Cricketer Rafiq claims 'institutional racism' at club as he details 'inhuman' bullying

16 November 2021, 14:16 | Updated: 16 November 2021, 18:31

Azeem Rafiq holds back tears giving evidence on allegations of racism

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Azeem Rafiq fought back tears as he told MPs the word 'P***' was "used constantly" across his two spells at Yorkshire and no one in leadership challenged it.

Rafiq said he was close to taking his own life as he detailed the "inhuman" treatment he encountered, adding he felt "isolated, humiliated at times".

He first alleged racial harassment and bullying against the county and accused them of institutional racism in September last year, with the club launching an investigation soon afterwards.

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However, their handling of it has been heavily criticised.

They finally published summary findings of the investigation in September this year and while the investigation found there was "no question" Rafiq had been subjected to racial harassment and bullying, no individuals faced disciplinary action.

'No one ever stamped it out'

Rafiq told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday: "Pretty early on, me and other people from an Asian background... there were comments such as, 'you lot sit over there near the toilets', 'elephant washers', the word P*** was used constantly. And there just seemed to be an acceptance in the institution from the leaders and no one ever stamped it out."

Rafiq, who has two young children, talked about the strain the situation has placed on himself and his family life.

He said the club gave him "inhuman" treatment when his son was still born in 2017 and that he had "lost his career to racism".

Asked how he had summoned the strength to come forward, he added: "I had an interview about my new business. I got asked a question. And I got emotional. I said everything.

"Even at that point, I genuinely thought that there might be some humanity left in some of these individuals. But no... it was all about 'discredit, discredit, discredit'. I don't know how I've done it. This last 14 months has been incredibly difficult."

Boris Johnson has since commended the former cricketer for speaking out during the committee.

In a tweet, the Prime Minister said: "Brave testimony from Azeem Rafiq. I commend him for speaking out. There is no excuse for racism anywhere in society and we expect @EnglandCricket and @YorkshireCCC to take immediate action in response to these allegations."

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'I never wanted to come back'

Rafiq said when his contract at Yorkshire was coming to an end, he was "encouraged to sign a confidentiality form and take a parcel of money", which he refused.

He said: "At that time it would have been a lot of money for me. I think my wife was struggling. I knew I was struggling. There was no way mentally I could have even considered putting myself through this trauma. I actually left the country. I went to Pakistan. I never wanted to come back."

He said he first left Yorkshire in 2014, and at the time started medication due to his deteriorating mental health.

When he returned he initially felt settled under captain Alex Lees and coach Jason Gillespie.

"Jason left in 2016 and it just felt the temperature in the room had been turned up," Rafiq said. "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 use of the word 'P***'."

Ballance and Vaughan

Rafiq said on a 2017 pre-season tour Ballance had racially abused him.

"We were in a place and Gary Ballance walks over and goes, 'Why are you talking to him? You know he's a P***'. This happened in front of team-mates. It happened in front of coaching staff." 

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.

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

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Asked by chair Julian Knight about the term 'Kevin', he said it was an offensive, racist term that reached the very top of the game.

"Kevin was a 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.

He 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."

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, Adil Rashid and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan all say they remember those words, while the fourth player Ajmal Shahzad has said he cannot recall any racism at the club.

Asked about Vaughan, Rafiq said: "Michael might not remember it... three of us, Adil, myself and Rana remember it."

He also said he found it "hurtful" that England captain Joe 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.

But he said Root had been "involved in a lot of socialising where I was called P***".

"It shows how normal it was that even a good man like him doesn't see it for what it was," he said.

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Red wine 'poured down throat'

Rafiq, who is a Muslim, also described his harrowing first experience of alcohol at the age of 15.

"I got pinned down at my local cricket club and had red wine poured down my throat, literally down my throat," he said.

"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."

He later added he had been in a car at the time and there had been one other witness to the incident.

"No one did anything," he said.

Asked if anyone had stood up for him at the time bullying and racist abuse was taking place, Rafiq replied: "Nobody. That's the institution.

"You had people who were openly racist and you had the bystanders. A lot of people watched it happen and no one felt like it was important or because it was such a norm that no one felt strong enough to actually stand up."

Problem replicated 'up and down the country'

Rafiq said the problem at Yorkshire was replicated "up and down the country".

Asked about the fact others, such as former Essex and Northamptonshire player Maurice Chambers, had now spoken out, Rafiq said: "I would like to see it as progress that people are feeling like they can come forward and they are going to be heard and not just be discredited, smeared about, briefed about."

He added: "I've had messages from people who have played at Leicestershire, a guy who played at Middlesex, messages from people who played at Nottinghamshire."

He described England and Wales Cricket Board initiatives on diversity as "box-ticking" exercises and "tokenism".

Frustration with investigation process

Rafiq said Yorkshire's investigation into his allegations had been "far from independent".

He said that while the investigation was live, members of the panel were entertained by the county at a Headingley Test match.

"It just shows the arrogance of these people," he said.

He added he was "staggered" when Yorkshire announced no one would face disciplinary action over his experience at the club.

Rafiq criticised the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA)'s handling of his situation.

He said the ECB "took the stance that they would trust Yorkshire to do the right thing and then as regulators would come in to hold Yorkshire to account".

He said: "I kept begging the ECB, the PCA, I kept telling them 'they (Yorkshire) are not doing the right thing, this is going to end up in a car crash for everyone'."

He said no one intervened until an article detailing his experience broke on cricket website Cricinfo, and "at that point the ECB came in".

"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. Over the winter there were some real dark moments," he said.

"I didn't feel like they did that because they were concerned for me or worried for me, I feel that was done to tick a box in case I killed myself."

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