Cricket has much to learn but this hearing has taught us nothing
AS Michael Vaughan was cross-examined about the Azeem Rafiq affair at the International Arbitration Centre in Fleet Street, it was tempting to ask what exactly cricket thought it was achieving.
Not because there isn’t racism in the sport. There is. Not because Rafiq wasn’t poorly treated during his time at Yorkshire. He was. And not because people shouldn’t be challenged about bad things they are alleged to have said or done. They should. But it was clear long before Vaughan took the stand at the Cricket Discipline Commission hearing that the question of whether he made a derogatory remark 14 years ago to four Asian or British-Asian players before a one-day game for Yorkshire was never going to be adequately resolved.
Vaughan has always denied saying: ‘There’s too many of you lot, we need to have a word about that,’ just as Rafiq — one of the four — has always insisted he said it. Two of the other three have backed up Rafiq’s version, but one, Adil Rashid, says he wasn’t offended by Vaughan’s alleged remark, and another, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, is not giving evidence. The fourth, Ajmal Shahzad, says he did not hear Vaughan make the comment. Rafiq’s whistleblowing about his time at Yorkshire was a painful but necessary reckoning for cricket, which has been no less immune to racism than any other walk of life in the UK. He has shone a light on a dressing-room culture that ranged from the puerile to the poisonous, and created space for others to talk about their own experiences. Only a fool would disregard the mountain of evidence presented by cricketers from outside the white mainstream.
The hope was that his testimony would prove the starting point for cricket to become a more welcoming sport, to embrace those who have previously felt excluded because of their race. Yet anyone who has followed the story since Rafiq first went public in 2020 could have told you that a series of publicly aired claims and counter-claims, spiced up by talk of blackmail and accusations of playing the ‘race card’, was unlikely to get us anywhere. In one sense, none of this should surprise us. The Rafiq case has been mishandled almost from the start, first when Yorkshire failed to deal with his complaints, then when they overreacted, sacking 16 employees, many of whom were not at the club at the same time as him. Matters were complicated by the involvement of the parliamentary committee for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who scared the life out of the ECB and added to the idea that Rafiq was a ‘cause celebre’.
But the question of racism in cricket has always been about more than one man — and it should certainly be about more than who said what in 2009. That is not to diminish what Rafiq endured. It is simply to ask how cricket can most productively move forward. Ebony Rainford-Brent’s African-Caribbean Engagement Programme has provided one compelling possibility. Unhappy at the levels of disengagement with cricket among the black community in south London, she decided to do something about it — with spectacular results. More than 10,000 students have been helped by the programme, many of whom had never played cricket before. And of the charity’s 141 ‘scholars’, an impressive 44 have entered the county game’s age-group system. So much for a lack of interest in cricket among the black and working-class white communities. Something good can come of the pain. Whether it will emerge from events in Fleet Street is another matter.