'This is the start of a movement' – How Azeem Rafiq sparked cricket's 'Me Too''

Saurav Dutt first started playing at Harrow Cricket Club when he was just 14. However after six years there, he left the game behind – a decision made after experiencing endless racist taunts and microaggressions in his final three years at the club.

Now 39, he can still recall many of those moments. The one that stays with him the most though was the use of Norman Tebbit’s Cricket Test – a concept first posed by the Conservative politician in the 1990s to question British Asians’ loyalty to the UK.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the MP had said: ‘A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?’

Tebbit’s suggestion was that immigrants who support their native country rather than the England cricket team are not significantly integrated.

‘Some of the coaches like to deploy that test,’ Saurav remembers. ‘That was really offensive. It was difficult at that age, between 17 and 20, to deal with the team fabric, the competitive environment and then having to get through those microaggressions and adapt to the banter side of things.’

It’s this sort of ‘banter’, that has recently been brought to light by former off-spin bowler Azeem Rafiq and is currently rocking the sport to its core.

During two spells at Yorkshire between 2008 and 2018, Azeem – who was born in Pakistan but moved to the UK aged 10 – was regularly subjected to racial taunts. 

‘There was a lot of “you lot sit over there near the toilets”, the word P*** was used constantly, no one ever stamped it out,’ he said. 

Among the racial slurs, Rafiq, 30, was branded an ‘elephant washer’ and ‘Raffa the Kaffir’. His mental health deteriorated. He contemplated suicide.

His testimony implicates prominent figures, including former England captain Michael Vaughan; full internationals Alex Hales, Matthew Hoggard, Gary Ballance and Tim Bresnan; celebrated commentator David “Bumble” Lloyd; and Yorkshire head coach Andy Gales. 

But this story is bigger than any one person. The issues drive to the heart of cricketing culture.

And the racism involved doesn’t just affect British Asians. Azeem himself has now been forced to apologise for anti-Semitic comments he made in 2011. 

Meanwhile, Maurice Chambers, a Black cricketer who represented Essex between 2006 and 2013, told The Cricketer: ‘We had a team night out in Chelmsford. The other player [I was living with] got pretty drunk. When I got home, he threw a banana down the stairs and said: “Climb for it, you f***ing monkey.”’ 

This was the only instance of racist abuse Chambers felt he could report, despite being offered a banana by a senior team-mate on several occasions and regularly hearing coaches use racial slurs. 

‘It was humiliating,’ he added. ‘It was isolating. I never told anyone, but I would go home at the end of the day and cry.’

Meanwhile, just this week, former cricketer and the first black woman to play for England, Ebony Rainford Brent MBE, revealed that she had received vile racist abuse in a hand-scrawled hate letter sent to her after she publicly supported Azeem Rafiq.

‘Born in South London but apparently I was found naked in Africa as a primitive,’ she posted in a tweet. ‘Had some letters in my time but this one is up there.’

Earlier in the year, the Sky Sports pundit – who launched Surrey Cricket Club’s African-Caribbean Engagement programme in 2020 – also spoke about how she’d felt the need to turn off her social media in anticipation of a backlash against a video on racism in cricket that she appeared in alongside Michael Holding last summer.

‘I thought that most people would just say, “we’re not interested, we’ve been sports-starved because of the pandemic, why do we want to listen to you guys talk about that when we want to watch the cricket?”’ she said at the time. 

Cricket might be Britain’s most multicultural sport – one that has the highest proportion of ethnic minority participation – but these recent revelations have clearly highlighted a huge integration problem, which goes right down to grassroots level.

Despite British Asians accounting for nearly a third of recreational cricketers, less than 5% are transitioning to the professional level. 

Racism in cricket is not only a stain on the game, by neglecting one of its core audiences in an increasingly competitive sports and entertainment market, it’s also threatening English cricket’s future ability to compete on the global stage.

What’s alarming when speaking to those involved in the game is that these accounts are hardly a revelation. Racism is not always as overt as it is in accounts like Rafiq’s. Microaggressions and stereotyping may be more subtle, but can still be incredibly damaging. 

Saurav remembers that during his time at Harrow between 1998 and 2001, team-mates claimed to ‘not understand’ his name and called him ‘Sachin’ – after Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar – despite him repeatedly correcting them. 

He was also told by coaches, ‘We’re going to pick you because you’re Indian… we know most Indians tend to be really good cricket players based on the way they play over there.’

‘I wasn’t trained in India, I was trained in this country and I’m trying to get into this team in Harrow,’ says Saurav.

