Azeem Rafiq’s testimony exposes how power works in cricket – and in Britain

In 2016 Azeem Rafiq returned to Yorkshire, the club and the county where – as we now know – he had encountered racist abuse and ritual humiliation since he was a child. On Tuesday morning in parliament the Conservative MP Damian Green, who was sacked from the government in 2017 for lying about the discovery of pornography on his office computer in 2008, wanted to know why.

Green was by no means the first person to pose this question. Since Rafiq first went public with his experiences last autumn, he has been hounded on social media by members of the public demanding to know why he willingly returned to Yorkshire if the culture was as bad as he claimed, with the implication that it clearly couldn’t have been.

Indeed, speaking on 5 Live earlier that morning, the BBC’s cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew had made a similar insinuation. “Rafiq played at Yorkshire, was made their youngest ever captain,” Agnew argued. “Now, if it had been such a very dreadful experience the first time, why did he go back there? Why didn’t he go and play for somebody else?” Addressing the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, Rafiq gave a simple answer. “Derbyshire didn’t have the finances to offer me a contract,” he said. “I was in a position where putting food on the table was difficult. That’s why I went back.”

A quick thought exercise: how many of the committee questioning Rafiq will ever have been in a position where they were forced to make the invidious choice between returning to a toxic workplace or being unable to feed their family? How many of the Yorkshire management who treated him so shoddily?

How often we think do the MPs, the great and good of Yorkshire, or Agnew or Michael Vaughan or Tom Harrison have had to worry about putting food on the table? In recent weeks Rafiq’s case, and its handling by the institutions that were supposed to protect him, has been the source of a good deal of bafflement and disbelief. The culture and attitudes of the Yorkshire dressing room are described as prehistoric, the men at executive level who stood by and allowed it to flourish derided as dinosaurs resistant to change. We wonder aloud, with incredulity, how this can possibly be allowed to happen in this day and age. “The culture of Yorkshire is stuck in the past,” declared Roger Hutton, the outgoing chairman of Yorkshire. But he was wrong. It’s stuck in the present.

Yorkshire’s outgoing chairman Roger Hutton
Yorkshire’s outgoing chairman Roger Hutton said the club’s culture was stuck in the past but the problems he admitted are all too modern. Photograph: Parliament TV

In many ways, it is the present. The treatment of Rafiq was no startling anomaly. It was the very opposite of unforeseeable. It was entirely consistent with the way British society works in 2021, and the way the British establishment has operated for decades. This is a country built on the idea of punching down, of accumulating and retaining personal capital by any means necessary, even if it means trampling on the weakest and the poorest. When Rafiq spoke of his desire to speak on behalf of the “voiceless”, you felt he was articulating a disconnect that stretches well beyond the narrow, grass-stained world of cricket.

Take, by way of example, the supposedly independent report commissioned by Yorkshire last year. According to Hutton, the original terms of the investigation were altered in April this year to prevent any judgment from being made on whether Yorkshire were institutionally racist. Meanwhile, according to Rafiq members of the investigation panel were being treated to Test match hospitality at Headingley. Meanwhile, the Colin Graves Trust – which has the power to bankrupt Yorkshire virtually overnight – was moving to block Hutton’s attempts to remove Yorkshire’s chief executive, Mark Arthur, and the director of cricket, Martyn Moxon, from their positions. Meanwhile, senior figures at Yorkshire were viciously briefing against Rafiq under the cover of anonymity.

Meanwhile, despite having been told to expect the report by the end of 2020, despite making anti-discrimination a central plank of its PR strategy, despite awarding itself £2m in bonuses for broadening the reach of the game, the ECB executive was still sitting on its hands as late as August, when Harrison said it was still appropriate to let Yorkshire conclude their investigation without interference. None of these decisions were taken in a vacuum. They were the product of a culture in which transparency, accountability and morality are entirely optional, a system that will always move to protect its most privileged individuals.

Consequences are for the little people. Humanity is for the comms department.

Azeem Rafiq
Azeem Rafiq’s cricketing career is over but he has done the game and the country a wider service. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

And so perhaps the greatest gift Rafiq has given us is to see how power really works in this country. Those with status and influence can simply bend the world to their whim, define truth as they see fit, ignore or trounce anyone who threatens their position. They have capital and goodwill, powerful friends to push their case, safety nets upon safety nets. Rafiq had none of this. He was powerless, penniless and alone. He had no corporate sinecure, no Test caps, no column in the Daily Telegraph, no benefit of the doubt. This is why cricket’s establishment felt empowered to drive him to the brink of suicide rather than reform itself.

This particular case occurred in cricket, but frankly it could have happened anywhere: the police, the civil service, the media, an investment bank. A few heads roll, those in power pledge to go on a listening journey, and the world moves on. Green lies in public office and still gets to make our laws. Julian Knight, the committee chairman, gets to criticise the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and then pontificate about racism on live television in 2021. Accountability is for the little people.

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It was possible, while watching the likes of Hutton and Harrison squirm under the committee room lights, to see all this as some sort of vindication or victory for Rafiq, a triumph of truth and justice over obfuscation and malfeasance. In reality, of course, any victory here was purely symbolic.

Rafiq’s cricket career is over. But Gary Ballance still has one, and so do Martyn Moxon and Andrew Gale and Vaughan. Hutton still has his lucrative legal business. Harrison still gets his bonus. The system resets and replenishes. Nature heals.

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