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“It was just banter” – racism in Yorkshire County Cricket Club and Azeem Rafiq

Azeem Rafiq, a former cricketer at Yorkshire County Cricket Club has lifted the lid on what he, and others, view as institutional racism at the Club. Azeem was a rising star in the cricket world, at 21 he was made Captain of the Team. He was the first British Asian to be appointed to the role. However, by the age of 29 he had retired from professional cricket.  

He has since described “rampant racial abuse” at the club from the cricket ground up to the Board. He says that the P word was regularly used to describe him and other players of South Asian heritage. He has described one incident when a white British colleague said to him “there are too many of you lot, we need to do something about it”. On nights out with the team, whenever anyone else tried to speak to him, one colleague – without fail – would say, “don’t speak to him, he’s a P word” or “don’t speak to him, he smells.” He speaks of a West Indian player at the club who was also the subject of racist comments, he said when his white colleagues saw a dark rain cloud, they would say this player’s name is coming and pointedly not “there’s a dark cloud coming”. 

Azeem tried to raise these concerns but he was ignored or fobbed off with the excuse that it was just banter.   Azeem in turn has said that he felt isolated and that it took a massive toil on him. He describes regularly crying after training sessions. He says that the thing that hurt the most was that people saw it happen, but no one stood up to these powerful people.  He says he was driven to the brink of suicide.  

He has since taken an Employment Tribunal claim alleging direct race discrimination and harassment. As part of its response, in 2020 the Club launched an independent enquiry into the allegations of racism in the club.  The summary of the report came out in September 2021 and it is this which has turned the spotlight on to the Club and its inherent racism. Although seven of Azeem’s allegations were upheld, the enquiry has concluded that the use of the P word was a “friendly verbal attack”. Azeem has said in response that “one persons’ banter, is another persons’ demise”.   

As a result of the public outcry, two major sponsors have now withdrawn their financial support to the club. The Chairman and the Chief Executive have since resigned. The Club have now appointed a new Chairman, Lord Patel. Lord Patel was born in Kenya and grew up in Bradford. He describes being a really fast runner as a child as he had to run away from skinheads every weekend who, he says would like to go out “P” bashing. He has publicly stated that words like the P word can never be banter. 

Yorkshire Cricket Club have now set up a whistleblowing hotline and have said they will take any allegations of racism seriously, Surrey Cricket Club have now followed suit and said they would like to hear of any incidents of racism. 

Yorkshire Cricket Club now need to admit there is a problem and remedial action has to be taken. It is hoped with Lord Patel now on board that the future will be better for the club and for cricket more generally. 

So, what lessons can be learned from this case ? Firstly, the use of a racially charged word can never be banter. Even if the perpetrator thinks it is, it is not banter in the ears of the recipient. It is deeply offensive and can have devastating effects. Secondly, if an organisation decides to commission an independent investigation it must be done properly and not turn out to be a defence of the commissioning party. It is hard to accept that a proper independent enquiry would find the use of the P word to be a friendly verbal attack. 

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