Gary Ballance, the former England batsman, has admitted using racist and offensive language to his teammate Azeem Rafiq in a controversy that has engulfed Yorkshire County Cricket Club and the sport as a whole.
His move follows another day of anger towards Yorkshire over their failure to take action against Rafiq’s alleged abusers that led to leading sponsors – including Emerald, who gave their name to Yorkshire’s Headingley ground – ending their association with the club, and a group of MPs demanded an independent inquiry.
Rafiq, a former England under-19s captain, has signalled he is ready to name names and detail the racism he claims to have experienced while playing professional cricket for Yorkshire when the Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee tackles the crisis-ridden club on 16 November.
Roger Hutton, the club chair, Mark Arthur, chief executive, and Martyn Moxon, director of cricket, are also expected to be questioned by MPs over their handling of the affair.
The ability for all parties to speak freely under parliamentary privilege without fear of legal reprisal could provide the fullest picture of the scandal. Thus far only a summary of the club’s 12-month investigation – one which began in September 2020 and included the admission that Rafiq was a victim of “racial harassment and bullying” – has been made public.
With this comes the prospect of Rafiq disclosing the names of individuals he alleges made racist remarks towards him during his two spells at the club from 2008 to 2018. The 30-year-old has confirmed to the Guardian he intends to give evidence as he seeks closure on a long-running saga that left him emotionally exhausted and still fighting an employment tribunal case.
Rafiq, who in 2012 aged 21 became Yorkshire’s youngest captain, has found support from a range of leading political figures this week after it was reported by ESPNCricinfo that a teammate had repeatedly used the P-word. That player was confirmed on Wednesday as Ballance, who recently signed a new three-year deal with the club.
In a statement on Wednesday night Ballance said he had “no choice but to provide a public response” given leaks and reports to the press which he said “give a misleading impression of the evidence which was heard in the investigation”.
Ballance went on: “To be clear – I deeply regret some of the language I used in my younger years. The independent enquiry, having heard all of the evidence, accepted that the context of some of the language used was in a ‘friendly verbal attack’ between friends which was not intended to offend or hurt and that no malice was intended. Given my incredibly close relationship with Rafa over the years I am saddened that it has come to this.”
Ballance said he had developed a close bond with Raffiq when they joined Yorkshire around the same time. “Because we were such good friends and spent a lot of time together drinking and on nights out we both said things privately to each other which were not acceptable. It has been reported that I used a racial slur and, as I told the independent enquiry, I accept that I did so and I regret doing so. I do not wish to discredit Rafa by repeating the words and statements that he made about me and others but I have to be clear that this was a situation where best friends said offensive things to each other which, outside of that context, would be considered wholly inappropriate.
“I regret that these exchanges took place but at no time did I believe or understand that it had caused Rafa distress. If I had believed that then I would have stopped immediately. He was my best mate in cricket and I cared deeply for him.”
The club’s investigation panel had cleared Ballance of wrongdoing, saying his use of the term was part of regular “friendly verbal attack” between the two players and “in the spirit of friendly banter”. Rafiq, however, drew censure in the report for using the term “Zimbo” in reference to Ballance’s Zimbabwean heritage.
Ballance, 31, was born in Harare and went on to play 16 Tests and 23 one-day internationals for England, winning his last cap in 2017. He has been at Yorkshire since 2008 and is believed to have been a close friend of Rafiq’s until their relationship soured during the latter’s second spell at the club.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, tweeted on Tuesday that the P-word “is not banter” and “heads should roll” at Yorkshire, while a spokesperson for Boris Johnson on Tuesday condemned the abuse of Rafiq and urged the England and Wales Cricket Board to look into the matter urgently.
A cross-party group of more than 30 MPs and two regional mayors from Yorkshire has also sent a co-signed letter to the ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, calling for a comprehensive and independent inquiry into the club’s handling of the allegations. The ECB, which received an unredacted version of Yorkshire’s report only last week, has already begun an investigation in its capacity as the sport’s regulator.
Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Bradford Central, where Rafiq lives, and who coordinated the letter to the ECB, said: “The disgraceful treatment of Azeem Rafiq has brought Yorkshire County Cricket Club into disrepute. It’s appalling that anyone has to suffer racist abuse in the workplace, and then for that abuse to be repeatedly dismissed as ‘banter’ is utterly unacceptable.”
Emerald and Yorkshire Tea said on Wednesday that their respective sponsorship deals with Yorkshire have now been ended. The club has now lost three commercial partners in the space of 24 hours after Anchor butter ended a deal in which their logo appeared on the first team’s Royal London Cup shirts.
Rafiq’s allegations first came to light in August 2020 when, in an interview looking back on his career with wisden.com, he admitted he wished he had done more to push back on the dressing-room culture witnessed while rising through the ranks at Headingley.
Subsequent interviews, in which Rafiq expanded on his experiences and revealed he had endured suicidal thoughts as a result, eventually prompted Yorkshire to launch an investigation led by the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. Over the next 12 months the investigating team spoke to 26 witnesses, with the summary of its findings released in September and upholding seven of Rafiq’s 43 claims.
Among these was the acknowledgement that Rafiq experienced three separate incidents of racist language being used by former players prior to 2010, while a former coach at the club regularly used racist language prior to 2012. During his second spell at Yorkshire there were jokes made around religion which “made individuals uncomfortable about their religious practices”.
Also included in the report’s findings was an admission that the club had failed to properly escalate Rafiq’s allegations when he first raised them in 2018 with Arthur, Moxon and Hanif Malik, a non-executive director who also serves as chair of Yorkshire Cricket’s equality and diversity committee.
Despite this, Yorkshire announced last week that after an internal review of their report – something which to date remains unpublished and only recently shared with Rafiq with various elements redacted – no actions have been taken against any current employees.
Mesba Ahmed, vice-chairman of the National Asian Cricket Council and one of three British Asians on the five-member panel that looked into the investigation’s findings, has since told the Telegraph the report was “as good a job as we possibly could have done”.
On the prospect of publishing the report, he said: “I think it would solve everybody’s problem and accusations, frustrations, guesswork. However, I do understand and appreciate Yorkshire’s position because there’s a legal case going on.”