Within England’s proudest region, claimed boastfully by its locals as ‘God’s Own Country’, sits the jewel in the nation’s ancient cricketing crown.
Yorkshire County Cricket Club has been a factory for English cricket greatness for more than 150 years. It has won more titles — 33 to be exact — and produced more players for the nation than anywhere else.
Names such as Geoffrey Boycott and Ray Illingworth or, more recently, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, have graced the changerooms at the iconic Headingley Cricket Ground.
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Other big names have lined up from overseas: Jason Gillespie, Younis Khan, Kane Williamson — even once in 1992, as the club’s first ever overseas signing, Sachin Tendulkar.
Hated by some corners, loved within its own, but universally revered, Yorkshire is sewed deep within the fabric of English cricket.
Its rich history breeds from its members an enthusiasm that borders, if not entirely encroaches upon, elitism.
Former England captain and club president Boycott once said: “This club is steeped in history and tradition and to be part of what is a cricketing institution is fantastic.
“Our traditions are second to none and our achievements are unsurpassed.
“We are nothing without our history and hopefully over the next 150 years we can continue to progress in the same vein.”
The unprecedented success, unique traditions and immense pride are, of course, all nice things to have.
But they count for nothing now with an ugly racism scandal tearing at the fabric of the club.
The man at the centre is former England rising star, Azeem Rafiq.
For him, being a part of the club’s culture cost him his confidence, his happiness, his sense of security.
He claims Yorkshire is an institutionally racist organisation — and it almost cost him everything.
“There were a couple of times where I came close to ending my life,” Rafiq told foxsports.com.au last week. “That’s really as low as it did get.
“I didn’t know where I could report it. I didn’t really know what I could do to change it because I knew in the back of my mind that if I did speak up it would make life even harder for me.
“I tried to sort of just let it go, let it go, let it go, but I think slowly, slowly it started to take a big toll on me.
“I’m really thankful to be here to be honest because I really don’t think it was far from me going.”
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WHO IS AZEEM RAFIQ?
Rafiq was released by Yorkshire in 2018, months after his son was stillborn, and weeks after raising his racism allegations with the club.
His claims are among the most high-profile in English sport and are now part of a discrimination and harassment claim lodged by the 30-year-old.
Born in Karachi, Rafiq moved to the UK when he was 10 before emerging as one of England cricket’s biggest rising stars.
He was soon representing his nation – first at Under-15 level as captain, then again for England’s Under-17s and Under-19s, also leading the latter.
The spinner began to garner more attention: He was in 2006 named BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year for Yorkshire, while in 2007 he was said to have been causing issues for the likes of Michael Vaughan in the Headingley nets.
“If nothing else, the rise of Barnsley off-spinner Azeem Rafiq is another encouraging marker for the future of spin bowling in England,” Oliver Brett wrote for the BBC at the time. “And what is likely to get many people excited is that Rafiq bowls a mean ‘doosra’.”
Rafiq continued to rise through the ranks at the county, where he made his senior T20 debut in 2008, and first-class debut in 2009.
In just his second first-class match, Rafiq truly made his mark by plundering a 92-ball century – although that remains his only triple-figure score in any format.
In 2012, his leadership credentials were recognised on a senior level as he captained Yorkshire’s T20 side, becoming the first cricketer of Asian origin to lead the county.
But as bright as Rafiq’s future was, it was undermined by a darkness hiding in plain sight.
Over the course of his career in Yorkshire, he would lose his faith in humanity and later claim to investigators that he was bullied because of his race.
He also said the club has a drinking culture that he felt pressured to be a part of, despite being a Muslim, and that there was a failure to properly investigate racist comments from supporters, and incidents of alcohol being thrown on Asian fans.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Rafiq came forward with his experiences last year.
Asked by foxsports.com.au if he believes the cricket club is institutionally racist, he said: “Without a shadow of a doubt.
“It’s quite simple for me. That’s exactly how I see it.”