As well as being forced to endure the ‘Tebbit Test’, he experienced more overt racism, too. A team-mate once humiliated him in the dressing room by announcing pre-match: ‘Mecca is over there, if you want to know.’ Saurav is not Muslim. 

A common feature from accounts of racism is the lack of a safe space to voice concerns, something he experienced.

‘It’s very difficult to even get in [the team], and your spot is not solidified,’ Saurav adds. ‘Even if you have a great performance one day, you’re expendable. 

‘You didn’t feel like you could bring these things up, especially when it’s coaches making archaic comments. You keep it to yourself and the only thing you can deploy is your performance. But when your performance suffers and they’re using that against you in a racial way, you feel really victimised. 

‘That leads you down a road of depression because you’re worried about losing your spot. The only reason I’m in this team is based on my performance but other individuals were in the team just because they were the coach’s favourite.’

Saurav eventually quit the sport. ‘People tried to get me back into it,’ he says. ‘I just found I’d fallen out of love with the game.’

He’s not alone in dropping out of the system. According to ECB statistics from 2018, 30% of recreational cricketers are from South Asian backgrounds, yet that figure drops to 4% at county level.

Television presenter Matt Floyd made a documentary, The South Asian Conundrum, on that very issue four years ago – long before these allegations surfaced. 

Matt explored the relationship between British Asians and cricket and the stark drop in numbers from recreational Asian players to professionals.

‘I think there are a lot of internal reasons as well, within the Asian community,’ says Matt, who is half British and half Indian. ‘Maybe some of the young players don’t get the parental support white players get – this is a generalisation but Asian families want their children to do “proper jobs”: lawyer, doctor, engineer, academia… professional sportsman is not really on that list, it doesn’t get the backing that it might do from traditional white English families.

‘But there’s a deeper reason British Asians don’t feel part of the system. English cricket has to accept there’s a blockage and it’s not down to British Asians. There’s a lot of unconscious bias. Many feel like they’re on the outside.’

He adds: ‘I’ve seen a little bit [of overt racism] at junior level, the odd P-word being used but I think unconscious bias, that’s more of an issue. 

‘Institutionally racist is a strong term, I don’t know if that’s the case, but there’s obviously racism in cricket and that leads to a feeling of inequality. There’s a stereotype that British Asian players are lazy, selfish, not to be trusted and as a result they don’t quite get the opportunities white players get.

‘Many British Asians feel they don’t get a fair crack of the whip playing in this country and there’s mistrust towards them from white players and administrators. It’s a cultural divide.’ 

A major barrier to integration, Matt says, is English cricket’s drinking culture.

In his testimony, Azeem Rafiq recalled how he was pinned down and forced to drink wine by team-mates as a 15-year-old and later felt compelled to drink alcohol to fit in. 

‘I play at a multicultural club, but even there you see divides,’ says Matt. ‘The English guys will all go out drinking after the game, the Asian guys stay in the clubhouse and have pizzas in the corner because a lot of them don’t drink.

‘A lot of it is alcohol related. A lot of the Asian players or ex-players who are coming forward are Muslims. It’s not just a racism thing, it’s a lack of understanding of Islam.

‘Azeem told this story about having wine chucked down his throat, that’s probably happened dozens of times in clubs around the country… if you don’t drink, in cricket you’re kind of on the outside.’

In Matt’s documentary, England cricketer Moeen Ali – from Sparkhill in Birmingham – touched on a separate divide beyond race: class. 

‘As Asians, we feel like we need to be twice as good,’ said Mooen. ‘All the English guys, the white guys, are private-school guys, they had more money – they were just seen as superior in some way. I was from a state school, didn’t have much going for me, didn’t have much kit.’ 

Matt concurs: ‘It’s to do with class as well. It’s still very much an elitist, public school sport, like rugby union. A lot of people who don’t get opportunities are from poorer backgrounds. It’s as much a class issue as a race issue in some places.’

While reporting on Azeem Rafiq’s testimony this week on Sky News, broadcaster Saima Mohsin admits that she found the experience ‘triggering’. 

During one link, the British-Pakistani journalist’s voice began to crack and she says that once off-screen, she couldn’t help but burst into tears.

‘Watching his testimony was intense,’ explains Saima. ‘We rarely discuss racist behaviours so openly with all its brutality. But that comes with a price – it is triggering, and eventually it got to me on air. Because none of us are immune. It resonated with me and so many people I know.

‘Not just British Pakistanis but British Asians who’ve all been victim of this disgusting discrimination not just historically but everyday of our lives. I’ve been spat at in the street and was even beaten up in the park as a child just because of the colour of my skin.’

