Yorkshire County Cricket Club are institutionally racist. There: that wasn’t so hard, was it? For years Yorkshire enabled, tolerated and normalised a dressing-room culture of racist discourse. They failed to create a welcoming environment for Muslims and other ethnic minorities. They continued and continue to employ staff who have made racist comments.
When a former player raised serious allegations of longstanding racist behaviour three years ago, the club initially did nothing and then reportedly offered him a six-figure payout to keep quiet. Under investigation, they have chosen at every turn to prioritise their own reputation and their own people. It is true that an investigative panel found that Azeem Rafiq’s exclusion from the team was based on his cricket, and not his race. It is also true the panel may not have found sufficient evidence to conclude that Yorkshire are institutionally racist. But frankly, to me, to draw any other conclusion is not simply a refutation of the available evidence but a form of moral cowardice.
So far, so cathartic. For all the comic ineptitude and farcical missteps Yorkshire have displayed in the handling of their racism investigation, anger remains the prevailing emotion here: anger at how long all this has taken, anger at the stories that have emerged so far, anger at the culture of shameless corporate self-interest that infects so much of this country’s executive class.
Above all, you feel angry on behalf of Rafiq, a man who just wanted to bowl some off-spin and win some cricket games for Yorkshire, and who instead has found himself co-opted into a cruel fight for justice that has robbed him of his time and his joy, his human complexity, his dignity and occasionally his sanity.
One of the hallmarks of this episode is that every time you feel Yorkshire have plumbed their own capacity for moral decrepitude, they somehow manage to drill even lower. Monday morning was another such moment: according to ESPNCricinfo, a current senior Yorkshire player admitted regularly addressing Rafiq using the P-word, but was cleared by the investigation of wrongdoing on the basis that it was “not reasonable for Azeem to have been offended”. Such words, the panel argued, fell under the banner of “good-natured banter between friends”.
If these latest revelations teach us anything, it is that the report commissioned by Yorkshire almost 14 months ago, dragged through a mangle of delays and obfuscations, and released (in summary) during the chaotic cancellation of the fifth Test between England and India, is barely worth the USB drive it was uploaded to. Key figures were not interviewed.
Since Rafiq first went public with his testimony in a wisden.com interview in August 2020 – an account backed up by numerous former teammates and staff – the Yorkshire chairman, Roger Hutton, has not given a single public interview.
The sadness is that there are plenty of decent, principled, appalled people still working at Yorkshire today, but very few of them are in positions of real power. According to the Yorkshire Post some senior figures at the club are disgruntled it has not taken a more hostile line against Rafiq.
This is a good example of how the struggle against racism is part of a broader fight against entitlement and entrenched privilege, be it through status or wealth or gender or connections. The point being: all this goes far deeper than simple acts of racist abuse, what words we deem acceptable or not or the futures of individuals. This is about how institutions protect themselves and resist change, about where power lies in our game and how it replicates.
In 2003, when Darren Lehmann was banned for calling a Sri Lankan opponent a “black cunt” during a one-day international for Australia, his county, Yorkshire, refused to take any action. “You can’t say it was malicious, far from it,” said Colin Graves, the chairman at the time. “I’m disappointed the ICC has taken it down this route. He is not a racist.”
Case closed; ancient history. Except Graves ended up running English cricket. Lehmann ended up coaching Deccan Chargers and Australia and this year was welcomed back to Headingley as coach of the Northern Superchargers in the Hundred.
Imagine all the cricketers of colour who will have played under them, the staff who owed their livelihoods to them, the youngsters who went through the pathways they controlled. Imagine how little power they had and how much Graves and Lehmann enjoyed by comparison. That is institutional racism in action.
Yorkshire acted shamefully, but they didn’t act alone. Senior white England players continue to avoid discussing racism out of squeamishness. The England and Wales Cricket Board, now making its own inquiries, spent years turning a blind eye to racism in the English game before finally deciding in 2020 there might be some good PR in all this George Floyd stuff.
Even now, with its T-shirt gimmicks and a communications department bigger than many countries’ coaching staff, it gives the impression of a body less concerned with improving the game than with being able to say it has improved the game.
As another month ticks by, Rafiq continues to wait for justice. He really was a very decent bowler in his prime, a clever spinner with subtle changes of flight and an underrated batting technique, an England Under-19s captain who with a little love and little luck could easily have developed into an international cricketer.
He’s still only 30. And yet right now, his defining legacy in the game is as a victim of someone else’s racism. In a crowded field, that may well be the biggest injustice of all.