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We must listen to Azeem Rafiq because cricket does have a racism problem

Rika Canaway discusses the Azeem Rafiq case and the hard lessons cricket must learn from it

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Image Credit: Azeem Rafiq on Twitter

Cricket very rarely makes the headlines outside of its major tournaments, but recently all eyes have been on the sport, and for all the wrong reasons. And now, as the cricket world stands amidst the ruins of its reputation, questions have to be asked, and changes have to be made. How did the sport reach such a calamitous breaking point, and what happens next?

Racism is not always obvious. It is not always painted with bold strokes, nor does it always come wearing white hoods. More often than not, it manifests itself through the refusal to accommodate, off-hand remarks hidden by a culture which render them the norm, the expected and the accepted. This covert form of racism provides plausible deniability to those perpetuating it, and never rears its head high enough for those not directly affected by it to take notice. The nicknaming of non-white players as Kevin, as Azeem Rafiq mentioned in the DCMS
meeting, or Steve, as is referenced in an interview with Cheteshwar Pujara from 2018, is then banter. Harmless humour, that could be chalked down to a club tradition, rather than any racist and malicious intent from the club’s members. But this is far from harmless. What can you call the ritualisation of exclusionary behaviour and the refusal to call someone by their name if not racism?

These sorts of actions have been accepted as part and parcel of YCCC’s, and cricket’s, culture, these casual moments of racism are not viewed as such because “that’s the way it is”. By tolerating these comments for so long, cricket has made itself a safe space for racism, it protects the continuation of slurs and exclusionary behaviour because it would rather continue as is than have to recognise that this is a problem that has permeated the entire institution. The Yorkshire racism report ruled that Rafiq being called “P**i” was ‘banter’.
The most telling illustration of the banality of racism within the dressing room is Joe Root’s involvement in this scandal. Root released a statement, in which he said that he had no recollection of racist language being used. Root, the England Test Captain, and who Rafiq described as a “good man”, made his Yorkshire debut in 2007 for their second team and has played with the club his whole career. Root was, Rafiq believes, a passive onlooker. He says that it was the “environment and the institution that made it such a norm that people don’t remember it [racism]”. Ultimately this was the culture of the YCCC dressing room, the club captain and club coach using racial slurs that were dismissed as banter, and that left players isolated. A club culture where racism was so well integrated into the environment that racism could be considered to be acceptable.

There is a saying in cricket, “strong Yorkshire, strong England”. It is a saying that uses Yorkshire cricket as a litmus-paper type indicator of the status and strength of English cricket. However now, it is clear that a different aspect, a more unfavourable element of Yorkshire cricket can be used to point to the health of the country’s cricket. Rafiq made it repeatedly explicit that he has spoken up, not to damage Yorkshire’s reputation as a club, but as an attempt to affect positive change in the game as a whole. He said to Sky that he believed that  ‘hundreds and thousands’ of other cricketers could come forward and speak out about their own experiences of racism; indeed Essex County Cricket Club have already had two players come forward about their own experiences about racism, and Middlesex have urged an anonymous player to who had contacted Rafiq in a similar position within their club to contact senior members of the club.

Cricket must then look to the future. How can the sport rebuild after such a harrowing uncovering of the truth? There will undoubtedly be a number of personnel changes among coaching staff, the players, and the board members, but what can cricket do to ensure a more thorough shift? Changes have to be made to make cricket a more accessible sport throughout the age groups, through to a professional level. Lawrence Booth, editor of Wisden, estimated in 2015 that 30-40% of grassroots cricketers are non-white, and of that percentage the
majority are of south Asian heritage. This is a severe contrast with first class cricket, where 6% are non-white. Upon this news the ECB announced a program to deepen engagement with south Asian communities. This programme is discredited somewhat by the existence of a similar program, launched in 1999 by the ECB to address the same problem. Azeem Rafiq has made his voice heard, and it’s easy to assume, wrongly, that change will follow.

Cricket has been handed the opportunity to make change. Rafiq’s testimonial has been described as a watershed moment and turning point by many journalists, with Jonathan Agnew pointing out “it should’ve been a watershed moment 10 years ago, when [Rafiq] started reporting this and was labelled a troublemaker and ignored”. The performative aspects taken up by the ECB, such as taking a knee and wearing t-shirts with anti-discriminatory
messages on the back now need to be supported by institutional changes. Rafiq has shared his story with the world, it is time for the world to listen. And then more importantly, to act.

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