Who would have imagined that the sordid saga of ingrained racism in English cricket and its consequences would be laid bare before a select committee of the House of Commons in 2021? Very few non-white British women and men engaged in professional sport on any level would be surprised by the goings-on in Yorkshire. Much of what Azeem Rafiq revealed has been known in the cricketing world and its fringes for a long, long time. There’s no point pretending otherwise. The dressing room at the Yorkshire Cricket Club may have been particularly nasty, but let’s avoid the ‘bad apple’ theories so loved in this country and always used to justify corruption, sleaze, racist atrocities etc. Few other county clubs have a clean record. And the rot starts at the head.
Despite all the evidence, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) was not prepared to take on the toads in Yorkshire. Credit for the scale of the exposure must go to Sajid Javid. The shock the health secretary felt when he read an early account of what Rafiq had suffered was palpable. ‘Heads must roll,’ he tweeted. His far-right Cabinet colleague at the Home Office might well have thought Rafiq’s head should roll or, at the very least, his citizenship be annulled for bringing English cricket into disrepute, but once Boris Johnson declared the racism unacceptable, a cover-up was impossible. Hence the select committee and the attendant publicity. Hence the sorry sight of embattled cricket executives bowing their heads in shame and – in the case of a former boss of Yorkshire – admitting that the county was the site of ‘institutional racism’.
County cricket welcomes white Rhodesians and South Africans with open arms, while tormenting British Asians and blacks. It took Rafiq, and other players of Asian and Caribbean heritage, some time to understand the extent to which racism was embedded in the consciousness of some of their white fellow players. The old colonial mentality was alive and well in English cricket. Some had assumed that a love for cricket might transcend all prejudices. This was, alas, not the case, as they had to learn the hard way. The word must have spread. Since 2015, the number of British Asian kids learning cricket has declined by 40 per cent and Rafiq has said he would not encourage his son to play.
Watching the select committee proceedings, I wondered how John Arlott, C.L.R. James and Mike Marqusee might have responded to the spectacle. They wouldn’t have been surprised. Arlott, the former cemetery assistant whose commentary on Test Match Special was mesmerising, was horrified by the practices of the apartheid state when he visited South Africa with the English team in 1948-49. At the airport on his way back home, he famously refused to fill in his ‘race’ on the departure form. David Rayvern Allen describes it in his biography of Arlott (2014):
The immigration officer looked at him impatiently. ‘What race are you?’ he asked. ‘Human,’ replied Arlott. ‘What do you mean?’ the man asked in an aggressive tone. ‘I am a member of the human race,’ came the reply … The immigration officer glowered. At last, between gritted teeth, he said: ‘Get out.’
Arlott never forgot. A decade or so later, he was instrumental in helping the Cape Coloured cricketer Basil D’Oliveira move to England. He played in the 1966 test series against the West Indies but was not selected to tour South Africa in 1968-69. The MCC caved in to apartheid. There was a huge outcry, led by Arlott, demanding the tour be cancelled. When Tom Cartwright was injured and had to drop out, D’Oliveira made himself available, though the captain, Colin Cowdrey, was desperate to keep him out of the team. At a debate at the Cambridge Union, Arlott destroyed Ted Dexter, a former captain whose colonial mindset would accompany him to his grave. In the end D’Oliveira was selected and the tour was cancelled by South Africa, leading to its ostracism from international cricket until the collapse of the apartheid regime.
In Beyond a Boundary, C.L.R. James placed the game in a much broader context of colonial culture and politics. I interviewed him at nine o’clock one morning in July 1980 (a test match was due to start two hours later). After finishing with world politics I turned to cricket, asking how had it become a mass sport in South Asia and the Caribbean. He replied:
The overwhelming majority of the masses were illiterate. They saw cricket, which is a marvellous game altogether, as an art form. It was the easiest and most accessible part of Western civilisation that they could identify with and it was also participatory … Western literature, music, painting was only for the elite, but cricket the masses could adopt and take over. Instinctively they appreciated the artistic quality of the game. The great critics of the fine arts have yet to realise the fact that when 100,000 people go to see a football or a cricket match it is, even if they do not articulate it, an artistic event.
The test was about to begin. I managed to get in a couple more questions. Who did he regard as the most attractive cricketer playing today? There was no hesitation. It was Viv Richards:
His batting is something we haven’t known before. He is an extraordinary batsman altogether. The way they drop the ball on the off-stump or just outside and he keeps on hitting it through the on-side fieldsmen to the on boundary. The precision of the shot is such that he could be playing billiards. I’ve never seen anything like it.
As the test match started the interview ended, with C.L.R. grumbling about the inclusion of Geoffrey Boycott in the English side. If he were an England selector, he said, ‘I would get rid of Boycott. He just demoralises the rest of the team. Pick two new openers and let them play in all five tests. They'll ruin one or two, but they’ll be good at the end.’
Colonial attitudes in cricket were rarely absent from the thoughts of my late friend Mike Marqusee, whose book Anyone but England (1994) was roundly denounced by most cricket writers. How could a left-wing American Jew know anything about the game? The book remains one of the most stinging assaults on the English cricket establishment. Marqusee’s call for a global boycott of English cricket irked many who were otherwise sympathetic to his views. Some underestimated the problem. Matthew Engel, a former editor of Wisden, reviewed a reissue of Marqusee’s book in 2005. He summarised its argument as ‘in essence … that, in all cricketing disputes, the English view is wrong’. Engel disagreed:
This may be a necessary corrective to imperial arrogance but it creates many nonsenses of its own. His account of the England-Pakistan ill-feeling at the time, in which the Pakistanis are portrayed as heroic victims, is ludicrously one-sided. Now the game has moved on; the book has not.
Really? Two months ago the ECB unilaterally cancelled an England (men and women’s) tour of Pakistan. They gave no convincing reason. Ramiz Raja, the president of the PCB, said he felt as if he had been ‘used and then binned’. The ECB chairman, Ian Watmore, resigned. The CEO, Tom Harrison, flew to Pakistan to apologise as the Rafiq case was building. He may have to resign too. Meanwhile the government is threatening the ECB: ‘If they don’t get their act together,’ the sports minister told the select committee, ‘then we have the nuclear option of legislating in order to bring in potentially an independent regulator. That is probably the route that, if we absolutely had to, we could go down.’
Marqusee would have had a few things to say about this had he been alive, but cancer took him early in 2015. His reports from the select committee would certainly have been angry, but he would also have felt vindicated. He got it right twenty years ago.
In the midst of all this turmoil, England will soon be heading to Australia for the ritual series. The test captain, Joe Root, who has played for Yorkshire since 2009, has adopted the role of the wise monkey: he saw and heard and spoke no evil, despite sharing a house with Gary Ballance, who has admitted to using racist slurs. ‘Root is a good man,’ Rafiq said:
He has never engaged in racist language. I found it hurtful because Rooty was not only Gary’s housemate, Rooty was involved, before he started playing cricket, when he was involved in a lot of those socialising nights out where I have been called a Paki. Again, it just shows – and he might not remember it – how normal it was in that environment, in that institution, that even a good man like him does not see it for what it is. It was strange but, like I said, it is the environment of the institution that made it such a norm that people do not remember it. It is not going to affect Joe. It is something I remember every day but I do not expect Joe to.
Rafiq can see clearly now that ‘you had people who were openly racist and you had the bystanders.’ The racism may go underground, but the bystanders should speak up. That would be a step forward. The story is by no means over. Other non-white British cricketers will soon tell their tales. I hope Moeen Ali is among them.