Cricket - Azeem Rafiq
A video grab of Azeem Rafiq, former Yorkshire cricketer, fighting back tears while testifying in front of a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee in London on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The startling disclosure of Azeem Rafiq, the former Yorkshire off-spinner, on the racist slur that he faced during his decade-long stint with the county has taken English cricket by storm all along this month. So much so that it has often tended to overshadow the national team’s exit in the semi-finals from the T20 World Cup or the Ashes trip - which is just round the corner.

The controversy boiled over on Tuesday when Rafiq’s testimony began before the Parliamentary committee which was been formed to look into the allegations of the biggest whistleblower of this menace in the ranks of county cricket in recent times. The cricketer, who moved from Pakistan to the UK in 2001, had been a part of England age-group sides including U-15, U-17 and U-19 teams and had played a total of 39 first class games for 72 wickets during a period between 2008 and 2018.

The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had acted swiftly on this, barring Yorkshire (Headingley) from hosting any international or major matches till the investigations are complete. They have further ruled out Gary Ballance, a England Test batsman, of reckoning for selection in the national team as he and England’s white ball opener Alex Hales are two players named by Rafiq for persecution during his stay in the north England county.

Cricket - Rafiq 1
Former Yorkshire County Cricket Club chairman Roger Hutton (right) arrives with his legal team to testify in front of a Parliamentary Committee in London as MPs probe racial harassment at the club. Image Credit: AFP

Excepts of his testimony in the media quotes Rafiq as saying: “There were comments such as, ‘You lot sit there near the toilets’, ‘Elephant washers.’ The word Paki was used constantly. And there just seemed to be an acceptance in the institution from the leaders and no one stamped it out.” As for leaders, read Michael Vaughan, who was a long serving Yorkshire captain.

Vaughan, now a TV pundit, has denied from any such involvement in his column on Tuesday but Rafiq’s observations about him were endorsed by Adel Rashid, the leading England leg spinner and a member of Yorkshire team.

Rafiq alleged that Vaughan had said there were “too many of you lot, we need to do something about it” before a game in 2009. “I wanted to concentrate as much as possible on my cricket and to avoid distractions to the detriment of the team, but I can confirm Azeem Rafiq’s recollection of Michael Vaughan’s comments to a group of us Asian players.” Rashid said in a recent interview.

“That’s the institution. You have people who are openly racist. And then you have the bystanders. Lots of people saw it happen. No one felt strong enough to say stop,” Rafiq said during his deposition.

It’s certainly no longer a case of your words against mine - as charges of an ‘acceptable’ norm of racism in the ranks of county cricket had been as ageless as ever. Yorkshire, the north England county, stood out in their conservatism over decades - so much so that they had stuck to their policy of no overseas players and first made an exception with Sachin Tendulkar in 1992.

Now clearly on the backfoot, the county management has taken a proactive role with Lord Patel - the new chairman - issuing an apology to the cricketer and saying that they did not try to influence Rafiq about his deposition. They have, meanwhile, got Joe Root - the current England and senior Yorkshire player who commands an extremely fair reputation in the world cricket community.

Root, a Yorkshire player since 2009, toed a diplomatic line in his statement last week calling for “change and actions” at the club to ensure “a culture that harnesses a diverse environment with trust across all communities”. Asked if he had seen any incidents of racism at the club, Root said: “Not that I can recall, no I can’t. But it is clear things have happened at the club and we have to make sure we eradicate it.”

It’s clearly a damage control exercise on part of the county as Ballance himself has admitted to using slur against Rafiq.

Now on the back Rafiq’s accusation, the England and Wales Cricket Board received another jolt with fresh racism claims made by former Essex player Maurice Chambers. The cricketer detailed in an interview that he was allegedly subjected to racist bullying for 10 years at the club, including having bananas thrown at him and frequently being subjected to racist jokes.

It follows allegations made by former Essex batsman Zoheb Sharif, who said he received racist abuse that included being called “bomber” by his teammates after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The faultlines are clearly showing once again. It’s not about penalising Yorkshire or Essex alone, but the cry for a level of awareness that is required among the offenders.

Otherwise, taking the knee by teams in international arena will remain a mere tokenism!