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Cricket in crisis: How Azeem Rafiq’s testimony on racist abuse shines light on the sport’s deep-rooted problems

By George Ramsay, CNN

“From early on there was a lot of, ‘You lot sit over there near the toilets,’ the word ‘P***’ was used constantly, no one ever stamped it out,” said former cricketer Azeem Rafiq as he laid bare this week his experience of racial abuse at one of England’s top clubs.

November 16, 2021 may come to be remembered as cricket’s day of reckoning; in the aftermath of Rafiq’s testimony, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) — the sport’s regulator in those two countries — spoke of taking the “necessary action” and the need to “learn lessons as a game.”

The ECB has quite a job on its hands.

Rafiq’s detailed account of his time at Yorkshire County Cricket Club hardly shocked Taj Butt, who worked for the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation, the club’s charity and community arm, between 2014 and 2017.

“As depressing as it was listening to him … some of the things he faced didn’t come as a surprise to most people involved in the game, whether it’s at a grassroots level or at the highest level,” Butt tells CNN Sport.

“These are the sort of things that unfortunately do still happen on an everyday basis.”

During his testimony to UK lawmakers on Tuesday, Rafiq detailed some of the appalling behavior he was subjected to while playing for Yorkshire, adding that he believes he lost his cricket career to racism.

In an interview with CNN, Rafiq also said he would stop his children from getting into cricket as he doesn’t want his “son or daughter to be in pain.”

The hours-long testimony was the culmination of a 16-month period, during which Yorkshire undertook an independent review into more than 40 allegations of racism and bullying made by Rafiq.

Following the review, the club accepted that Rafiq had been the “victim of inappropriate behavior” at Yorkshire, although no one at the club was disciplined as a result of the independent investigation.

On Tuesday, former Yorkshire chairman Roger Hutton, who resigned from his role amid the handling of Rafiq’s allegations, said the club is institutionally racist. Hutton said that the ECB “declined to help” when he approached the governing body after learning of Rafiq’s allegations.

For Butt, who has been involved in the sport in the Yorkshire area for much of his life, the lack of accountability in response to Rafiq’s allegations has been stark.

“The institution has been quite arrogant about the fact that they felt they could actually get away without having to do anything,” he says.

“That’s actually shown in the way they’ve dealt with Azeem Rafiq and the whole situation. We certainly hope that the first thing they do is recognize that there is a problem.

“That’s one thing they have never done, they’ve never seen it as a problem … But I think they’re still at that denial stage.”

CNN has contacted Yorkshire for a response to Butt’s comments.

On Thursday, Rafiq apologized for anti-Semitic comments he said he made in 2011 following the emergence of a screenshot of messages.

“I am incredibly angry at myself and I apologise to the Jewish community and everyone who is rightly offended by this,” Rafiq said.

In response to the apology, Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “Azeem Rafiq has suffered terribly at the hands of racists in cricket so he will well understand the hurt this exchange will cause to Jews who have supported him.

“His apology certainly seems heartfelt and we have no reason to believe he is not completely sincere.”

Kamlesh Patel, who recently took over from Hutton as chair of Yorkshire, has vowed that the club will change.

“There is no quick fix to the clear problems which have been identified, and the issues are complex, not least the charge of institutional racism which must be addressed head on,” he said in a statement.

“Azeem noted that this is not about individuals, but rather the structure and processes of the Club, and we need to tackle this.

“It is clear that we have good people at Yorkshire County Cricket Club and that gives me hope that we can.”

‘Glass ceiling’

While Rafiq’s testimony has made headlines this week, Butt says the Yorkshire region has been mistreating South Asian cricketers for decades, even at a grassroots level.

He currently serves as chair of the Quaid-e-Azam Sunday Cricket League (QeASCL), which was formed in 1980 in an attempt to create more opportunities for Asian cricketers in Yorkshire and its surrounding areas.

“For a young Asian person to go and join the local club, that was simply a no-go area for them,” Butt explains of the reasons behind the league’s formation.

He adds: “In the sport of cricket, there is a great divide if you happen to be from the South Asian community and from an inner-city area and don’t go to a [fee-paying] public school.

“You are going to face a great disadvantage in participation in the sport of cricket because your access to facilities, grounds and all the other things that go on to make things more accessible unfortunately is lacking.”

Over the years, a handful of players who starred for teams in the QeASCL have gone on to play professional cricket, including Yorkshire and England’s Adil Rashid.

Yorkshire is home to a large South Asian population, but the county side only lifted its rule of selecting Yorkshire-born players in 1992.

“We’ve always known for our young people to progress, they’re going to have to be twice as good as their White counterparts in order to develop further,” says Butt.

“Clearly, once they get into the system and the higher up they go … there seem to be barriers, there still seems to be that glass ceiling. And clearly, young people are still being discriminated against.”

Pathway restrictions are not just unique to Yorkshire. According to the ECB, South Asian communities account for 30% of all cricket players in England and Wales, but just 4% of first class county cricketers are of South Asian origin.

The ECB operates a South Asian Action Plan to create more opportunities for — and to better engage with — South Asian communities.

‘Significant moment for change’

The week before Rafiq’s testimony in UK Parliament, during which he described cricket’s racism problem as “worse than society,” those with experience of discrimination in the sport have been urged to submit their perceptions and experiences to the Independent Commission for Equity on Cricket (ICEC).

Cindy Butts, chair of the ICEC, told the BBC that more than 1,000 people came forward to share their experiences in the week after the call for evidence was made.

“In years to come, we will see this as a significant moment for change in cricket and society,” former England cricketer Monty Panesar told CNN this week.

“Azeem Rafiq should be applauded for his brave comments. He’s willing to work with the ECB and Yorkshire County Cricket Club to address some of the issues in our game.”

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