The revelations of ex-cricketer Azeem Rafiq have shown that racism in sport is much wider than football

Blog by Callum Ferguson

For the last few weeks English Cricket has been under the microscope following Azeem Rafiq’s experiences at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Despite the sport being very popular among South Asian communities, Rafiq has highlighted the long-standing difficulties South Asian sports people face. In a world where racial abuse is considered locker-room banter, is it any surprise we don’t see many British South Asians in sport?

Rafiq played for Yorkshire CCC from 2008 to 2018, captaining the team in 2012, becoming the first British South Asian to reach such a position. But despite his success with the club, last year he made a formal complaint of “institutional racism”, suffered during his playing days. An internal investigation was launched in 2020, with the findings eventually released by the club following pressure from MPs.

Yorkshire CCC decided that no-one would face disciplinary action following the report, but the scandal has since grown beyond their of their control. The club have seen several high profile sponsors such as Nike and Yorkshire Tea end their partnerships with the club, and Yorkshire’s chairman Roger Hunt resigned from his post and has since been replaced by Lord Kamlesh Patel.

On 16th November, Rafiq gave evidence to a group of MPs, recalling horror stories from his playing days for nearly two hours, revealing the ugly side of ‘the gentlemen’s game’.

When people think of racism in sport, often football comes to the forefront. From John Barnes back-heeling bananas in the 80’s, to the likes of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling combatting racism today, due to its status as the national game, it is often the sport that receives the media’s focus. Players taking of the knee last year only served to push the issue front and centre.

However, as Rafiq has revealed, there are also deep-rooted racial problems cricket.

Former cricketers, Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent shared their experiences of racism in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement gained prominence. Both were successful cricketers, with Holding regarded as one of the greatest pace bowlers in cricket history, and Rainford-Brent being the first black female to play for England, making her debut in 2001. Both were interviewed by Sky Sports, creating a video providing their thoughts on racism in the sport. 

But what of Britain’s Asians, for whom the game is part of the national identity in their countries of origin?

One in three people who play cricket in England recreationally are from Asian backgrounds, however the number falls to just 4% for those playing professionally. Rafiq’s story illustrates the difficulties South Asians experience in cricket and could provide an explanation to the low numbers. To dismiss racial slurs as just ‘locker room banter’ demonstrates the ignorance of the club.

A survey by the Professional Cricketer’s Association found that more than one third of ethnic minority players had experienced racism. Evidently, Yorkshire are not the only club in which racism can occur without punishment.

Ayaan Khan Pathan, is a pace bowler and plays for Syston Town Cricket Club, in Leicestershire. Speaking about the under-representation of South Asians in cricket, he is “not surprised” by the low numbers.

“It disappoints me that I am a minority in the sport, but it does not surprise me. The way South Asians are mistreated or looked down on can make cricket clubs a hostile environment. Going to a club, I have to make sure other Asians are there or check that I will be treated fairly and with respect,” Pathan stated. “It can be uncomfortable, and you can very easily be alienated in the club”.

“Racism is still very high in cricket, both at domestic and county level but it is always brushed away. I feel that Asian players receive the majority of racism compared to other ethnicities.”

Pathan has seen the problems first-hand.

“I've seen similar stories to Azeem Rafiq’s. At my own club, a teammate of mine was given racial abuse by the opposition during a game. There was enough evidence to make a case, but nothing was done about it,” he said.

Looking at institutionalised racism, Pathan does not believe that he has personally experienced it but does make observations that could point towards it.

“When I played for Leicestershire district and even Leicestershire County U19’s, I’m not sure if ethnicity played a part but I didn’t feel like coaches cared when I asked questions and ignored me. I wasn’t given the attention I needed to progress and this made it hard to develop my game.”

Cricket is a sport predominately played by the middle class and has a lot of barriers to entry. Expensive equipment can make it difficult for people from working class backgrounds to get into the sport. This is often where British Asians tend to sit on the socio-economic table. Elite cricketers have often attended private schools, where the overwhelming population is white. This starts the process of breeding a culture of whiteness which filters down to the clubs, leading to a lack of diversity.

Limited diversity in boardroom positions and reoccurring racial abuse towards ethnic minority cricketers will deter future generations.

There are two key problems with racism towards British South Asians in sport. The first one being the under-representation, which seems to be institutionally created by people in decision making roles at sports clubs unconsciously keeping South Asians out of their sports. A lack of mixed ethnicities in these roles creates a culture of ‘whiteness’ which will naturally continue to recruit in its own likeness.
The second problem is the repeated overt racism towards the few South Asian sportspeople that do break through, deterring many from entering the sport.

To tackle this, more emphasis is required in bringing South Asians into decision making roles at sports clubs. Putting them in leadership roles will help to enable a process of selection rather than ignoring them. Yorkshire CCC have done this with the appointment of Lord Patel as their new chairman, and hopefully other clubs will see the benefits of having more diversity in boardrooms.

In doing so, this will create both role models and visionaries who can shift the focus to greater representation of ethnic minorities to the top of their objectives and start to tackle institutionalised racism which stifles the game.

 

 

Callum Ferguson

Callum Ferguson recently graduated with a 1st class BA Hons in Sport Journalism from The University of Brighton. His dissertation was on the under-representation of British South Asians in football and he researched and written about this topic over the past 12 months. He continues to write about the under-representation, continuing the conversation by spreading awareness about the issue. 

Callum has a passion for using his writing to create positive change within society and working towards a more racially inclusive society.