Days after Rafiq came forward, Pakistan’s Rana Naved-ul-Hasan said he had a similar experience playing for Yorkshire in 2008 and 2009. He claimed to ESPNCricinfo that he was the victim of “systemic taunting” from home supporters who would “hoot” and use racist slurs.
Today, Adil Rashid is the only British Asian cricketer left at Yorkshire.
A GREATER ISSUE
Since Rafiq’s claims, it’s become clear that Yorkshire is just a narrow snapshot of a wide-ranging problem in English cricket.
A survey last month found that more than one-third of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) professional players have experienced racism while playing cricket in England.
The Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) sent the survey to 600 current and former professionals and received just 173 responses. But from the responses, the PCA deduced that 38 per cent of BAME cricketers have experienced racist abuse while playing the game in England.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has announced increased measures to tackle discrimination, including the formation of an equality commission and a new equality code of conduct for its organisations to follow.
For its own part, Yorkshire commissioned an independent probe into Rafiq’s allegations, but findings are yet to be delivered despite being slated for the end of 2020.
The probe was initially delayed when Rafiq’s lawyers objected to the independence of some panel members.
Ongoing delays, however, last month prompted Rafiq’s lawyer to claim Yorkshire “risks legitimising racism” if the investigation continues to drag out, and demand it to be concluded by the start of April.
Yorkshire is yet to accept Rafiq’s claims, but has strongly condemned racism and vowed to hand life bans to anyone who makes threats to him, his family, or legal team.
It says it is not willing to place a deadline on the investigation as it may place pressure on its witnesses.
“We have taken the claims made by our former player, Azeem Rafiq very seriously and have undertaken a full investigation into the specific matters raised,” the club told foxsports.com.au in a statement.
“In addition, and recognising that this process is as much about the future as it is the past, we have convened an independent panel to support the investigation and to publish recommendations on steps the club may need to take as a result of the investigation’s findings.
“We have always acknowledged that this has often been a difficult process for those involved and the investigation team were clear that witnesses be given the time and space to speak about their experiences fully and that they should not feel the pressure of a constrained time limit.
“Racism has no place in our society or in cricket and we are hopeful that the outcome of this investigation and the recommendations of the panel will drive positive progress which can be shared by all.”
Rafiq says he doesn’t have trust in the investigation regardless of the timing of its findings, but would like to see it concluded sooner rather than later.
“From my point of view, I’d just like a conclusion to it, or it not continue being dragged on because it’s having a big impact on my life,” he said.
“I don’t have massive trust in the investigation anyway, but I’ve tried to comply, tried to co-operate the whole way through and I’ll continue to do that.”
A TROUBLED PAST
The day after Rafiq’s allegations were made public in September, chairman of ECB Yorkshire South Premier League Roger Pugh called the cricketer “discourteous and disrespectful”, and that he had found him “very difficult to deal with”.
“Of course, I am not in a position to comment on these allegations, but that they should come from him (Rafiq) does not surprise me,” Pugh wrote in his blog.
“I have had contact with Azeem both as an umpire and an administrator, and found him very difficult to deal with – being both discourteous and disrespectful. Indeed, over the five years in which we have been in existence, he is the only person in our league that I have had any issues with.”
Pugh claimed “several umpires” also had problems with Rafiq’s behaviour, before quoting the bible, saying: ‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
That led to a stinging rebuke from former Yorkshire head coach, Gillespie, who said Rafiq was “difficult” but Pugh’s blog post – which has since been deleted – was “almost excusing” racism.
“I didn’t like that letter, seeing that letter. I think that was a personal attack,” Gillespie told ESPNCricinfo. “It was like it was almost excusing the issue at hand because Azeem was a difficult character.”
While Rafiq’s claims are under an ongoing investigation, a number of Asian players have long felt alienated in Yorkshire.
Prior to 1992, the club, by policy, only picked players from within its county, which has large Asian communities in West and South Yorkshire dating back to the 1960s.
Even so, it wasn’t until Tendulkar’s signing in 1992 that a cricketer of Asian origin played for the White Rose County.
