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Azeem Rafiq's explosive allegations against Yorkshire is raising racial tensions at grassroots level

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As dark clouds envelop inner-city Bradford, Taj Butt is on his mower preparing the Great Horton Church Cricket Club wicket for the afternoon’s match. A mile down the road, Shazaid ‘Shiz’ Yousaf is also ensuring his Bowling Baptist Cricket Club is ready for their fixture.

But it is not the threat of rain that is on their minds. It’s the raging storm engulfing Yorkshire County Cricket Club that has gripped these Asian-majority cricket-playing communities over the past 12 months.

Their former player Azeem Rafiq made a series of explosive allegations against the club in September 2020. The former England Under 19 captain claimed racism was rife at the county and that he was called a ‘P**i’ and an ‘elephant washer’ — all of which pushed him to the brink of suicide. 

Great Horton Church Cricket Club secretary Taj Butt is concerned about the raging storm engulfing Yorkshire County Cricket Club

Great Horton Church Cricket Club secretary Taj Butt is concerned about the raging storm engulfing Yorkshire County Cricket Club

Their former player Azeem Rafiq made a series of explosive allegations against the club in September 2020

Their former player Azeem Rafiq made a series of explosive allegations against the club in September 2020

Yorkshire commissioned an independent report and a year later, concluded that Rafiq had been the victim of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and apologised. But they have so far refused to publish the findings, which has upset Rafiq and left local communities disillusioned.

The case has tarnished Yorkshire Cricket Club’s name but is also having a poisonous effect at grassroots level, where racial abuse and segregation between white and Asian cricket players and clubs form a dark, complicated picture.

Butt worked for the charitable arm of the cricket club, the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation, from 2014 to 2017 and has been secretary at Great Horton Church for 20 years. Rafiq’s claims are no surprise to him, having witnessed racism at club level.

‘Those sorts of allegations happen all the time, even at grassroots,’ Butt tells Sportsmail. ‘A lot of people get picked on, treated unfairly.

‘“Black”, “P**i” — those type of words were used. There is less name-calling but some new words have come in, especially anti- Muslim words like being referred to as a “Taliban” and a “terrorist”.’

After his experience working at the foundation, the 63-year-old last year revealed that India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara, who played for Yorkshire, and other Asian players were all referred to as ‘Steve’ because it was easier to pronounce. 

Bowling Baptist player Hassan Mughal, 28, had experiences of institutional racism growing up

Bowling Baptist player Hassan Mughal, 28, had experiences of institutional racism growing up

‘Within the organisation I found it very stereotypical and, in some extreme cases, racist as well,’ Butt says. ‘When it came to development of cricket within the Asian community, they specifically asked me to organise programmes for “taxi drivers” and “takeaway workers”.

‘They didn’t think there was anything wrong with calling (Asian players) “Steve”, “taxi drivers” or “takeaway workers”; they thought that was perfectly normal. I didn’t get the name-calling Azeem got but I definitely suffered institutional racism there.’

Bowling Baptist player Hassan Mughal, 28, had similar experiences growing up in Bradford’s cricket leagues.

‘When I played outside of inner-city Bradford, where there are more white British teams, as a junior in a few games racist things were said,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘I don’t know if it’s because they’ve not been exposed to knowing Asian people. The biggest issue we have in Bradford is segregation.’

Mughal is a keen Yorkshire fan but the Rafiq case has left him torn on whether to continue visiting Headingley. ‘It’s a shame because I love to go watch Yorkshire,’ he says. ‘Before Covid, I was at Yorkshire against Worcestershire and I do like going to Headingley, but it just makes you think. 

Mughal is a keen Yorkshire fan but the Rafiq case has left him torn on whether to continue visiting Headingley

Mughal is a keen Yorkshire fan but the Rafiq case has left him torn on whether to continue visiting Headingley

‘Part of me thinks when I see Adil Rashid, who grew up a couple of streets away from here, I’m there to support him. It’s a very hard situation because I’m not happy with the establishment and how they’re treating my kind.

‘I’ve spoken to friends who play in other leagues and aren’t Asian and even they weren’t surprised by it (the claims). They said, “Yeah there is that culture”.’

For Asian clubs like Butt’s and Shiz’s, senior teams are forced to play in recreational leagues such as the Bradford Mutual Sunday School Cricket League.

At Great Horton Church, there are three adult teams and nine junior sides. The juniors compete against the city’s finest in the Bradford Premier League — they have won a league or a cup at each age group this season — due to clubs not needing to be voted in.

But when it comes to getting their senior teams in the Bradford league pyramid to develop and test themselves, they’re locked out. 

The Rafiq case has tarnished Yorkshire Cricket Club's name but is also having a poisonous effect at grassroots level

The Rafiq case has tarnished Yorkshire Cricket Club’s name but is also having a poisonous effect at grassroots level

Members of other clubs at the league AGM won’t vote them in when deciding which sides will replace the season’s disbanded teams — there are usually two or three vacancies. They opt to vote in predominantly white-run teams.

As a result, a typical Saturday will see 11 Asian men against 11 Asian men in certain leagues — there’s no mixing among cultures.

