Today Yorkshire: Tomorrow…?

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

In all of English cricket’s long history, there have been few more chilling, more harrowing, days than  16 November 2021. At the same time it might, just might, have helped to set the course for a better tomorrow for what purports to be the national summer game.

This was the day when Azeem Rafiq, the former Yorkshire all-rounder – and an England Under-19 captain no less – appeared to answer questions posed by the Digital, Media, Culture and Sports (DCMS) Committee of the House of Commons arising out of his allegations of institutional racism against his erstwhile employer.

Growing press – and Parliamentary – interest in the basic story, and in the appalling attempt by Yorkshire County Cricket Club to cover it up – meant that much of Rafiq’s essential narrative was already in the public domain. That did not in any way diminish the power of his testimony. Facing a committee of eleven individuals for an hour and a half, answering question after question, he was articulate, passionate, sincere, and forgiving. He seemed to accept the terrible underlying truth of his personal situation – that a highly promising career had been ended by racial prejudice – with incredible dignity but also with a sort of awful clarity. Surely for anyone the most harrowing part of the session was his description of Yorkshire’s assessment of their duty of care as employer after his first child was tragically stillborn: director of cricket Martyn Moxon “ripped the shreds” out of him. Rafiq now has two small children but, he said, he would never want his son to get involved in cricket. This was a man who said that the game had been his whole life.

Racist language became so commonplace that even a “good man” – such as Joe Root – could routinely listen to it without truly appreciating it, or just assuming it was so ordinary that it wasn’t worth bothering about or remembering. Root, a onetime housemate of former England player Gary Ballance, self-confessedly one of the principal perpetrators of racist abuse, had perhaps rather imprudently stated that he had no recollection of having heard any such abuse.

Another desperate moment came when one of the Committee members said that there seemed to be a number of villains – though it must be stressed that for Rafiq this has never been about the individuals – but were there any heroes, people who had stood up for him? Rafiq mentioned Tino Best and Rana-al-Naved, who had recently issued supportive statements. Yes but I meant back when it was all happening, said the member. Were there people who stood up for you then? Rafiq looked straight ahead. “No” he said.

Rafiq was not the only witness who appeared before the DCMS Committee. (A number of people were asked to attend but declined the invitation.) Other participants included the former Yorkshire chairman, Roger Hutton, and a whole team from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), including the chief executive Tom Harrison.

There were times when it was impossible to watch Rafiq’s testimony because it was so painfully moving. There were times when it was impossible to watch Harrison’s testimony because it was so painfully embarrassing.

Harrison must have been asked at least five times whether he agreed with Hutton’s admittedly reluctant admission that the club was institutionally racist. He simply refused to answer, churning out meaningless platitudes. (Harrison has recently received a substantial bonus, presumably largely because of his work on The Hundred; he could yet be hailed as the man who single-handedly destroyed the structure of first-class cricket in England and Wales.)

There were other almost risible elements. Of course Yorkshire’s ham-fisted “independent” inquiry by an international law firm had already been publicly trashed. Nobody seemed to think there was an issue with Hutton having worked for the law firm concerned. And the ECB team seemed quite proud of the fact that there was an “independent” body overseeing its decisions – a body appointed by the ECB itself.

Of course the newspapers have had a field day: “Cricket’s Day of Shame” and all the rest of it. Quite right too. But is the world of men’s professional cricket the only sector in British society where racism now exists? One does rather get that feeling. I definitely heard someone say – was it a member of the DCMS Committee that cricket now is where football was 20 years ago. This was obviously not a reference to the spectators.

It is an undeniable fact that the professional male cricket world is peculiarly prone to the gestation of what have long become generally regarded as unacceptable social traits. I have written about this before in my piece on the Ollie Robinson furore (Education, Education, Education). This is a group of young, predominantly white, predominantly privately educated young or youngish men literally living the dream. Aren’t there bound to be a few “issues”.  All the more reason for dealing with it, as a matter of urgency.

It’s a bubble, but not the only bubble. There is the Westminster bubble: the DCMS Committee itself comprises 11 members – appropriately enough. There are nine white men and two white women: very representative. Then there is the bien-pensant commentariat, in their own way almost as detached from reality as professional cricketers. Even in Paradise trouble can exist. Look at Islington.

