What the racism scandal of English cricket tells us
When Indian-born Muslim cricketer Nasser Hussain captained the England team, no one could have imagined that after nearly two decades, the game would be facing a storm of this magnitude and compel the wider society to confront one of the most sensitive issues: racism. Over the years, England's cricketers of South Asian origin, like Monty Panesar, Ravi Bopara, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, who have all shown their on-pitch talents, never talked about racism. But since cricketer Azeem Rafiq's revelation about his sufferings and pain, the issue of racism has now become a subject of much bigger debate around race relations, Islamophobia and division in Britain today. The racial abuses he was subjected to include repeatedly being called a "pa*i," and referred to by the name "Kevin," a dehumanising moniker for black and Asian players.
The racism scandal that engulfed the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has finally made them acknowledge that racism and discrimination is a "blight" on their game and they "apologise unreservedly." The apology came after a crisis meeting of the board and representatives from the Professional Cricketers' Association, Marylebone Cricket Club, the National Counties Cricket Association, and the First Class and Recreational County Cricket network. It followed a hearing of the parliamentary select committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on November 16, 2021, where former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq alleged that English cricket was "institutionally racist." The select committee hearing, too, was held hurriedly amid weeks of turmoil over revelations by Rafiq about his harrowing experience at the Yorkshire County Club at subsequent cover-ups.
A joint statement issued after the meeting said: "Azeem Rafiq has shone a light on our game that has shocked, shamed and saddened us all." Making a commitment to publish a "tangible action plan," the statement said: "To Azeem and all those who have experienced any form of discrimination, we are truly sorry. Our sport did not welcome you, our game did not accept you as we should have done. We apologise unreservedly for the suffering you have faced."
Rafiq first spoke out in September 2020, prompting the club to open an investigation the following month. But according to the testimony given before the parliamentary select committee by the former chairman of the Yorkshire Club, Roger Hutton, though the investigation upheld seven of the 43 allegations made by Rafiq, the club's management decided against punishing anyone. It also refused to publish the full report of the investigation that led to further accusations of institutional racism in the club and in the wider arena of English cricket, as the ECB stayed away from intervening in the club's affairs.
The ensuing outrage was so widespread that the ECB's suspension of Yorkshire from hosting international matches at Headingley appeared to be an action too little too late. Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston issued a warning, saying that if the ECB does not "put its house in order" over racism, the UK government might take the "nuclear option" of creating an independent regulator.
Amid the racism scandal, the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC), on November 9, made an appeal to potential victims of racism and discrimination to come forward with evidence. Media reports suggest that more than 1,000 people have contacted the commission within less than a fortnight. Few other former players of Yorkshire academy, too, have come forward to speak about alleged racist abuse they suffered at the club. Similar allegations of racist behaviour have emerged at Essex county club, warranting more investigations, and the prospect of more to come looms large.
Some grim statistics, too, came to the fore, which the ECB needs to look into with urgency. In England, the British-Asian community accounts for 30 percent of recreational cricket at grassroots level, but only to see this drop to four percent at professional level. Another set of figures show that about a quarter of top-level players are members of the families of former cricketers, which critics say is reflective of elitism in the game, instead of talent.
Once again, businesses have shown extraordinary courage and stance against racism, which is similar to those actions taken during Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Yorkshire Club's primary sponsor Emerald Publishing and Yorkshire Tea announced that they were ending their deals with the club. Leisure club operator David Lloyd said his business had chosen not to reinstate its partnership, and Tetley's beer said its sponsorship would not be extended beyond the end of the current contractual agreement. Yorkshire's kit supplier, global giant Nike, also announced that it would stop supplying kits. Losing so many sponsorships and the right to host international matches at its home ground, Headingley, forced the club management to step aside and welcome the new chairman from ethnic minority community.
Nasser Hussain, who currently works as a Sky Sports commentator, says that the problem is far more widespread than Yorkshire. In his Daily Mail column, he wrote: "[Racism] is prevalent throughout the game." Explaining the reasons for past silence, he wrote: "And it has not been picked up because it has become the norm. It's been a 'that's what we do' attitude and that has been allowed to fester for far too long. Those constant little digs and comments take their toll and the victims have just been forced to laugh it off because they have to fit in and conform."
The ongoing turmoil in English cricket over racism also reveals the helplessness of players in voicing their grievances against bullying, and the lack of accountability of their powerful bosses. We, in our country, can proudly say that we don't have any trace of racism, but can we claim that there is no bullying? Making players attend political campaigns or often subjecting them to public humiliation are not unheard of. And what about the accountability of cricketing bosses on issues like allegations of match-fixing in domestic leagues? Why does the national team's jersey carry sponsors' branding larger and more prominently than the national identity? Waiting for a whistle-blower is never a good idea for any organisation.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist who writes from the UK. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1