To appreciate the wider context of the treatment of Azeem Rafiq by Yorkshire County Cricket Club, a pair of statistics from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) may help. In a recent report, the ECB noted that while people of south Asian heritage made up one-third of recreational cricketers, they constituted a mere 4% of professional players in 2018. The report was published in the same year that Rafiq first made allegations of racism while at Yorkshire, where he played in two spells dating back to 2008. Rafiq’s story – and the contempt with which his complaints were dealt with – may go some way to explaining why ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented in the higher reaches of the sport.
The initial response from Yorkshire’s hierarchy to Rafiq’s claims that a racist dressing-room culture existed at the club was to ignore them. Only when he went public was an investigation launched. Two months ago, that investigation found that the cricketer had indeed been subjected to “racial harassment and bullying”. Yorkshire apologised to Rafiq, but has not released the full report. Last week, perhaps believing that this unwelcome storm had blown over, a review panel announced that no disciplinary action was to be taken against any current player or staff member.
That might have been that, had a record of the panel’s deliberations not found its way into the public domain, via the ESPNcricinfo news website. This suggested that Yorkshire’s “apology” was more or less worthless. Among a series of reported observations ranging from the obtuse to the downright insulting, the panel deemed that the regular use of the P-word by a current senior team member – and the deployment of other hackneyed racist stereotypes in relation to Rafiq – had merely been “banter” between teammates.
Happily, it seems the Yorkshire board is about to discover that the time when the use of racist epithets and tropes could be passed off as a bit of a laugh is over. The health secretary, Sajid Javid, a son of Pakistani immigrants, on Wednesday called for “heads to roll” over the affair. The chair and CEO of Yorkshire have been summoned to give evidence later this month to the digital, culture, media and sport select committee. In a moment of personal vindication, Rafiq will testify at the same hearing. Two sponsors have already indicated that they are ending their relationship with the club.
The ECB has launched its own inquiry, and has the power to impose sanctions ranging from fines and points deductions to taking international matches away from Yorkshire’s HQ at Headingley. It should not be afraid to make an example of a cherished sporting institution. Promoting the ideals of tolerance and inclusivity through slogans and campaigns is not enough. When an organisation lets the sport down so badly, it must suffer meaningful consequences. As the ECB’s 2018 report on engaging south Asian communities showed, professional cricket needs to work much harder to be more representative of all those who play the game and love it. There has been too much complacency at the top; seeing justice belatedly done in this case would be a start.