Author: Azeem Rafiq
Publisher: Orion, 2024
Format: Hardback
Pages: 195
Source: racism/9781398712409/

Azeem Rafiq was a rising star cricket player, talent spotted as a 12-year old, who captained the England Under-19 team and made it to the Yorkshire County’s First Eleven in 2008. He went onto  captain England’s  2012 T20 Cup team on its Bangladesh tour and was tipped to be of Test team calibre.  

This brutally frank and honest memoir has several interleaved themes: his love of the game; the importance of family and religion; the impact of 9/11;  the shabby treatment received at the hands of some senior managers and players in the Yorkshire Cricket Club; his struggle as a whistleblower explained in the subtitle of the book – “What Cricket’s Dirty Secret reveals about Society.”

It is a work that will jolt the reader out of a cosy complacency that Britain is now a post-racial nirvana, to use Sunder Katwala’s phrase. Azeem Rafiq has bared his soul, revealing many personal details, but for a noble cause,

I understand how my story could be a catalyst for change, which is why I want to share it. It’s the reason for writing this book., and why I have started speaking at events. I want to make people aware of discrimination and how it can lead to racism, to understand what it’s like to live in our shoes and from there to have the uncomfortable conversations and important discussions about how we are collectively going to solve it [. . .] My purpose is to ensure that nobody is subjected to being called a ‘Paki’ or any other derogatory name, and told its just banter. It’s time to create opportunities for everyone and level out the playing field. I want to ensure that everything I and others have gone through and the upheaval of my life was worth it. It can only happen if we have a game that is anti-racist and can demonstrate that is the case.

By a mixture of fate and ambition, Azeem Rafiq decided that the Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) was where he would pursue his professional cricketing career. At the end of his father’s asylum process, the family was settled in South Yorkshire.  Their home was next door to the Barnsley Cricket Club, so he was able to follow up his street-cricket concrete field exploits in Karachi on greener lawns. The YCCC was the biggest club in England, where the “stars in the dressing room [. . .] were my heroes.”  After all, it was the club of off-spinner Illingworth and batsman  Geoff Boycott, not to mention the legendary fast bowler Fred Truman and more recently Joe Root.    

Azeem had been on loan to Derbyshire for the 2011 season, but returned to Yorkshire because: “when you have success at Yorkshire, you have a great chance of going on and playing for England as well”.  Rafiq’s talent and determination led to a career milestone in 2016, ‘when you get your first team cap, it has an open rose with eleven petals on it. In more than 150-year history of the club, fewer than 200 people have received a first-team cap, and I was one of them.”  

This cricketing memoir acknowledges the debt owed to the encouragement and support of others. It begins with his parents, a dedicated games teacher at school and professional coaches like Richard Halsall and Paul Firebrace. There are few good words on fellow players. He admits, “I was very confident and assured, perhaps even borderline arrogant.” 

While many an ethnic minority player was prepared to brush aside racist innuendos and discriminatory treatment, Rafiq’s more sensitive personality was clocking up the emotional hurt till it led to breaking point in 2018, “I began to feel [. . .] that I needed to fit in more to ensure I got the same opportunities as my contemporaries to play and progress.”  He adds, “we  must work twice as hard to get to where white people are today, and I don’t believe that is fair or right.”.

A poignant moment came with the death of their new-born child, when there was a callous disregard by YCCC ’s senior leadership of Rafiq’s loss and their responsibility to arrange for counselling and support in an hour of need. Rafiq was conscious that this was quite different to the support offered to White players.  There were a host of other slights buried in his subconscious  but now coming to the surface – like the incident when a coach forced alcohol down his throat. He did start drinking later on,  but “I was still made to feel like an outsider.”  Asian players at YCCC were made to sit by the toilets. He raised such incidents of bullying and racism with the club’s Director of Professional Cricket  and its Head of Diversity and Equality, but with little ensuring action. Even the Professional Cricketers’ Association was off-handish.

To his credit, Rafiq decided to escalate matters for the sake of future generations of ethnic minority cricketers. The book provides details of his media encounters, battles with YCCC and appearance in front of a Parliamentary Committee. The Cricket Disciplinary Commission (CDC)  in 2023 ruled that five former players had made racist comments. The club was given a points penalty that will keep them out of the  Country Champion first division for some time. Headingly’s venue as a test match stadium was restored on the condition of making “essential governance reforms.”

Reflecting on Rafiq’s memoir, Yorkshire community cricket campaigner  Abdul A. Ravat has noted that there is need for  action, “we wait and see.  YCCC still lacks representative voices at its board room as well as in the changing rooms”. He adds, “I am not going to sugar coat that things are not bad, but we are where we are. I  am keen to see that we make progress and that requires some very robust EDI+plus Equity (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion) strategy and plans and outcomes that are tangible and can be actually set up and we can see the change with tangible outcomes.”   In his view, Cricket needs an independent regulatory authority that can hold county clubs to account on their EDI processes and is placed on the same plate as governance, risk or financial prudence.

The cricket organisers and administrators  in Yorkshire have their work cut out. In its four local authority districts – Bradford, Kirklees, Leeds, Sheffield – 1 in 5 of the population falls outside the ‘White British’ census ethnic category.  Moreover, in 5 – 14 age band – which was when Rafiq’s talent was first spotted by a school teacher – 1 in 7 is Muslim. Britain is diverse, multiethnic, multicultural and colonial-style contempt of others  is  unacceptable. The YCCC has  much to learn from the steps taken by the Warwickshire Country Cricket Club,  and the work of Edgbaston’s CEO Stuart Cain in reaching out to Birmingham’s multifaith communities. The Yorkshireman’s  DNA gives him a natural swagger,  but the time has come for it to be spliced and inserted with a measure of humility.

Azam Rafiq’s book is commended because it is more than just about a crisis in English cricket. It is about British sport’s Dreyfus moment – in this case not about the Jewish military officer pilloried by France’s  antisemitic ruling class, but about a Muslim sportsman made to suffer because of his ethnicity and faith in twenty first century Britain. 

Jamil Sherif /June 2024

Acknowledgements: Abdul A. Ravat