Pakistan-born cricket writer, Kamran Abbasi, wrote that Yorkshire’s Asian communities have “always nurtured a deep resentment” toward the county’s selection policy.
“This anger was fuelled by claims from cricketing icons, like Imran Khan and Viv Richards, that they had experienced racism at Headingley,” Abbasi wrote in Englistan: An immigrant’s journey on the turbulent winds of Pakistan cricket.
“Indeed, most Asians of a certain age will readily attest to the atmosphere at Headingley being thick with racist tension.”
Abbasi added that by the early 1990s, rival counties Warwickshire and Worcestershire had nine Asian-origin players between them, while none were coming through Yorkshire’s ranks.
A key reason was that racist attitudes persisted in the county’s entire system, then chairman of Yorkshire’s Black and Asian forum, Mike Atkins, said.
Despite Yorkshire’s attempts to create change, Abbasi wrote its reforms “appeared cosmetic” because its team remained made-up entirely of white players.
Tendulkar’s signing did little to bring Asian-origin players through.
Quite simply, he wasn’t a product of Yorkshire’s system – nor was he going to stay for long.
It wasn’t until the new millennium that Yorkshiremen of Asian origin started to represent their county.
Ismail Dawood, Ajmal Shahzad, Rashid and, of course, Rafiq, are among those who eventually came through.
Other Asian players came from overseas, such as India No.3 Cheteshwar Pujara.
During Pujara’s time in Yorkshire, his teammates, finding ‘Cheteshwar’ too difficult to pronounce, reportedly decided to call him ‘Steve’.
There was allegedly blanket use of the nickname at the club for people of Asian origin, including former employee Taj Butt, who quit six weeks into working at Yorkshire and has given evidence in the investigation.
Rafiq endured eight seasons at Yorkshire – from 2008 to 2014 and 2016 to 2018 – but says he only enjoyed playing cricket there for two months.
“On a daily basis, I found it draining. I found it very isolating,” he said. “Over time, it started to have this effect where it would take its toll on me.
“Looking back on it, as I’ve said before, I can only count a couple of months where I could really say I really enjoyed playing cricket, which is a shame because as a kid, I started playing cricket in the streets of Karachi before moving to the UK and cricket was my everything.
“To look back on it with everything I went through is just something really difficult and it’s hard for me to put it into words how it makes me feel about it, really.”
For legal reasons, specific details of his claims cannot be published.
However, he said that a lack of Asian-origin players rising through Yorkshire’s ranks didn’t play on his mind as a junior until an “eye-opening” experience in 2010.
The eye-opener was then club captain and now coach, Andrew Gale, professing his dream to lead a team purely of born and bred Yorkshiremen.
“We’ve been brought up in Yorkshire, we know all about the tradition and the pride, and I’d love to see the day when once again we will field 11 Yorkshiremen. I dream of leading out a team of players born and bred in the county,” Gale told the Wisden Cricketer at the time.
Rafiq immediately felt like an outsider.
Under Gale’s suggestion, Huddersfield-born Shahzad and Bradford’s Rashid would have been clear to play for Yorkshire, but Rafiq wouldn’t have, despite living in the county for almost a decade to that point.
Another senior figure at the club during Rafiq’s time in Yorkshire was Boycott.
The now-80-year-old served as president from 2012-2014, and later tried to rejoin the board in 2016, only to be rejected by its members 758 votes to 602.
The following year, Boycott — who in the 80s played a pivotal role in a rebel England tour of apartheid-era South Africa — was caught in his own racism controversy after he was once again rejected for knighthood.
During a Q&A session at a day-night Test between England and West Indies, he reportedly claimed West Indies cricketers were being handed knighthoods like “confetti” while he was repeatedly overlooked.
“Mine’s been turned down twice. I’d better black me face,” he was reported to have said before making a grovelling apology on Twitter.
“Speaking at an informal gathering I was asked a question and I realise my answer was unacceptable,” he wrote. “I meant no offence but what I said was clearly wrong and I apologise unreservedly.”
