The allegations of systematic racism made against Yorkshire County Cricket Club by Azeem Rafiq first surfaced in August 2020. Rafiq gave a wide-ranging interview to the Wisden journalist Taha Hashim, ostensibly about his work providing free meals for key workers during the pandemic. But he also spoke about the racism he experienced at Yorkshire, including an “openly racist” captain, a dressing room in which racist comments were regarded as humorous, and a culture in which complaints about racist behaviour were ignored and turned against him.
Yorkshire refused to comment. And you wonder, 15 months on, how they might reflect on that decision after a week that has seen English cricket’s most successful county and best-known club ripped apart, deserted by sponsors, banned from hosting international cricket and facing financial implosion. Perhaps, on balance, they should probably have said a little something. It might have saved them a good deal of strife in the long run.
Instead, as we know, the club were finally prodded into action weeks later, after further accusations were made by Rafiq in an interview with the far larger ESPNCricinfo website. An investigation was halfheartedly launched. Some lukewarm platitudes were issued about there being no place for discrimination in cricket. In among all this were boasts about how much progress Yorkshire had made on diversity issues, and about how the club had made Rafiq the first ever British south Asian (temporary) captain of their Twenty20 side.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a counter-assault was being launched. Rafiq received further abuse on social media. His motives were questioned, his character was impugned. An influential local league chairman wrote a blog accusing Rafiq of being “discourteous, disrespectful and very difficult”, adding: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” The investigation into Rafiq’s claims dragged on past Christmas, into 2021, through spring and summer, with almost no public communication and no indication of when the report would be released, if at all. (It has still not been made public.)
All this has long been in the public domain. Rafiq’s accusations have been known about and discussed within the game for more than a year. The culture at Yorkshire has been an open secret for far longer. And so the real point of interest here is how the story has only blown up now, and with such staggering speed that sponsors have been persuaded to flee, former players such as Michael Vaughan and Andrew Gale have been implicated, members of the cabinet have been moved to offer their comment and the BBC’s Question Time was debating on Thursday night whether the P-word was racist or not. The answers should comfort none of us.
Part of the reason this story developed so quickly is the attention-deficient nature of the news cycle. Individuals are targeted; new revelations emerge from the undergrowth; back pages and news schedules are cleared; the usual talking heads are wheeled out. And even if there is a certain welcome sensation of purgation to the current moment, of truths finally being divulged and individuals receiving their long-awaited just desserts, then it comes with a reminder that a storm blowing into town with devastating speed often leaves again just as quickly.
It is revealing, for example, that it was the Daily Mail and the Telegraph who first disclosed that the senior player named in the report as using the P-word to Rafiq was the former England batsman Gary Ballance. This is, after all, where the rightwing press is most comfortable operating: with a laser-focus on exposing and isolating errant individuals rather than interrogating systems and structures of power (which in large part their readers are quite happy to leave untouched).
Even though Rafiq made it clear from the start of the process that he was not interested in claiming scalps, so much of the media’s energy has nevertheless been trained in this direction: who might resign next, who said what to whom.
Clearly there are individuals in this case who need to go away and do some thinking. Ballance’s cricket career is hanging by a thread. Vaughan has been relieved of his BBC presenting duties for now. The Yorkshire chairman, Roger Hutton, has resigned, telling the BBC that he “never personally met anyone at Yorkshire in the 18 months that I was there who I consider a racist”. The positions of Gale as the head coach and Martyn Moxon as the director of cricket should have been untenable long ago.
But racist behaviour does not simply occur in a vacuum, and perhaps the ultimate lesson here is how many of our institutions are indicted: the education system that sent these individuals out into the world utterly ill-equipped for modern society, the legal system that advised Yorkshire not to take any disciplinary action against Balance, the ECB whose failure to exercise any leverage whatsoever on Yorkshire until this week again demonstrates that from the start it has seen this as primarily a PR problem rather than a moral issue.
And yes: the media, too. Perhaps the best expression of the power disparities at work here is the fact that on Thursday Vaughan was given a 1,000-word article in the Telegraph to put his side of the story and protest his innocence of the charges made against him. Meanwhile, for years people such as Rafiq, Michael Carberry, John Holder and Ismail Dawood have been trying to find an audience who will listen to their stories, denied the sort of free (indeed, well-paid) platform that Vaughan and his ilk enjoy by right.
In short, we all need to do better here. The same structures that allowed Rafiq’s plight to go unheeded for so long are still in place. The corporate imperatives that allowed the ECB to sit on its hands for more than a year remain unchallenged. On traditional and social media, allegations and victims of racism continue to be ignored, contested, folded into snackable culture-war content. And what of Yorkshire? Well, as a wise man once said: as ye sow, so shall ye reap.