As Rafiq said, nobody is born a racist. Everyone is a product of their own environment and upbringing. I grew up in Winchester, a classic cathedral city. I don’t think I even saw a person of colour until I was about nine. My father was secretary of the local golf club, the Royal Winchester, and rather astonishingly, they hired a black South African pro. It caused quite a sensation. As young as I was I was conscious of some cringeworthy moments. And Hampshire, again quite unusually, had a West Indian batsman, Danny Livingstone: I always liked him. (Their more famous West Indian, Roy Marshall, was white.)

Since 1980 I have spent most of my time in Singapore. Racially, culturally, Singapore is the original melting pot: the indigenous Malays, Chinese from all corners of that vast empire, Indians – which term in this context means everything from Sri Lankan Tamils in the south to Muslims from the north, Eurasians, and the rest of us. As a white man I am definitely in a minority. On the other hand, as a Brit, there is the whole colonial thing, which cuts both ways.  And now I am older: Asians, unlike many modern Europeans, respect that. I can honestly say that I have never been the victim of racial abuse in Singapore. I do know people, however, who have been told “white man go home” or words to that effect. Anyone who thinks there is no racism in Singapore is deluding themselves. There is racism everywhere. Sadly, it is part of the human condition.

At lunch the other day a friend asked if I thought Eoin Morgan had ever been the subject of racial abuse. I told him I remembered watching a Hampshire Sunday League game on television in the mid-70s. The great John Arlott was commentating. Hampshire’s team included Andy Murtagh, a useful middle order batsman, one of the thirteen players to represent the county in their championship year, 1973, and the uncle of Tim, of Middlesex and Ireland. Anyway, the allrounder John Rice was bowling, and the batsman hit the ball to Murtagh in the covers. No run. “Rice bowls and Paddy fields”, said Arlott.

My friend – a Sri Lankan Tamil, now a Singapore citizen – burst out laughing. I don’t blame him; it’s very funny. Apologies if you don’t agree. Was Arlott a racist? The man who reluctantly covered MCC’s tour of South Africa in 1956-57, and on the immigration form in the box marked “Race” wrote “Human” and was so disturbed by what he saw in that benighted land that he refused to return? The man who played the pivotal role in getting Basil D’Oliveira to England?  I don’t think so. But could he get away with the same joke now?  With the Chinese and the Irish on his back, probably not.

These things are complicated. Years ago I made my first visit to Tokyo, staying in a proper Japanese house, made basically of wood and paper. My host, an American journalist, loved the country. You could make your life here, he said, and stay forever. But you’d always be an outsider. Much later, I was in an Irish bar in Roppongi Hills. The barman was from Equatorial Guinea. There’s multiculturalism for you. We had a chat. We had nothing in common except the one thing that, in that context, mattered. Neither of us was Japanese.

In 1990 my wife, who is a Chinese Singaporean, and I went back to Winchester. It hadn’t really changed that much. I don’t think Anita suffered any racial abuse, but you’d have to ask her. I think the worst was things like “Where did you learn to speak such good English?”, i.e., it couldn’t have been Singapore, which it was, (and where is Singapore? China…?).

Ignorance is often a root cause of racism. But knowledge alone is not enough. Rafiq did not say this in so many words but at the root of his address to the cricketing world and the wider community – for that is what in effect, his participation in the hearing was – were two fundamental things: respect, and understanding.

Halfway through, Rafiq was asked whether anyone had actually apologised to him. He mentioned the former Yorkshire and England bowler Matthew Hoggard. Right at the start he had talked of his initial wonder at sharing a dressing room with legends such as Hoggard and the former England captain Michael Vaughan. By the time of the hearing many people knew that both men were the subject of specific allegations.  Anyway Rafiq said that after his interview with Sky, Hoggard called him. He said how sorry he was; he had no idea the words he used – friendly banter obviously – were having such an effect on Rafiq.

Not for the first, or last time, Rafiq was welling up. “All I ever wanted,” he said, “was an apology.”

Thank goodness he did not rest content with an apology. Yorkshire is clearly just the beginning; lots more is starting to come out.  But this extraordinary young man has given us all hope for the future. The sport mustn’t let him, and us, down.

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