‘I AIN’T GOING AWAY’
Rafiq hasn’t played another first-class or T20 match since being released by Yorkshire.
Today, he runs a cafe with his family in South Yorkshire, while he holds a level three advanced coaching licence with the ECB.
He also owns a crowd-funding page to help fight racism in cricket, which had received £5,680 from 194 pledges by Tuesday, while his door is open to anyone who wishes to share their own experiences but isn’t yet willing to go public.
That has included players at Collingwood Football Club, which was found by an independent report this year to have had a problem with systemic racism.
Rafiq is familiar with the experiences of former Magpie Heritier Lumumba, which he describes as “incredibly sad”.
“It makes me angry. It couldn’t be more similar (to my experience) if we tried,” he added, while revealing that he’s spoken to current players at Collingwood in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Rafiq continues to receive abuse in emails and on social media, where he regularly speaks out against racism more broadly.
He earlier told ESPNCricinfo that his family have also received threats, while his legal team have been sent “implicitly vile messages”.
The publication reports that one of the messages to Rafiq names the address of a post office run by his family, and reads: “Do you want it trashed or do you want to stop trashing Yorkshire CCC. It is your choice.”
Speaking to foxsports.com.au, he says the six months since he spoke out have been as tough, if not tougher, than the 15 years he spent playing cricket in Yorkshire.
Nonetheless, he says what has been most disappointing is the lack of institutional support he’s received since going public with his racism claims.
“Since I came out, there’s been a lot of challenges on a daily basis … they’ve been huge and I would say I didn’t expect it to be easy, but it’s opened my eyes to where our game is at on a whole level, just how little interest there is in actually listening, honesty and dealing with the issue as opposed to brushing it under the carpet and ‘let’s try work out how we can get the issue to go away’,” Rafiq said.
“The lack of support from within the game has been harrowing for me to see. I’m shocked. I’m really, really shocked. We’re dealing with something that’s been going on for years, and years, and years.”
Rafiq said he has felt supported by some individuals, but not by Yorkshire, the PCA or even the ECB.
It’s worth noting England international Moeen Ali – whose family has Pakistani heritage – has previously praised the national team for embracing diversity.
After Ali and Rashid were spotted stepping away from champagne celebrations during England’s 2019 World Cup win, the all-rounder was on the front foot to defend the team.
“We are an incredibly diverse team from different backgrounds and cultures but, crucially, we respect this and embrace it. We never shy away from it,” Ali, a devout Muslim, wrote in The Guardian.
“We respect our teammates and their desire to do this,” he added of the champagne celebrations. “They respect our beliefs. It’s really that simple.
“The amazing thing about our team is that guys took time out very early on to talk to us about our religion and culture.”
It’s clear, however, that the same level of support has never trickled as far as Rafiq in Yorkshire where there’s still a dearth of professional players of Asian origin. That is despite its large Asian community, particularly in West Yorkshire which has a population that’s 16.1 per cent Asian or Asian British, according to most recent census data.
Rafiq says he hopes for the day that his child can grow up in the county and not have to endure a similar experience to his.
“I’ve seen the pain that my family went through and my dad went through and, as a parent now, that’s my biggest fear,” he said.
“I’m not fearful of any organisation, of any individual or anything. My fear is my son having to go through it and go through it quietly. That is where my strength comes from.
“The institutions, the authorities, they can try whatever they want, they can use PR stuff to try make them look good, whichever angle they want to go to — I ain’t going away. I ain’t going away.
“Like I said, it was never going to be easy. It’s been difficult on a daily basis.
“Abuse has been there, emails have been sent, social media, you name it, it’s been there.
“But it’s not going to make me stop fighting the case.”
NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE?
Reach out for help on any of the below numbers.
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au
Headspace: 1800 650 890 or headspace.org.au
ARE YOU THE VICTIM OF RACIST BEHAVIOUR?
If you feel comfortable, you can lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission at www.humanrights.gov.au/complaints, or call the AHRC’s National Information Service on 1300 656 419 or 02 9284 9888.
WANT TO TELL YOUR OWN STORY?
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