The foreign correspondent goes on to say that it’s not just about the overt racism, either ‘It’s the insidious nature of racism that is hard to prove but experienced by thousands of black and brown people,’ she explains. 

How the divide is perceived is a cause of concern for director of cricket at Teddington Cricket Club, Abhishek Jhunjhunwala. ‘When there are five, six, seven Asian kids in a club, it shouldn’t bother people,’ he says. ‘I’ve heard people saying, “Oh, all the Asians are together”. Why aren’t you saying the same thing about all the white people together? 

‘Why doesn’t that affect anybody? Why doesn’t anybody raise that issue that whites are not mixing with the Asians? You never hear those words towards the whites, always about the Asians or the Blacks. These things need to change.’

Although now a club director, Abhishek is a former first-class Indian cricketer who competed in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and moved to England in 2004. He admits that recent revelations aren’t a huge surprise to him. ‘I’m not really shocked because things have happened that I can’t go on record and say,’ he says. ‘It’s been going on forever. It’s not just Yorkshire, it’s everywhere.’

Abhishek adds: ‘Somebody once told me we’re catering to a white middle class: you need to look the part and you need to do it accordingly.’

In his current role at Teddington Cricket Club, he says he’s worried by the lack of progression for non-white players. 

‘At our academy, we have five Asian girls at county level,’ he explains. ‘Trust me, they’re very talented kids, unbelievably talented … but I want to see how many of them go any further. I’d be surprised if any of them do, but we’ll see.’

For Abhishek, there aren’t enough inspirational figures for young British Asians to look up to outside of Ali and Adil Rashid in the England team. 

‘There’s hardly any role models,’ he says. ‘You look at the likes of Owais Shah, he’s nowhere. Ravi Bopara is still playing … Vikram Solanki … these guys need to get a lot more involved. They’ve played for England and need to be put forward as the role models for the British Asian communities. They’ve played for their country. What else can you achieve? They should be the statesmen for more Asian kids – the ECB should be getting them onboard.’

Saima also points out that, ‘South Asians are famously cricket mad – we have plenty of role models from Imran Khan to Babar Azam, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli.

‘Growing up we all played or watched cricket in our local parks – I tried to play once, stood behind my brother and his friends, but got whacked in the face when I tried to catch a ball, so never went back!

‘Just the thought of warm summers and the curtains moving in the breeze takes me right back to watching test cricket with my family.’

However, Saima says, that this overhwelming love for the sport isn’t translating onto a professional pitch in the UK. ‘That means somewhere along the path from playing field to cricket pitch there are major obstacles and issues that need addressing,’ she explains. ‘Because we need role models representing everyone here in the UK.’

So what next for English cricket? A sport divided and failing to recognise talented Black and Asian players. Is there hope for a positive, united future?

‘I think we haven’t had this sort of conversation in cricket,’ says former England bowler Monty Panesar. ‘Maybe in the past, part of the sport was ignoring such comments: if you’re mentally tough, it shouldn’t affect you. 

‘But now, maybe we need to have a deeper conversation. It’s not acceptable, these stereotypical comments. This is the opportunity to have this conversation.’

Saurav hopes white players will be more proactive in challenging racism. ‘Unfortunately, I’ve never seen that happen,’ he says.

‘They will just laugh it off, they’re never going to stand up to their friends or someone of the same colour. Unless that happens, it’s very hard to change.’

While some might say it’s time to follow football’s lead and start a cricket-based equality and inclusion organisation, others question the effectiveness of such initiatives. After all, Kick It Out has been going since 1997 and yet just this year we witnessed horrendous racial abuse aimed at players when England lost the Euro 2020 final on penalties.

Teddington’s Abhishek expects that more stories will follow, but hopes this is the launch pad for serious change in a sport he considers to be institutionally racist. 

‘There will be a lot of counties’ names coming up in the next few weeks,’ he says. ‘This is the start of a movement. Like the Me Too movement, once the world starts talking about it, we see the impact … you really get hurt when you hear things like this, but somebody needs to take charge and change it from the top.’

Matt Floyd agrees: ‘I think it could be cricket’s Me Too or Black Lives Matter – the opportunity to use momentum to make positive change. That’s what cricket has got to do, look at its own issues to figure out how to change. I think it will.’

If they’re right, cricket will owe a great debt of gratitude to Azeem Rafiq for his powerful, unwavering will to speak out and force change.

In his own words: ‘Action is needed and needed now. I hope in five years’ time we are going to see a big change. That I did something far bigger than any runs or any wickets I got.’

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