‘We started off with six divisions and just one or two Asian teams,’ Butt explains. ‘Now the only teams remaining are Asian teams and there are three divisions — we’ve got 26 teams in just this league.

‘All the white teams who didn’t want more Asians to come in have moved to other leagues in the area. We’ve been applying for the last 15-20 years to other leagues, such as Craven and District or Halifax, where we think it would be an appropriate level for us. But when it comes to the election, the other clubs won’t vote us in despite getting full marks in playing facilities and standards checks.

‘In a discussion between the clubs, one (opposing) member actually stood up and said, “You do realise it is an all-Asian club?” We rarely get three or four votes out of 30-odd clubs.’ 

India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara was referred to as 'Steve' because it was easier to pronounce

India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara was referred to as ‘Steve’ because it was easier to pronounce

The effect of this ‘segregation’, as some players point out, is further igniting the race issue that exists within the county.

As Bowling Baptist secretary Shiz talks about the issue, having seen his club applications also rebuffed by other leagues, there is clear pain. He sees the danger behind this divide.

This is a club that boasted England World Cup winner Adil Rashid in their Under 12 side over two decades ago. Their current junior and women’s teams haven’t found suitable leagues to join.

‘You will get Asian players in their mid-30s who have probably never played cricket with white players and that is the biggest shame — it happens to this day,’ says Shiz, 45.

‘So they’ve played 20 years of cricket without playing against a white player or even in the same team and that’s really sad because they’ve not had that opportunity to mix with other cultures.

‘That helps educate each other about different cultures because at the moment people jump to conclusions based on what they see and hear in the media. It’s going to continue unless we can break this barrier where Asian clubs can’t join white leagues.’

The Rafiq case has certainly not helped tensions either. Shiz adds: ‘Parents have often grown up with racism in the 80s and 90s. If they see a pro sportsman in 2021 still being a victim of racism, they’ll have second thoughts about putting their children through cricket, or any sport. 

The Rafiq case has certainly not helped tensions between Asian clubs and white leagues either

The Rafiq case has certainly not helped tensions between Asian clubs and white leagues either

‘Some kids will say, “What’s the point of trying if that’s what the outcome will be?” It has definitely had an impact.’

Eight miles to the south in Halifax, Lightcliffe Cricket Club 2nd XI are entertaining Batley.

A sign marks a narrow path leading to an idyllic clubhouse. A smattering of older middle-class spectators are enjoying an afternoon of cricket in the picturesque Yorkshire countryside.

Opinions on Rafiq’s case and racism in domestic cricket vary. Lightcliffe club president John Brooke does not see a link. The 85-year-old is dismissive of the league having a problem.

‘The Rafiq case has had no effect on this club whatsoever,’ he says.

‘It’s a county issue, not a club issue. In the Bradford League, most clubs reflect their communities in which they serve and that’s good. There isn’t an issue in the league. This is a county thing; you need to see the report first.’

Brooke strikes a similar tone on whether racism or exclusion is a problem. ‘You tend to go with those who you relate to culturally or socially,’ he says. 

Bowling Baptist boasted England World Cup winner Adil Rashid in their Under 12 side over two decades ago

Bowling Baptist boasted England World Cup winner Adil Rashid in their Under 12 side over two decades ago

‘People can be abused inappropriately because they are fat, or bald. I’ve played in dressing rooms where there’s bullying but it may not be racial bullying, it can be to do with people’s characteristics.

‘We’ve brought lads over from India and Pakistan here over the past 10-15 years. We’ve had Indian Test cricketers here.’

Brooke’s 45-year-old son, Second XI captain Michael, clearly respects his father — doing his utmost not to cut him off — but has differing views.

‘I’d be interested to see the report,’ he says. ‘Obviously you’ve got to take the allegations seriously. If those are being bandied around, it needs properly looking at, with actions taken if the allegations are upheld.

‘There’s a young guy who has suffered a lot of mental health issues and those don’t just happen by accident. Any young Asian cricketer growing up in Yorkshire has got to feel like they’ve got a chance — that is the issue.

‘If you’re 16 seeing that sort of thing, you will be thinking, “Hang on” and if that is an issue — I’m using the word if — then it’s got to be addressed. Not a whitewash.’

The topic of all-Asian teams being forced into the same leagues raises the temperature. 

Michael Brooke, second XI captain of Lightcliffe Cricket Club, insists any young Asian cricketer growing up in Yorkshire has got to feel like they've got a chance

Michael Brooke, second XI captain of Lightcliffe Cricket Club, insists any young Asian cricketer growing up in Yorkshire has got to feel like they’ve got a chance

‘If you look at the demographic of that community, it’s natural that you’re going to have a majority of Asians in a team,’ Michael adds. ‘There are a lot more younger BAME people playing cricket and that’s a good thing. If you look 30-40 years ago, there wasn’t.

‘A lot of things have progressed for the better. We’re in a pyramid system so there’s promotion and relegation.

‘It’s a very multicultural league and that’s healthy. There’s a lot being done but there is still a lot to do. Steps are being made in the right direction.’

One can only hope such steps continue as a troubled county still fights to deal with the Rafiq scandal — and its after-effects.

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