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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Cricketer Azeem Rafiq fights back tears as he says he faced ‘constant uses of the word p***’

Cricketer Azeem Rafiq has told MPs he felt “isolated, humiliated at times” due to the bombardment of racism he suffered and the “constant uses of the word p***'” during his time at Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

The 30-year-old whistleblower had said it was “time for truths” as he prepared to give evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee hearing in Westminster – and told the panel on Thursday he hoped to become “a voice for the voiceless”.

Azeem Rafiq gives evidence to MPs at racism hearing – follow live

Rafiq, who has been involved in cricket in Yorkshire since the age of 11, talked openly and candidly to MPs, recalling the pain the verbal abuse had caused him, telling them: “Pretty early on at the club I joined a dressing room full of my heroes. Michael Vaughan, Matthew Hoggard, part of the 2005 Ashes team. And it was just the most surreal moment for me.

“Me and other people from other Asian backgrounds… there were comments such as ‘you’ll sit over there near the toilets’, ‘elephant washers’… and there seemed to be an acceptance in the institution. No one really stamped it out.”

Key revelations:
• Constant uses of the word ‘p***’
• Treated in an ‘inhuman’ way when son was still-born
• Word ‘Kevin’ used to describe people of colour
• Pinned down and forced to drink wine
• Institutional racism across all cricket

He said: “In my first spell I think I was in denial. I looked the other way. Towards the end of my first spell, I knew there was something wrong, but couldn’t put my finger on it.”

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‘P*** is not banter, racism is not banter’

He added that he felt there was a change at the club when returning for his second spell. He initially felt settled under captain Alex Lees and coach Jason Gillespie.

Rafiq said the “temperature changed” in 2016. “You had Andrew Gale coming in as coach and Gary Ballance as captain. For the first time I started to see for what it was – I felt isolated, humiliated at times, constant uses of the word ‘p***’.”

The former all-rounder and ex-England U-19s and Yorkshire captain had the protection of parliamentary privilege while giving evidence to MPs – meaning he was free to name names without worrying about legal reprisals.

Ballance admitted using a “racial slur” towards Rafiq in a lengthy statement issued earlier this month, apologising but framing it as part of a long and deep friendship.

Rafiq told the committee that was not an accurate depiction of their relationship, saying it went downhill from 2013 onwards and had become toxic by 2017.

“‘Kevin’ was something Gary used to describe anyone of colour in a very derogatory manner. It was an open secret in the England dressing room,” he said.

“Anyone who came across Gary would know that was a phrase he would use to describe people of colour.”

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Rafiq, who played two spells at Headingley between 2008 and 2018, initially voiced his claims in an interview with Sky News in September 2020, alleging “deep rooted” racism at the club left him close to taking his own life.

Yorkshire County Cricket Club launched a formal investigation and concluded he was the victim of “racial harassment and bullying” but nobody at the club faced disciplinary action.

A leaked report suggested that the use of “the P word” towards Rafiq was made in the context of “friendly banter”.

“‘P***’ is not banter. Racism is not banter,” he told MPs, adding the normalisation of that type of language indicated the scale of the problem.

Rafiq’s emotional and shocking testimony continued as he fought back tears and told the committee about the loss of his baby son, describing the club’s treatment of him at that time as “inhuman”.

“They weren’t really bothered that I was training one day and I got a phone call to say that there was no heartbeat,” he said.

The hearing was briefly suspended as Rafiq became visibly emotional.

Azeem Rafiq  sky news grab
Rafiq has said it is ‘time for truths’

The panel also heard of a time Rafiq, who is a Muslim, was “pinned down” at his local cricket club and forced to drink red wine at the age of 15.

“The player played for Yorkshire and Hampshire. I (then) didn’t touch alcohol until about 2012 and around that time I felt I had to do that to fit in. I wasn’t perfect, there are things I did which I felt I had to do to achieve my dreams. I deeply regret that but it has nothing to do with racism.”

Of the incident, which he said took place in a car with one other witness, Rafiq added: “No one did anything. I’m angry at myself for looking the other way.”

“All I wanted to do is play cricket and play for England and live my dream and live my family’s dream,” he said, but he left Yorkshire for the first time in 2014 after he started taking medication for his deteriorating mental health.

Asked why he returned to YCCC for a second spell, he said he was in a position where putting food on the table was really difficult, “but more importantly I think I was in denial – right up to 2017”.

