It seems Yorkshire County Cricket Club was right about Azeem Rafiq from the start. He is truly a born leader. Not as they had hoped.
On Tuesday morning, Rafiq sat for an hour and three quarters in the parliamentary committee room of the select committee on digital, culture, media and sports. He spoke most of the time, stopping every now and then to pull himself together. In the process, he delivered a devastating and fearless detailed description of institutional racism shared live and unedited with the British public.
The problems are, of course, the thing here. But it was hard not to marvel at Rafiq’s performance. He was electrifying. His testimony was forensic, brutal when necessary, and heartbreaking honesty. Rafiq took a committee designed to gather evidence and a room full of MPs paid to express their opinions and preach, and simply inundated the whole process with his testimony. So that’s what it takes: the strength to get there.
Looking around, it was hard not to think of Rafiq as a young Yorkshire cricketer, so highly rated he was Joe Root’s Under-15 captain, and was even mentioned in Michael’s mea non culpa. Vaughan in the Daily Telegraph as someone who “keeps Yorkshire moving forward. He was full of energy and buzz.” From the first time around. Rafiq had to crawl in the dark to get to this. But he is, at his unwitting manner, a true sports hero.
There was a stark point of contrast later in the day as England and Wales Cricket Council General Manager Tom Harrison testified and produced a miserable spectacle of prevarication, flannel and unspoken buzzwords. Truth? Meet bluster. Business escape? Discover the real consequences of your inactions. Quite how Harrison managed to avoid entering this already penitent room, begging forgiveness for the evil that continued to flourish during his own summer sport regulation, is the height of shamelessness.
Rafiq had appeared promptly at 9:33 am, was sitting in an ironed shirt, and looked a little anxious as MP Julian Knight called on him to get things done. Which he did, with lucid devastating effect.
Right away we got into the details of the abuse he suffered in Yorkshire. “Elephant washer”. “You are all sitting there. Constant use of the P word. The term “Kevin” was brought up, an insult to any non-white person; and, Rafiq got it, to a black dog owned by English drummer Alex Hales. To joke. That’s all.
Rafiq has spoken of being held up by another Yorkshire cricketer at the age of 15 while playing for his local club and had red wine poured down his throat. Rafiq is a Muslim. He had never drunk alcohol before. John Nicolson, a SNP MP, asked if no one had intervened. Rafiq calmly and tolerantly explained how it works. “It’s the institution. You have people who are blatantly racist. And then you have the passers-by. A lot of people saw it coming. No one felt strong enough to say stop.
The allegations against Martyn Moxon, Yorkshire’s chief cricketer, which “literally ripped me off” were very painful the day after Rafiq returned to work after the death of his stillborn child. He explained how he got through each mechanism, how he cried in front of the inclusiveness and diversity board member, but still nothing had happened.
There were warm words for Jason Gillespie, and for Joe Root too, although Rafiq half-buried him pointing out that, contrary to what Root seemed to claim, the English captain was present on the nights when it all flew. . . “It was the norm. This is probably why some people don’t even remember it.
He pointed out how unnecessary it is to say “this is a social problem,” the kind of weary shrug that offers no help when you’re faced with a specific problem. At the end, there was also a warning against slogan solutions, “ECB public relations initiatives, telling everyone how great they are”. “We have had enough of these inquiries and commissions. All we ask is to be treated fairly. The ECB must take its responsibilities in its own house. This is their game.
In the process, going through the most painful evidence with so much grace and clarity, Rafiq also provided something else, a parable of how racism hurts everyone. Imagine another timeline where all that courage, that intelligence, wouldn’t have to be wasted on dealing with the fanaticism of others, dealing with your own pain. What a waste of talent, what a diversion of happiness.
At this point, enter the ECB. To move from Rafiq’s testimony to blunt responses from the sport’s governing body was to shift from light to a darker world of self-preservation and double talk. Watching Harrison attempt to answer basic, quite predictable questions was like seeing an embarrassing executive ill-equipped to deal with his case. Here we asked a salesperson to talk about issues of character, culture and morality and just do a blank.
Right off the bat, Harrison was asked how it was possible that the ECB, as the guardian of the game, allowed Yorkshire to produce its own report to determine whether or not he was racist. “Yorkshire was very clear that they wanted to conduct this investigation themselves,” he replied. Tom, listen to me. they are the accused.
For a while, we entered a world of T-shirt politics, basic falsehood. It was a question of “a difficult listening exercise” (oh yes?) To “deepen the real problems”. Harrison suggested to the MPs committee that the ECB responded the moment it became clear there was a problem in Yorkshire. This despite the fact that Rafiq first spoke to him about these issues in August 2020. Can this be considered a half-truth?
He promised he would “look into the culture of the locker room.” We heard that the word ‘Kevin’ would be ‘now part of the ECB’s investigation’. Cut to a shot of Harrison frowning on a notepad with the word “Kevin?” »Underlined twice. Investigation in progress.
Sadly, none of the MPs in attendance was keen to mention the £ 2.1million bonus Harrison will share with his fellow ECB leaders for fueling the game. Again, that shamelessness. In any functioning public sports organization, Harrison’s position would be taken seriously. It is his job, and his duty, to regulate this culture. What we have here is an institutional failure.
And really, no one in this room looks surprised. This committee hearing took place 24 years after the ECB’s first report on institutional racism in cricket, the first list of recommendations, the first stern warnings against complacency, the first questions to Parliament. Zoom in a bit further and Rafiq’s testimony was given before inquisitors who were apparently unaware that, like the jurors in Twelve Angry Men, it is they who are also on trial here; that it is about culture and power, about the society that our representatives oversee.
“Would you help Yorkshire get their sponsorship back?” Rafiq was asked, apparently seriously, at one point. He just waited long enough. “If that’s the state of mind, I would be very hesitant.” At times like that, you saw the pain. Rafiq cried a few times during his testimony but was able to speak without missing a beat about his wife’s online abuse, his sister, his father’s illness. It was the price to pay for pushing, and sometimes dragging, everyone in that room. Only actions, not empty words, will satisfy now.