So the sun is up on another good day to be white, straight and privileged in cricket in the UK. We’ve had an unbroken run of these stretching back, oh, let me lick my flingers and flick through the calendar, about 200 years now. This latest, the 73,049th by that count, is a little harder than some of the others, maybe some people are feeling a little sore as they settle in behind their desks, a little tender as they head into the changing room, gym or nets. But if experience tells you anything, it’s that they’ll all be comfortable again soon enough. Heck, the first Ashes Test starts in three weeks. There are warm-up games to look forward to.
What was it Steve Brine MP said on Tuesday, the moment after Azeem Rafiq had just finished speaking about how he didn’t want his own son to go anywhere near cricket? “In conclusion then, by how many will we win the Ashes?” Thanks for getting back to what’s important, Steve, Rafiq’s testimony really needed the light relief.
Which part got you hardest? The moment a teammate pinned him down and forced him to drink red wine while everyone else stayed silent? The one when the beloved old fast bowler called him “Raffa the Kaffir” and “elephant washer”? The bit where a venerated England captain bluntly contradicted his testimony, supported by two of Rafiq’s teammates, that he told him “there’s too many of you lot”? Or was it when he argued that the reason his teammates can’t recall racist behaviour at Yorkshire was because it was so normal that it became forgettable? Or when he said he felt the players’ union called the police on him just so they would have proof they’d tried to do something useful if he killed himself?
That horror you’re feeling, the chill, the nausea, the hurt, all that unease and discomfort, don’t turn away from it. It’s necessary. Without it, nothing will change.
Last week I wrote about how the game we’d seen in the media these past few weeks was both depressingly familiar and yet utterly unrecognisable from the game that’s played out there, in which a multicultural England team won the World Cup, and one-third of recreational players are from British-Asian backgrounds.
And this week Rafiq’s testimony leaves a similar feeling. The extreme discrimination he faced was startling, but there was something dispiritingly familiar in what he said about the culture of the game, and how good people let bad behaviour slide. The Guardian ran an interview about exactly that with the England and Wales Cricket Board’s managing director of women’s cricket just last month. That culture is one reason why there is only one British-Asian player on the books at Yorkshire, one reason why there is only one openly gay male player in professional cricket, one reason why pretty much every woman working in the press box has her own private story about being harassed.
You can see it in Yorkshire, see it in the ECB, and maybe you can see it in your own experiences, too, in that talented kid who used to play for your club but who fell out of the game because he didn’t fit in, or that overheard remark you let pass when you were in the crowd. Me, I can see it in the second-hand truths I knew about some of the great old players but which I left out when I was writing tributes to them. The game always turns back to its comforts. Rafiq has given English cricket a chance to confront this. This opportunity cost him his health and his career. Now it’s up to everyone involved in the game to make the most of it.
So what next? The ECB is running an “all-cricket meeting” to discuss it on Friday. Is it just more bunk and after the past 25 years, is there enough proof that the ECB can be trusted to fix this?
But there is a model we can follow. For the past year, Cricket South Africa has been running “social justice and nation building hearings” to determine the causes, nature, and extent of racial discrimination in their game. The hearings are overseen by an independent ombudsman, and broadcast on YouTube. English cricket needs something similar. As Rafiq said, “There’s a quick rush to move forward, I think before we move forward, the game needs to listen to a lot of people who have suffered a lot of abuse up and down the country.”
The ECB, and Yorkshire, have set up hotlines for people to report their experiences. What do you trust them to do with information harvested in private? Who, exactly, do you expect them to protect once they have it?
Rafiq’s testimony showed the power of having these conversations in public. And it does need to be a conversation. Everyone implicated in the SJN hearings is given notice, and the opportunity to respond. This process only works if we hear from the people who failed, as well. Not in the form of short apologies signed off by lawyers, or statements of outright denial, but as part of a proper public discussion in which people are free to apologise where they need to, without feeling like they are going to be condemned for life.
We need to hear, too, from all the people I wrote about last week, the ones who are out there every day, working to make the game better, about the obstacles in their way. And we need, as Rafiq says, to keep a relentless focus on the system rather than being distracted by back-and-forths between individuals.
Because it’s not another episode in the culture war, but a hard conversation about what needs to be done; at the end of it, a clean start. And the depressing thing is, can we be sure any of this will happen? Now, about those Ashes …