But it was after the loss of his child he said he realised he couldn’t “look the other way”.

He said when he raised the issues with the club, he was dismissed as a “problem” and “troublemaker”.

When asked if he thought cricket was institutionally racist, Rafiq replied: “Yes, I do.”

Rafiq described England and Wales Cricket Board initiatives on diversity as “box-ticking” exercises and “tokenism”.

He said the problem at Yorkshire existed “up and down the country”, and criticised the ECB and Professional Cricketers’ Association’s handling of his situation.

“On a human point I felt like if someone else had told me they were suicidal and they were ringing you saying ‘please help’ I’d forget my constitution and help a human,” he said.

He described the PCA as “incredibly inept” and added: “An organisation that should have supported me left me on my own.”

Former England captain Michael Vaughan is named in the independent report into Rafiq’s claims, but has strenuously denied allegations he told four Asian team-mates: “(There’s) too many of your lot, we need to do something about it.”

Rafiq told the committee: “He probably doesn’t remember it because it doesn’t mean anything to him.”

He said Hoggard had apologised to him after watching him being interviewed about his experience at Yorkshire.

“You know what, when someone does that, I was like ‘thank you, I really appreciate it’.”

Last week England Test captain Joe Root told reporters he had never personally heard any racism at the club, but added the Yorkshire racism scandal has “fractured our game and torn lives apart”.

When asked about Root’s comments, Rafiq said he found it “hurtful” that Root said he had never witnessed anything of a racist nature at Yorkshire.

“Rooty is a good man. He never engaged in racist language,” Rafiq said. “I found it hurtful because Rooty was Gary (Ballance)’s housemate and had been involved in a lot of the socialising where I was called a ‘P***’.

“It shows how normal it was that even a good man like him doesn’t see it for what it was. It’s not going to affect Joe, but it’s something I remember every day.”

Rafiq also alleged former England batter Alex Hales was involved.

He said: “Gary and Alex Hales got really close to each other when they played for England together. I wasn’t present in that dressing room, but what I understand (is) that Alex went on to name his dog ‘Kevin’ because it was black. It’s disgusting how much of a joke it was.”

Analysis by Tom Parmenter, sports correspondent

Laying it all out for everyone to hear was an enormously difficult thing for Azeem Rafiq to do.

He struggled to hold back tears as he recalled the pain racist abuse has caused him and his loved ones.

The theme of just how normalised racist or discriminatory comments had become was striking.

The use of the P word and other racist names were just part of the bravado and banter that, in Rafiq’s view, his white colleagues didn’t really notice.

Players at Yorkshire casually called non-white team mates “Steve” or “Kevin” because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pronounce their colleague’s names: “It’s disgusting how much of a joke it was.” Rafiq said.

He called racism within cricket an “open secret” and that calling it out has been the hardest thing he has ever done.

“If you speak out your life is going to be made hell… denials, cover-ups, smearing,” he told the MPs.

They were listening, the world of cricket was listening.

He wants now to see meaningful change.

Many watching his evidence will conclude it is the least he deserves.

Asked to name other instances of racism he has personally heard about outside of Yorkshire, Rafiq said he had received messages from people who have played at Leicestershire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, and Maurice Chambers has spoken out about his time at Essex.

The club’s full report into the Rafiq’s allegations has never been published, and its handling of the case and inaction has prompted widespread criticism.

It has been stripped of its right to host international cricket, there has been a mass exodus of sponsors and growing political pressure from Westminster – with Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying “heads should roll”.

Last week, Rafiq, who was born in Pakistan and moved to England when he was 10, agreed a financial settlement with his old club.

He described racism within cricket as an “open secret” and told MPs speaking out had been tough, and that while he had received huge support from most, others had told him to “go back to where I came from”.

Former Yorkshire chair Roger Hutton, who resigned over an “unwillingness from the executive members of the board and senior management at the club to apologise and to accept racism and to look forward”, also gave evidence.

Asked three times if the club is institutionally racist, he eventually said: “Yes, I fear it falls under that definition.”

New chair Lord Kamlesh Patel told MPs: “You see a lot of denial, you see a lot of sadness. This is an organisation that’s been hammered left, right and centre, maybe for the right reasons.

“Changes are going to have to be made and it’s not going to be overnight, but we have got to move on it, really quickly and really hard. I’m prepared to take whatever decisions I need to take.”

:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.

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