Joe Root says he has been in touch with Azeem Rafiq since his former teammate detailed his experiences of discrimination at Yorkshire to MPs earlier this month – but the England captain still maintains he never witnessed any racist behaviour at the club.
Rafiq admitted in front of a parliamentary select committee he was “hurt” by Root’s previous failure to recall the abuse he suffered while at Headingley. He also said he found it “strange” he couldn’t remember anything because he had been present on nights out when Gary Ballance, the former England player who Root once shared a flat with, had called him a “paki”.
Speaking at England’s pre-Ashes base in Brisbane, Root revealed he has reached out to Rafiq since he spoke in parliament on 16 November 16: “We have exchanged a couple of messages since, quite recently actually, and hopefully when we finish this tour we will get the opportunity to sit down and talk about this whole situation. About how we can move the game forward.”
However, Root stood by his claim made earlier this month he had never witnessed the racist behaviour towards Rafiq. “No, I stand by what I said,” he said. “I don’t recall those incidences. If they are an oversight on my part then that’s an area we all have to learn from, and I have to learn from.”
Root then referenced his decision to call out the West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel on the field for use of a homophobic slur during a Test match in St Lucia in February 2019 as proof he takes the issue of discrimination seriously. “There have been other things that have happened since then, on the cricket field, where I feel like I have stepped in and called things out,” he said.
“That comes from growth and learning and understanding and education. There is still further education I need to undergo to develop myself further – I think everyone does.”
Root was less forthcoming on the use of ‘Kevin’ in the England dressing room. Rafiq has alleged this was a pejorative term used by Ballance, who played his last international match in 2017, to describe all people of colour and was once widely used by England players. “That’s part of a live investigation and I’m currently not able to discuss matters on that,” he said. “But clearly that is a phrase that should never be used whether in the dressing room or any part of society.”
Pressed on why he was unable to comment given the only investigation being conducted is by the England & Wales Cricket Board, he added: “I think that the ECB are going through an ongoing investigation, trying to find out more information about that. I don’t think I’m in a position to comment more about that.”
England’s on-field preparations for an Ashes series that starts in Brisbane next week have been hit by poor weather in Queensland that wiped out all but 29 overs of their opening three-day tour match last week. More rain is forecast for the start of their final four-day warm-up match that starts on Tuesday.
Yet the storm clouds gathering off the field, namely the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant that has seen some Australian states tighten border restrictions, is also worrying England’s players. While many families – including Root’s – are already in Australia, those scheduled to join the squad in Melbourne before Christmas could be subject to harsh quarantine restrictions on arrival.
“The families are integral to us, especially on the back of the amount of cricket we’ve played in these environments,” said Root. “As players, I think it is really important we remember we’re in the hands of Australian government and local governments. There’s not much more we can do or say about it. We’ve got to trust the guys above us to do as much as they can for us and concentrate as much as we can on our cricket. But I think it is important we talk about these things. We don’t want to let them fester on individuals and try to make sure no-one is letting it affect them.”
There was also a scare last weekend when Ben Stokes, back for the Ashes after fracturing a finger and taking time out to safeguard his mental health last summer, feared he had broken an arm after being hit in the nets by the England batting coach, Jonathan Trott.
“To see Ben get hit like that was obviously a scary moment,” said Root. “We all know how crucial he is within our squad but he seems to have come through it pretty well. He practised again today and we’ll keep assessing, making sure it doesn’t have a prolonged effect on him. It’s going to be really important he gets himself ready both physically and mentally for this series and to play a big part in it.”