The ECB must launch a national inquiry into racism at all levels of cricket | Dr Thomas Fletcher

It was impossible not to be moved by the emotion in Azeem Rafiq’s testimony at the digital, culture, media and sport select committee and also not to feel angry about what he endured during his career in cricket; not only as a professional, but also as an ambitious junior representing his local town club.

As he reeled off recollections of being targeted with abusive language, having his faith ignored and ridiculed, and he and other Asian players homogenised and dehumanised as either “Kevin” or “Steve”, I found myself nodding along.

The stories were all too familiar, both as someone who played cricket in Yorkshire and as an academic who has researched race and racism in sport since 2007. With the exception of references to “Kevin” and “Steve” – Asian players where I come from tended to be called “George” – his testimony chimed with those of the many south Asian people I have worked with.

Listening to Roger Hutton’s subsequent evidence session, outlining Yorkshire’s response to Azeem’s allegations, my ears pricked up further when there was a reference to a “Fletcher report”. My immediate reaction was to think: “I need to read that” before its year of publication, 2014, made me realise this was my work.

The research began with my PhD, which examined the experiences of south Asian communities playing cricket in Yorkshire. Off the back of that came two further projects – one funded by the England and Wales Cricket Board (2014) and another jointly paid for by the ECB and Yorkshire Cricket (2015) which examined the experiences of south Asian coaches and south Asian communities in Leeds and Bradford, respectively.

Both can be found here but, in summary, it was found that significant and powerful barriers exist that prevent the progression of south Asians into higher levels of the game – either as players or coaches. As a result of the existence of separate systems and pathways, ethnically diverse groups have little access to governance networks and so to knowledge of playing and coaching pathways, and qualifications. The low visibility of south Asian players and coaches as role models, coupled with a very strong sense that county coaching roles are protected by white gatekeepers for white coaches led to a view that the cricket “system” was exclusionary.

The so-called Fletcher report therefore represents a conflation of three studies and various publications, but it would be unfair to claim all credit for the findings, given the amount of collaboration with other Leeds Beckett University colleagues. Still, I was quickly brought down to earth when both the YCCC and ECB delegations – despite funding the work – drew a blank when it was mentioned at the DCMS select committee.

Since then I have been asked by a number of people how it felt to have done the work and have it ignored. Though frustrated to think it didn’t make an impression at the highest levels, the work has not been ignored. Quite the contrary. For example, findings from the work have been explicitly detailed in the ECB’s south Asian engagement action plan . Colleagues and I have written about these connections.

More locally, I know from personal contact with its managing director that the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation has acted on the findings in a range of its influential community work. So it would be unfair to tar the entire cricket institution with the same brush.

But the greatest achievement of this work has probably been its impact on Azeem and, specifically, how it gave him the confidence to come forward. In his original witness testimony, he writes how learning more about the history and culture of Yorkshire cricket “helped me understand the context of my own experience” and “reflect again on the patterns of language and behaviour that I observed”.

Enlightening one person to the pernicious workings of racism has proved to be the spark for national impact. This is the greatest outcome for our academic work. I’m proud to be part of this conversation and of how my work may help to shape national strategy.

Former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq fights back tears while testifying in front of the DCMS committee
Azeem Rafiq fights back tears while testifying in front of the DCMS committee. The racist culture he highlighted is normalised as ‘banter’ and rarely challenged. Photograph: PRU/AFP/Getty Images

Having played cricket to a relatively high standard for more than 25 years, starting my career at Barnsley Cricket Club (the same as Azeem) and navigating the county pathways to represent Yorkshire between the age of 15 and 19, I have been in many dressing rooms and played against thousands of others.

And in all of these environments I have witnessed racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. You would be hard-pressed to find a cricketer who has not. Anyone who claims otherwise is, frankly, in denial. This culture is normalised, even celebrated; laughed off as “banter”. Rarely is it challenged. Those of us who have are dismissed – “Where’s your sense of humour?” – or outed as different – “Careful, Fletch is listening.”

As a white person racism is something I regularly encounter, though never experience. Other white people will say racist things about others to me, assuming I share their views. I don’t. I challenge racism because it is the right thing to do. And I’m in a privileged position to be able to do that because I know that my career will never be on the line and my right to belong will never be in jeopardy for calling it out.

For others, such as Azeem, this clearly isn’t (or hasn’t been) the case. It’s why the responsibility for calling out racism and discrimination must not lie only with the victims. Surely, anyone who loves cricket, like I do, wants a game that is inclusive and welcoming to everyone who wants to play it, watch it or work within it. Responsibility for ensuring this is the case lies with everyone associated with the game.

The ECB simply has to accept the basic principle that equality is everyone’s job and launch a national enquiry into the nature and extent of racism at all levels of the game. We need to seek the views of all who play, watch, oversee and administer the game.

The term “institutional racism” has been bandied around a lot over the last few days. The very definition is that racism exists at all levels and in every facet of an organisation. As such, the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket is a valuable asset for capturing self-reported testimonies.

My fear though is that this will only capture the experiences of victims. If we are to truly understand the nature and extent of racism in cricket, we need to extend our focus to the experiences of witnesses and perpetrators. Only then can we claim to know how racism is manifest, normalised, and been allowed to hide in plain sight. The primary commitment must be in moving beyond identifying and defining problems to combating and eradicating them.

Dr Thomas Fletcher is reader within the School of Events Tourism and Hospitality Management, Leeds Beckett University