandfather of one of the players. This incident, it transpires, was also reported to the ECB and the police. Both investigated and replied to the complainant; Yorkshire did not.
“Everyone in the dressing room laughed when they found out,” Rafiq remembers. “Well, everyone but me. How was that meant to make me feel? Nothing was done.”
On another occasion, a Muslim boy in the crowd had a pint of beer thrown over his face. Again, Rafiq says the reaction in the dressing room was laughter when they were informed. “The boy was given a jumper by the club,” Rafiq says, “but the laughter told me what people really thought.”
He told Wisden.com another story about his early days in the game. “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.’
“You can imagine the sort of thing that leaves on you, and you hear these things all day, every day. I’ve been in that system for nearly the best part of two decades. I know how it works. I’d love to see change.”
On another occasion, a Yorkshire player was disciplined by the ECB for an on-field outburst that was, at best, clumsy and at worst racist. “But instead of the club disciplining him, a board member employed Luis Suárez’s lawyers to ensure he got off. What was I meant to think of that?
“I’m talking some very high-profile players here. Some very high-profile administrators and media figures. I know they can make life difficult for me. I know I’ll be labelled as a trouble-maker. But if I don’t stand and raise a voice, I couldn’t forgive myself.”
He is keen to point out that not everyone at the club was the same. Joe Root comes in for particular praise. Paul Farbrace and Jason Gillespie are described as “amazing” and he distinguishes between some who he believes would benefit from greater education in this area and some who are, in his words, “simply racist”.
“I had a captain who was openly racist,” he says. “There’s no two ways about it. Everyone else seemed to find him funny.
“But I just felt isolated. It’s a horrible feeling. And I knew I should speak out and say something and I nearly always didn’t. But when I finally did I was immediately isolated. I was made to feel like I was the one who had done something wrong.”
Rafiq’s career at Yorkshire reached a particularly tragic end. After a difficult pregnancy which had involved numerous emergency trips to the hospital, his son was still-born. While some of the players – notably Root – contacted him to express their condolences and the PCA were, in Rafiq’s words, “amazing”, he felt the club’s reaction was cold.
“I took my son straight from the hospital to the funeral,” he says. “Nothing can be harder than that.
“Yorkshire told me they would look after me professionally and personally. But all I heard after that was a short email. I was told I was being released. I felt it was used against me, really. The way it was done was horrible.
“It killed me for a while. I lost all trust in anything and anyone. I’d spent the best part of a decade around those people. I thought they had my best interests at heart. I lost faith in humanity.”
He has now moved on. He has a healthy son, a thriving young business and, he says, has found fulfilment elsewhere. He’s no longer pursuing a career in the professional game.
But he still wants change. And what he feels is required now is for the club to embark on a period of introspection and accept they have lessons to learn.
“I want the authorities to wake up,” he says. “I want them to stop looking at the issue of race as a PR activity or a marketing activity. I want them to really engage and listen and change. Someone is going to be tipped over the edge if we’re not careful.”