Azeem Rafiq: Cricketer's account of racist abuse will be recognisable to many


It has been six hours since Azeem Rafiq’s testimony of racial abuse in front of a DCMS committee at Westminster. He detailed inhumane treatment dating back to his time as a teenager in the sport as he recalled being ‘pinned down’ and forced to drink red wine as a 15-year-old. Sadly, this was only one of the numerous incidents of abuse and harassment which left him “humiliated” and “isolated”. Incredibly, much of the abuse was administered by his own teammates. Rafiq recalled how this took place on one such occasion in an incident with former teammate Gary Ballance, in 2017.

"In the 2017 pre-season tour we were in a place and Gary Ballance walked over and goes, 'why are you talking to him? You know he’s a p***'"

It is difficult to put across quite how damaging the revelations presented by Azeem Rafiq were, not just for breaking any delusions that cricket is free of issues with racism, but also over how embedded it seems to be.

The off-spinner, now 30, who has been the victim of further abuse since originally revealing his experience, gave a poignant response when questioned about Joe Root’s claim that he could not recall any incidents of racism at the club.

Rafiq began by stating that Root, whom he characterised as a “good man,” had used none of the racist terminology reported, although the cricketer’s recent statement had hurt him. He maintained that Root was present on several occasions when the language was uttered, and most crucially, Rafiq added: “He (Root) might not remember it but it just shows how normal it was in that environment, in that institution, that even a good man like him doesn’t see it for what it is. “It was strange but it’s the environment and the institution that made it such a norm that people don’t remember it. and it’s not going to affect Joe, but it’s something I remember every day, but I don’t expect Joe to.”

"Pretty early on, me and other people from an Asian background… there were comments such as 'you'll 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."

Going through the OBV twitter channels both during and after the committee meeting, it was clear how much onlookers of Pakistani as well as wider Asian heritage related to Rafiq's experience. Many had identified with Rafiq’s focus on how frequently these exchanges occur in ways that are often thought acceptable, which begs the question: if this is so normalised, how many more watershed moments will cricket need before a total acceptance of the issue at hand? Ideally, you’d hope for no more, but this may be idealistic.

"In football, by and large, it's the fans that are racist but in cricket it's the establishment. It's institutionalised racism. The smell of imperialism is in your nostrils all the time."

Ambalavaner Sivanandan, former head of the Institute of Race Relations, speaking in 2004

Rafiq is undoubtedly brave for sharing his experiences so openly, but in the context of a sport where the severity of his experiences are still being downplayed, it is likely that this will not be the last time we see an Asian cricketer, man or woman, have to re-live their trauma so openly for the world to see - and that is a tragedy.

Mayowa Ayodele